Are We Entering a New Era of Far-Right Terrorism?
Terrorist attacks were once the product of organized groups with assailants directed, financed, and trained by terrorist commanders. But every one of the tragic shootings in the United States this past year was perpetrated by a lone gunman without any demonstrable affiliation to, or membership in, an identifiable terrorist organization. Whether in Pittsburgh, El Paso, Poway, or Gilroy, each involved a lone, male gunman acting entirely on his own, without being directly commanded by an established terrorist organizational leader, propagandist, or spokesperson. Nor, sadly, is this a phenomenon confined to the United States. Last March, another lone, male gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, while less deadly far-right attacks have happened in Bærum, Norway and Halle, Germany.
The newly released U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence specifically highlighted this development. In particular, it noted that the proliferation of manifestos posted by perpetrators have taken the place of commanders issuing orders, or known radicalizers directly inspiring, motivating, and animating individuals to commit violence. The strategy explains:
Prior to Anders Breivik’s notorious July 2011 attacks in Norway that claimed 77 lives, he posted a manifesto highlighting the threat of Europeans’ ethnic replacement by Muslim migrants. Subsequent terrorists have praised Breivik’s attacks and voiced similar grievances. On March 15, 2019, a gunman killed 51 worshipers at Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Center. The shooter’s manifesto espoused anti-immigrant conspiracy theories and noted that the gunman had been in brief contact with Breivik. Several months later, another gunman launched an attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 and wounding 26. His online manifesto, which reflected elements of multiple ideologies, noted the attacker’s fear of ethnic replacement by people of Hispanic descent and praised the Christchurch attacker.
Extremists are increasingly emboldened, leaving a trail of victims across multiple countries. Networks are growing stronger and are more effectively inspiring and actively encouraging lone actors to mobilize to violence. And there is reason to believe this threat will continue to intensify. Beyond ongoing violence, the rising far right should concern law enforcement and government for three reasons: its relationship with members of the military, employment of cutting-edge technology, and the infiltration of far-right ideologies into other extremist communities.
Firstly, far-right groups and militias actively recruit from the U.S. military, particularly among returning servicemembers. This marks one of the striking similarities between the rise of violent far-right extremism in the 1980s — which eventually produced America’s deadliest modern right-wing terrorist attack, in Oklahoma City in 1995 — and today’s militants. For decades, most notably after the Vietnam War, soldiers have come home from war and found themselves unable to return to quotidian life. As Louis Beam, pioneer of the far-right’s flagship leaderless resistance strategy, wrote,
even after all this time there seems to be no way we can forget or let Vietnam descend into the past. […] There is no relief, and can be none. We are forever trapped in the rice paddies and skies of Vietnam. We can neither go back or go forward, suspended for eternity in the place they put us. […] Forget? Not even if I could.
The same themes have repeated themselves in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as domestic extremist movements (including radical, left-wing militants) and self-proclaimed militias have benefited from the battlefield experience provided by returning soldiers. This is not to suggest that veterans are more likely to hold extremist views than the rest of the population or are more susceptible to being radicalized. Rather, it is to note that, as a result of the nearly two-decade war on terrorism, there is a larger pool of individuals with the military expertise and knowledge that is being actively sought by extremists lacking these combat skills. As Anthony McCann wrote in relation to the 2016 Oregon standoff, when armed militants led by Ammon Bundy occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, “this country is now full of men and women with close personal knowledge of contemporary guerrilla insurgency.” Their military experience is often enlisted to provide instruction to other extremists and also further reinforced by training opportunities, whether in the United States or abroad. Groups like the Atomwaffen Division have conducted military training in the Nevada desert, while the Ukrainian militant group Azov Battalion has hosted Americans for exercises in Ukraine. For anti-government extremists dreaming of the coming “RaHoWa”— or racial holy war — military training and guerrilla experience is highly valued, eagerly solicited, and often successfully acquired.
Secondly, today’s far-right extremists, like predecessors from previous generations, are employing cutting-edge technologies for terrorist purposes. The power of social media, for instance, turned the terrorist attack in New Zealand into a twisted act of performance art — designed to inspire imitation and emulation elsewhere. The attacks were live-streamed for 17 minutes and viewed at least 4,000 times before Facebook took down the link. Over the next 24 hours Facebook removed another 1.5 million copies of the attack video from its pages. YouTube recorded one upload per second of the assault from its website during the 24 hours following the incident. Attackers in Poway, California and Halle, Germany also posted manifestos on internet forums and attempted to live-stream their violence, following the Christchurch attacker’s lead.
The Halle shooting was also the first time a terrorist used a 3-D printed firearm in a fatal attack. The gunman’s manifesto included detailed descriptions of an array of homemade guns and explosives, and cited his primary aim as to “prove the viability of improvised weapons.” The death toll at the Halle synagogue would likely have been higher had the shooter not been attempting to pioneer the use of homemade firearms — in turn hoping to inspire and train others in what he called “no fun countries” with strict gun laws like Germany’s.
Finally, far-right ideologies have begun to infiltrate other extremist milieus, turning disparate communities into far-right hubs. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the incel (“involuntary celibate”) movement, an online subculture of young, sometimes violent men frustrated at their inability to find sexual partners. The incel lexicon — not worth dignifying with any examples here but pervasive on far-right chat boards — is rife with racially charged language, which demeans minority groups and women. Sites like the imageboard platform 8chan — taken down after the shooting in El Paso but now re-launched as 8kun — showcase the often seamless relationship between the incel movement’s politicized misogyny and the far-right’s hardline views on immigration and race. The incel community’s foremost source of personal inspiration — Elliot Rodger, who carried out the first attack in 2014 —complained in his manifesto that “an inferior, ugly black boy [was] able to get a white girl and not me,” and the Halle shooter — repeating an incel refrain — blamed immigration for his inability to find a girlfriend.
Far-right adherence has also intermingled with otherwise opposed extremist ideologies, often acting as a gateway to a similarly vicious movement. In a process that the FBI terms “ideological convergence” and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross calls “fringe fluidity,” individuals sometimes transition between extremist ideologies themselves, rather than progressing through a more recognized radicalization process. In Tampa in May 2017, for instance, a former leader of the Atomwaffen Division allegedly murdered two other group members after they mocked his recent conversion to Islam and newfound support for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. And, in December that same year, a police officer who embraced a malignant blend of Nazi and militant Islamist ideologies was convicted in Virginia of providing material support to the Islamic State.
Each of these themes interacts with the violent far right’s enduring leaderless resistance strategy in important — and dangerous — ways. Coordinated plots remain unlikely given the far right’s strategic preferences, but the presence of veterans and military training contribute to a more militaristic mindset and better operational and tactical knowledge and skills, which will intensify the threat from breakaway lone actors. Meanwhile, savvy attackers broadcasting their acts and motivations on social media allows them to elicit a greater impact, particularly if they are pioneering the use of new technologies like livestreams or 3-D printing. The high visibility and wide reach offered by social media might also actually encourage otherwise reluctant extremists to mobilize; as Clint Watts wrote of jihadists in 2015, lone actor “plots are essentially a function of fame seeking in a highly individualistic social media age.” And far-right ideology’s co-opting of other extremisms broadens the number of adherents — and, crucially, the number of possible violent lone actors committing violence in the name of far-right causes.
The last resurgence of violent far-right extremism in the United States, during the early 1980s, was similarly triggered by a combination of anti-immigrant xenophobia, acute political polarization, and simplistic but dangerous conspiracy theories about the United States’ changing socioeconomic demographics — themes present in the United States and other countries today. Today’s extremists are following the strategic and tactical models pioneered by their predecessors: They are radicalizing and mobilizing online and employing a “leaderless resistance” to avoid law enforcement scrutiny and intervention.
And, to make matters worse, there are several challenges inherent in tackling domestic, far-right extremism. Hate speech, for instance, is constitutionally protected in the United States, so, unlike in Europe, radicalism and radicalization cannot be effectively monitored. Law enforcement and social media companies, therefore, cannot easily track signs of increasing mobilization online. Moreover, Salafi-jihadi extremism and terrorism continues to dominate the discourse. It is, after all, much more politically expedient to tackle an allegedly foreign threat than deal with those at home. And finally, because these domestic far-right attacks have been perpetrated by individuals, not groups, there is no leader to target or funding to cut, just individuals spread across the country, who decide to act on their own, often with no traceable footprint.
This, unfortunately, has turned into an urgent issue: More attacks are likely, and more communities accordingly will be ripped apart. Policymakers and practitioners need to find new and creative ways to undermine far-right ideology, breaking down its conspiracy theories and severing its ability to recruit new followers, including amongst returning servicemembers. Undermining the ideology through better online education and cleverer “countering violent extremism” initiatives will also dismantle the gateway between far-right adherence and other extremist movements. Social media companies also need to continue working to improve their defenses against extremism, both involving groups radicalizing and recruiting online, as well as eventual actors broadcasting their violence in real time.
Fortunately, several of these issues parallel with law enforcement efforts against the Islamic State. ISIL similarly uses social media platforms to create self-sustaining echo chambers, peddles conspiracy theories online, employs encrypted communications and trawls the dark web, transcends borders with its appeal, promotes an anti-liberal and anti-Western ideology, and, ultimately, primarily inspires lone actors to strike. Lessons learned from the increasingly successful efforts to suppress the Islamic State’s online efforts should be applied to the far right; and lessons learned fighting the far right should be tested against the Salafi-jihadists.
Escalating domestic terrorism, clearly, is an urgent problem. That does not mean it is an undefeatable one.
Bruce Hoffman is the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Jacob Ware is a research associate.