A surge in right-wing populism rooted in the effects of globalization has energized a series of extreme-right political movements across the world. Many such groups have resorted to acts of violence to express their objectives. As the attacks last weekend in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that killed a total of more than 30 people would attest, the US has not been an exception to this trend.
According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, right-wing-inspired terrorist acts in the United States have grown from 6% to 35% of the total from 2010 to 2016. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also reported that between 2016 and 2017, right-wing-inspired violence had quadrupled in the United States, a terrifying trend.
The threat from far-right terrorism in the US is clearly not monolithic. While it is true that such terrorism is very vibrant and structurally diverse, the groups still fall under two distinct categories: white supremacist and anti-government extremists.
White supremacist groups aim to restore what they perceive as the appropriate racial hierarchy by enforcing control over non-white communities. Their ideological roots are derived from ideas of nativism and xenophobia. White supremacist groups include organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Identity movement and the alt right. They also include neo-Nazi groups such as the National Alliance and racist skinhead terror groups like the Hammerskin Nation and prison gangs such the Aryan Nation.
Like the jihadi militants, white supremacist groups include religious dimensions in their doctrines. Christian ideology and fundamentalist interpretation of religious texts are frequently used as justification for attacks. In fact, jihadi groups and white supremacist groups are much alike: Both have a strong devotion to their cause, are compelled to remake the global order and have a belligerent response to their perceived sense of victimization. Yet, ironically, they are usually considered enemies at opposites of the political spectrum.
The anti-government extremists, who are often collectively termed the “patriot” movement, consist primarily of individuals aligned with the tax protest movement, the sovereign citizen movement, and the militia movement. The anti-government movement’s ideology is based on the goal that there is a need to undermine the legitimacy of the US federal government. Many of these groups are strongly convinced that the US political system has been usurped by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order.” Though the anti-government movement traced its origins to the 1960s, it was only after the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government extremist, that it was recognized as a major domestic terrorist threat.
It is common misconception that anti-government extremists are also mostly white supremacists. Though there is overlap between the two spheres, the main anti-government extremist movements focus their anger at the government and contain members of different races, thus precluding any connection with the white supremacists.
Far-right terrorism in the US has traditionally being committed by small groups, or lone-wolf actors. Unlike the jihadi threat, far-right militant attacks historically are not intended to inflict large casualties but to stir up an atmosphere of panic and fear among the local populace.
Since the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, most far-right terror groups eschew large-scale mass-casualty attacks so as not to alienate their support. Nevertheless, the risk of a larger attack cannot be discounted. A rise in the number of mass gun attacks could eventually lead groups or individuals to have the confidence to execute a larger mass-casualty attack.
Moreover, the far-right terrorism groups have always been innovators. Back in the late 1980s, far-right militants pioneered two of the most consequential trends in global terrorism: establishing their networks in cyberspace and using lone-wolf attacks against civilian targets. These groups clearly have shown the potential to innovate and expand as well as invent new attack strategies to inflict larger casualties.
Finally, the risk of far-right terrorism has also been heightened by the current political climate in the US. Recent speeches by key political leaders have invigorated the far-right terror groups. Rhetorical support, even passively, from political leaders can encourage violence from radical-minded groups.
Indeed, as in the cases in Myanmar, Rwanda or Sri Lanka, non-state violence tends to increase when government officials offer political cover and legitimacy. As a result, such rhetoric has created a febrile environment for far-right militants to recruit new members and embolden existing supporters. Thus it is likely that the United States will be facing a continuous rise in the level of far-right terrorism.