Is Right-Wing Terrorism Rising?


Is Right-Wing Terrorism Rising?

In both the United States and Europe, violence on the Right intersects with traditional politics and exacerbates political divides, giving it far more influence than it had in the past.

A next step to consider is a list of domestic organizations that could be classified as terrorist groups. Hasson, for example, was not charged with terrorism but rather drug and gun charges—and was released before trial in part because, as the judge noted, there was no specific charge given that suggested he was a risk to the public despite what seems like a dangerous track record. Designating domestic groups is trickier than doing so for foreign ones, as free speech protection requires allowing hateful, but peaceful, speech. However, a list of violent organizations (not just groups that espouse hateful ideals) identified by respected civil society organizations, perhaps operating in a consortium, would go far in helping separate legitimate discourse from groups that flirt with radical violence. In addition, it would be a forcing function for mainstream groups, requiring them to distance themselves from those on the wrong side of the line, and a useful marker for social media companies deciding on which content to permit.

Although in the post-9/11 world the Justice Department has focused its use of the material support charge on jihadist groups, it could also be used against domestic ones. As Trevor Aaronson argues, the law allows prosecutors to go after domestic terrorists, as long as the crime involves one of roughly fifty crimes, ranging from hostage taking to targeting U.S. government employees. There are limits when compared with international terrorism—you cannot use material support for a mass shooting of people who are not government employees, for example. Nevertheless, the potential power is tremendous.

One of the big successes in counterterrorism against jihadist groups is intelligence sharing. Allied governments work together to identify suspected terrorists, block their travel, hinder recruitment efforts, share evidence and otherwise collaborate on potential threats. Right-wing violence, however, is less a subject of international cooperation because of its traditional domestic-only nature. As right-wing extremists have become more international, the potential benefits of international cooperation are growing. 

Just as mainstream Islamist and Muslim organizations are important bulwarks against jihadist terrorism, so too are mainstream right-wing organizations. But this position comes with responsibility. Such groups should actively cooperate with law enforcement, seeking to marginalize radical violence and identify potential violent members so they can be disrupted before they attack. They should vehemently condemn any violence that does occur and, through their cooperation with any investigation, emphasize that they stand with the forces of order.

Internet companies also need to treat right-violence violence in ways similar to what they do for jihadist violence. Big social media companies like Facebook, in particular, have a responsibility given their size and market position. Some of this involves “training” their artificial intelligence algorithms on data linked to right-wing violence, but it also requires penalizing and removing users who promote white supremacism and other dangerous ideologies, just as they would take down content linked to the Islamic State. As Clare Ellis and Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies have found, extreme-right-wing groups are particularly vulnerable, with their members far more likely to post damaging information online when compared with other groups.

The United States also needs to call out Russia. This may seem improbable given Trump’s apparent affection for Russian president Vladimir Putin, but congressional leaders and other public figures should highlight Russian interference and also try to shame domestic groups that benefit from Russian ties. They should also authorize more resources to track and block Russian meddling.

Unfortunately, the incentives for demagogues to whip up anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment are high, and they have succeeded in convincing large parts of the population that terrorism and crime associated with these communities are far greater than they are. This hatred adds to existing racism, anti-Semitism and social divides, creating a toxic mix. So the politics problem will not go away. One way to reduce this, however, is to prioritize stopping right-wing terrorism as we do jihadist violence. Effective policing and intelligence, in addition to the measures recommended above, can undermine white nationalist and other groups, reducing the potency of their message and making them less able to use violence. By disrupting right-wing, jihadist and other forms of violence, popular fears will decline (though hardly abate) and ambitious politicians will turn to other, hopefully less dangerous, ways to win support.

Daniel Byman is a professor and vice dean at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. His book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad was published by Oxford University Press in June.

Image: Reuters

This story was originally published in June 2019.