The Fight in the Right: It is Time to Tackle White Supremacist Terrorism Globally


In the summer of 2002 as an Air Force major, I was sent to Washington to work as deputy director of U.S. Southern Command’s office in the capital. U.S. Southern Command, where I made much of my career, was the proverbial red-headed step-child of the geographic combatant commands, never getting the attention or money that our bigger brothers at U.S. Pacific Command or European Command got. Those of us with long careers in the region liked to brag that we were victims of our own success. There was no threat of major war, no weapons of mass destruction, and the terrorists we were dealing with, principally in Colombia, were largely local concerns. The narcotics trade took some of our attention, but even there we were primarily in support of a law enforcement effort.

In the summer of 2002, of course, all of the commands had taken a back seat to U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command, which led the 9/11 wars then known as the “Global War on Terror.” Tongue in cheek, we used to wish that our intelligence officers could come up with a report hinting that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the slums of Cartagena so that we too might feed at the terrorism trough. We even made a play for some of that money to fight the FARC in Colombia, but we were rebuffed because FARC was not a terrorist organization of “global reach.”

This distinction between fighting the FARC and the various incarnations of violent Islamist extremists like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and various other groups made sense. You fight local terrorists by strengthening local governments and governance, while global terrorists involve much broader and more complicated efforts.

But now, sparked by the March 15 attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and reinforced by the April 28 attack at the synagogue in Poway, California and the latest shootings in Gilroy and El Paso, it may be time to consider whether terrorism variously categorized as being inspired by white supremacy, white nationalism, Neo-Nazi, etc., and its various manifestations and adherents, has reached the threshold of “terrorists of global reach” who are now claiming victims in the United States homeland. The El Paso shooter posted a  diatribe online specifically citing the manifesto of the shooter in New Zealand as inspiration. This doesn’t seem far removed from the Ft. Hood shooter’s communication with a radical Islamic cleric overseas. Does the United States now need to devote resources and develop strategies to counter this threat with a level of effort similar to that which we devote to counter the Islamic State and other Islamic extremist groups?

Beyond the Home Front

That there is a serious domestic terrorist threat is not disputable; rather, it is the growing international component that requires new strategies and tools. In testimony before the House of Representatives in April, FBI director Christopher Wray included the threat from “white supremacist” with other forms of violent extremism as a “persistent, pervasive threat.” On July 23, Wray said that the agency has made about 100 domestic terrorism-related arrests since October, the majority of which were tied to white supremacy. “I will say that a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence, but it does include other things as well,” Wray said.

A report from the Anti-Defamation League reports, “In 2018, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the U.S., a sharp increase from the 37 extremist-related murders documented in 2017,” and that “White supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case.” The organization’s heat map for 2018 shows 1,318 incidents ranging from propaganda to murder tied to white supremacy across the United States.

An extensive report from Vice News in November detailed “a project to unify fascists and link that vast coalition of individuals into a network training new soldiers for a so-called forthcoming “race war.” Not ironically, the effort is called “The Base,” a literal translation of the Arabic term, “al-Qaeda.” Clearly the case for a persistent, pervasive, and growing white supremacist-inspired domestic terrorist threat is strong, and law enforcement agencies seem alert to the domestic problem.

Increasingly though, there is recognition that white supremacist terror in the United States is part of a global phenomenon. In January 2019, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry of Israel, which monitors global antisemitism, released a report, identifying far-right linked incidents as the most serious threats to Jews worldwide and noted “that the most violent antisemitic incidents in the US came from far Right elements such as Neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” The New York Times highlighted how the shooter in New Zealand “drew inspiration from white extremist terrorism attacks in Norway, the United States, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.” The article went on to examine 350 white extremist terrorism attacks in Europe, North America and Australia from 2011 through 2017 and illustrated the connections, at least ideologically, between the various attacks across the globe. Bruce Hoffman wrote recently that attacks which aren’t explicitly directed by a higher authority — a seeming hallmark of today’s Islamic terrorists — owe their origins to a Ku Klux Klan leader in the United States in the 1980s. Hoffman notes:

White nationalist terrorism and its violent, politically motivated variants — embracing racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-government sentiments — have existed in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia among other countries for decades.

While violent Islamic extremists have different ideological goals, it would seem that their networks and tactics are strikingly similar.

Vidhya Ramalingam, founder and director of Moonshot CVE, a company working to disrupt violent extremism, testified before congress on April 30 that “White nationalist terrorism has always been international, with fighters and ideologues moving across borders,” and that “The ongoing conflict in Ukraine drew in white nationalist foreign fighters on an unprecedented scale, with neo-Nazis and white supremacists from Brazil, the UK, Ireland, Italy, France, Sweden and dozens of other countries flocking to join the fight,” in this case apparently against the Russian separatists.

Many of our allies are taking this seriously. The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service has identified right-wing extremism as “a phenomenon in motion.” Both the German and British domestic intelligence services have increased their efforts to track white nationalist extremism.

Writing in the Guardian, my cousin Rosa Schwartzburg has written how “white replacement theory,” which inspired the shooter in New Zealand and apparently also the shooter in El Paso, originated with the killer of 80 students in Norway in 2011. Recall too that the marchers in Charlottesville were chanting “The Jews will not replace us.”

We Have the Tools

If the white nationalist threat is indeed an international one, then we need to explore how the robust counterterrorism tools we have employed for nearly two decades against Islamic extremists might be similarly applied to this new threat. Eli Lake has written that “it’s unrealistic to expect the U.S. government to treat white nationalist terrorism the same way it has treated the Islamist variety. It’s hard to imagine anyone supporting drone strikes on communities of white militias or other racist outposts, for example.” Lake is correct, but he also misses the point. Camps have existed, most notably in the United States, where white militias organized and trained. These actors have straddled the line between political activism and violence, often taking advantage of the protections afforded to the former while espousing the latter. As history shows, however, the U.S. government has been prepared to use force in certain circumstances. Such training camps may not exist in Europe, at least that we know of, but they could emerge, especially in countries where the government is heavily influenced by far-right political movements. Any United States response would and should depend on multiple factors, including the threats these actors pose and the nature of law enforcement action the host nation is prepared to take. Drone strikes are a stretch, but also a straw man. Other counterterrorism instruments — law enforcement actions in cooperation with the host nation that include the use of force if necessary, sanctions against groups and individuals, intelligence cooperation, and various forms of capacity building — should all on be the table.

Short of outright drone strikes or other forms of direct military action, there is still much more that can probably be done. Hoffman suggests that “additional intelligence sharing, training, and education to keep pace with this dynamic, unfolding threat is needed.” In addition to intelligence sharing, the CIA and other intelligence agencies probably need to include white supremacist groups overseas in their collection target set. The killer in New Zealand was from Australia. Apparently, he had never been on any law enforcement or intelligence agency radar. In the future, if the United States can identify some of these people, then agencies can warn allies that they were headed their way and they could do the same for America. U.S. anti-terror “No Fly” lists are admittedly problematic from a civil liberties perspective. What linkages to terrorism get one placed on the list are secret and ambiguous; however, these lists might be reformed, with linkages to white supremacist terror included in the criteria for putting people on them.

After any Islamic extremist attack there is always much discussion of whether or not there was “chatter” picked up by the NSA which might have provided forewarning. Given white supremacists’ extensive presence online in social media, are American online collection efforts postured to pick up this kind of chatter? We know that the New Zealand and the Poway killers — and possibly the El Paso shooter as well — posted manifestos online shortly before their acts. Would sophisticated early warning algorithms have picked these up in time to prevent the attacks? Probably not. However, tuning these collection tools in the direction of white supremacism could point to suspect individuals.

On July 8 the FBI put out a request for proposal to industry soliciting just such a capability. The request for proposals stated:

The use of social media platforms, by terrorist groups, domestic threats, foreign intelligence services, and criminal organizations to further their illegal activity creates a demonstrated need for tools to properly identify the activity and react appropriately. With increased use of social media platforms by subjects of current FBI investigations and individuals that pose a threat to the United States, it is critical to obtain a service which will allow the FBI to identify relevant information from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other Social [sic] media platforms in a timely fashion.

The U.S. government has engaged in extensive counter messaging efforts online to combat Islamic extremism. These efforts could be expanded to include efforts to counter white supremacist ideology. Previous cancelled domestic programs to counter extremist ideology could be restored.

The United States has already sanctioned the Night Wolves biker gang, which has been linked to Russian intelligence. The Atlantic documented extensive ties between the Russian government and other far right groups in Europe. ProPublica highlighted how Russian bots used the Charlottesville incident as part of their influence operations. Writing in the New York Times, Ali Soufan, a former senior agent with the FBI, noted that “Those with ties to far-right militias in Ukraine include at least one of four Americans indicted on a charge of promoting the deadly violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville” in 2017.

One area in which the United States is actually more aggressive against white supremacists than Islamic extremists is in prison de-radicalization programs. The United States has encouraged Islamic de-radicalization programs overseas, but these programs are lacking on U.S. soil. Conversely, there are non-profit white supremacist de-radicalization programs which have met with some success. Greater resources deradicalization programs as well as rigorous study and sharing of best practices should be considered. The Anti-Defamation League has identified over 100 white supremacist prison gangs. Viewing these groups as not only a criminal problem, but also a terrorist one and applying intelligence collection and analysis techniques could prove useful as well.

After the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson for plotting terrorist attacks, concern has risen about the presence of extremist ideologies in the U.S. military. In a survey done by Military Times in the fall of 2018, about 22 percent of service members said they have seen signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces. Participation in extremist groups is already prohibited in the military, but education and training efforts to combat the underlying ideologies could be stepped up. As a preventative measure, recruiters could be trained to look for warning signs in potential servicemembers. The Army missed the signs that a major was being radicalized by extremist Islamic ideology in 2009, as he reached out to terrorists overseas and ultimately killed 13 people. Our monitoring systems can be better attuned to all forms of extremism that might be targeting our soldiers for recruitment. Congressman Aguilar of California offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which would require the military to study the feasibility of screening enlistees for white nationalist sentiments.

Admittedly treating white supremacism like other forms of international terrorism will be challenging. White supremacists committing violent acts may be charged with hate crimes or murder, but we don’t currently have a domestic terrorism statute with which to charge these individuals. Soufan argues strenuously that such a statute is necessary.  If, however, the United States linked them to overseas groups or organizations, then they could be charged under current international terrorism statutes which criminalize things like aiding a foreign terrorist organization. Existing statutes might need to be modified to account for the fact the white nationalist terrorists often follow a leaderless resistance model that makes designations under existing law difficult.

Another difficulty is creating a mindset change. Domestically, white supremacism is seen primarily as a law enforcement responsibility, with the FBI in the lead. Law enforcement is certainly about preventing crimes, but mainly about prosecuting them and following all the procedural rules to ensure conviction. Domestically, the FBI has a long history of successfully penetrating and disrupting white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Non-governmental organizations have even gone after these groups with lawsuits. But to date, white supremacist terror has not been a part of American efforts to fight terror internationally. Intelligence gathering on terrorists is more about preventing acts, and while still governed by law, collection and analysis of information need not meet the same standards of evidence rules that will hold up in court. Frankly, allies like France have quite a bit more legal latitude to deal with terrorism that threatens their citizens than the United States does. The U.S. government needs to explore what legal tools we have and what we might need to change, while still remaining within a constitutional framework. Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official, has written extensively on the need for a new domestic terrorism law and what such a law might look like.

Be Careful but Not Too Careful

It is not surprising that there is some reluctance to treat white supremacism in the same way as radical Islamic extremism. While Islamic extremism is viewed as a kind of foreign import not indigenous to our country, white supremacy “Was the state ideology. It took historic civic protest, Supreme Court decisions and congressional action for this ideology to lose its hold on the state,” as Lake and others have noted. At times the U.S. government even had to use U.S. troops and federal Marshalls to enforce desegregation of schools. If Islamic extremism is akin to a virus invading our body politic, our immune system, our instincts, and our democratic and security institutions, the U.S. government is fairly well-equipped to recognize and repel it. But white supremacy is to some degree part of our DNA and our immune system, if not properly fortified, has more trouble recognizing and repelling it. In the wake of 9-11, as has been true whenever our nation has perceived a threat, we struggle with the balance between protecting ourselves and ensuring that Americans, particularly those who hold unpopular views, retain the freedom to think and speak and worship as they please.

Often white supremacists walk that fine line between constitutionally protected free speech and open advocacy of imminent violence which is not protected. We can’t punish or prevent people from thinking or saying outrageous things, but when they call for violence, share attack techniques, and praise other violent acts, we are not helpless. Even if we can’t punish or prevent the thoughts and words, we can counter them. If a young American somewhere is being radicalized by Islamic extremism online, our hands are not completely tied. Should not white supremacism be seen the same way?

Facebook has now banned various extremists from its platforms. Some misconstrue this as censorship and a violation of the first amendment, but Facebook and others are private companies who can decide what they will and won’t allow on their platform. Haters of any stripe are absolutely entitled to free speech, but nobody is obligated to give them a platform. Outsourcing some of these decisions to the private sector is not a perfect solution. Asking Facebook or Twitter, to answer the “what is extremist ?” question is fraught with many potential problems, but the private sector isn’t sitting on the sidelines. On May 15, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a conference resulting in the Christchurch Call to Action, a plan to combat extremism online. Although the Trump Administration declined to endorse the plan, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other tech companies signed on. In the wake of the El Paso attack and the killer’s apparent posting of his bigoted “manifesto,” Cloudfare, a company that provides security for websites, severed its relationship with 8chan, a company that provides online forums full of racist content and that has been linked to other white supremacist attacks.

Dealing with white supremacist terror will pose many challenges to our nation, and we will need to strike a careful balance, but we can’t shy away from the threat, wherever it may come from. Just as the Ft. Hood killer, a native born American citizen, should have been in our sights as he was becoming radicalized and communicating with terrorists overseas, we need to find ways to stop the next killer before he walks into another church in Charleston or another Walmart in Texas.


Robert Levinson (@levinsor) is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with over 20 years of service. Since retirement he has worked as a lobbyist, defense contractor, and now works as a defense analyst. 

Image: FBI