The threat posed by US right-wing extremists, and specifically white supremacists, has been receiving a lot of publicity lately as a presidential election looms in the midst of crises over the coronavirus and police treatment of black suspects.
The name of one right-wing extremist group was attached to emails sent to Democrats in Florida and other states threatening dire consequences if they failed to vote to re-elect President Donald Trump. A false alarm, it appears. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Wednesday said these were “spoofed” emails, sent by Iran to “incite social unrest.”
There’s no cause for relaxing on the white supremacist front, however. FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee in September that racially motivated violent extremism comprised the largest portion of the FBI’s domestic terrorism investigations. Within that category, the biggest group was “people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment echoed that assessment by noting: “Among domestic violent extremists, racially and ethnically violent extremists – specifically white supremacist extremists – will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”
Many people trying to explain the white supremacist threat, including documentarists and podcasters, have pointed to The Turner Diaries, a book written by William Pierce, the deceased founder of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, as a guideline.
While The Turner Diaries are important to understanding the white supremacist threat, one needs to read it along with Pierce’s second book, Hunter, for a comprehensive overview of the threat posed by white supremacists and the operational models they promote.
Turner Diaries model
William Pierce originally wrote The Turner Diaries as a serial appearing in a National Alliance publication called Attack beginning in 1975. After the series was completed in 1978, he self-published the work in book form under the pen name Andrew Macdonald.
Pierce intended it to be more than a dystopian thriller depicting a future race war. His desire was for the book to serve as a tool to help racialize and radicalize people to adopt violence.
Many people have noted that recent neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division and the Base are accelerationists – meaning they seek to precipitate a race war through violence. In fact, as Pierce’s books, other writings and speeches clearly illustrate, the concept of using violence to spark a race war has long been a prominent feature of the white supremacist movement.
Pierce’s first book is written as the diary of Earl Turner, an angry white man who joins a violent revolt against “the system” and is eventually indoctrinated into a secret group called “the Order.” In the story, Turner becomes a hero of the race war after he pilots a small plane carrying a nuclear device on a suicide mission that destroys the Pentagon.
Pierce also intended The Turner Diaries to be a practical manual providing a blueprint for establishing and operating a clandestine terrorist organization – and some of his readers have followed this guide.
Perhaps the most notorious example of an organization influenced by The Turner Diaries was a domestic terrorist group formed in 1983 called “the Order” after the secret group in the book. The Order was also known as the Brüder Schweigen, German for “Silent Brotherhood.”
The Order planned to launch a war against perceived racial enemies and the government in an effort to establish a “white homeland” in the US Pacific Northwest.
While the Order was able to conduct a string of bank and armored car heists, law enforcement quickly focused on the group and managed to recruit a group member as an informant. By December 1984, the Order had been crushed. The group’s leader, Robert Matthews, was killed in a raid and the rest of the group arrested.
I often liken US federal law enforcement to a shark. It is big, fast and powerful. Once its highly refined sensors are locked in on a target, it is usually able to take that target down quickly and efficiently. The Order is a textbook case of this power and efficiency.
Another example is the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA), which was wrapped up after a siege in April 1985. Then there was the Aryan Republican Army, which was dismantled in the 1990s. In recent times, both Atomwaffen Division and the Base were hit hard by the government.
The militia group in Michigan that was involved in the recently thwarted plot to kidnap the state’s governor was not exclusively white supremacist but illustrates the government’s power and reach. The FBI had recruited at least two informants within the group and had been able to insert two undercover agents to monitor and ultimately thwart its activities.
After taking down the Order and the CSA in the 1980s, and using crimes committed by those two groups as a springboard, the government turned its attention to a bigger target – the larger white supremacist movement that had birthed those terrorist groups.
In February 1987, a federal grand jury in Fort Smith, Arkansas, indicted 14 white supremacists on charges of seditious conspiracy, charging them with attempting to overthrow the US government. In addition to members of the Order and CSA, other notable figures who were indicted included Richard Butler, the leader of the Aryan Nations, Texas Klan leader Louis Beam and the influential Michigan white supremacist leader Robert Miles.
While the 14 defendants were eventually found not guilty of the sedition charges, testimony presented during the trial highlighted how the white supremacist movement had been thoroughly and systematically infiltrated by government informants and undercover agents.
This sobering reality had a profound impact on the white supremacist movement and served as an inflection point.
After he was acquitted, Robert Miles was asked by an Associated Press reporter how the trial had affected the white supremacist movement. Miles responded: ″What’s left of it after this?″
Realizing that it was dangerous to attempt to plan illegal activity as part of a hierarchical organization, white supremacist leaders began to widely embrace and actively promote the concept of leaderless resistance.
The idea of leaderless resistance was not new to the movement. In fact, in 1983 Louis Beam published an essay on the concept in a Klan newsletter. In Beam’s conceptualization of leaderless resistance, the movement should be divided into two tiers.
The first tier would be the aboveground “organs of information,” which would “distribute information using newspapers, leaflets, computers” and so on. The people comprising the organs of information were not to conduct any illegal activities but rather limit their roles to a direction for those conducting attacks, as well as issuing propaganda for recruitment purposes.
The second tier would be made up of individual operators and small cells that would conduct attacks and other illegal activities. These people were to remain low-key and anonymous, with no connections to or communications with the above-ground activists. After the Fort Smith trial, Beam republished the essay in his quarterly journal The Seditionist in 1992.
The Hunter model
William Pierce took a different approach to promoting leaderless resistance. Rather than write an essay like Beam, he published his second dystopian novel, Hunter, in 1979. Hunter tells the story of Oscar Yeager, a lone assailant who conducts a series of attacks against interracial couples, journalists and politicians.
While The Turner Diaries served as an outline for how to organize a clandestine organization, Hunter was intended to provide a blueprint for how to be a successful lone wolf assassin.
Tellingly, Pierce would later dedicate the book to Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist lone assailant who, in an attempt to start a race war, carried out a series of murders, robberies and arson attacks across a wide swath of the United States from 1977 to 1980.
Franklin, who is believed to have killed at least 20 people during his spree, is perhaps best known for his attempts to assassinate civil rights leader Vernon Jordan and Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. While both of those high-profile assassination attempts failed, Franklin seriously wounded both men and left Flynt paralyzed.
Because Franklin was low-key and mobile and acted alone, the true scope of his activities was not realized until after he was captured. He had managed to fly almost entirely under the radar.
People like Franklin, who practice leaderless resistance, pose a problem for the government because they often do not come to the attention of the authorities before they launch an attack.
Even in cases where they appear on the government’s radar, if there is not enough evidence to charge them for a crime or to show that they are actively plotting an attack, they are often just databased with other potential threat actors. There are thousands of such people, far too many for the government to monitor closely.
Going back to our shark analogy, individuals operating under the principles of leaderless resistance are much like one small fish in a large shoal of baitfish. Sharks struggle with baitfish shoals because they cannot lock their powerful sensors on any one target; the mass of moving fish causes their sensory system to overload.
The same happens when law enforcement agencies are confronted by thousands of potential terrorist actors. They struggle to identify which of the thousands should be selected for additional investigation and surveillance.
They simply do not have the resources to cover them all. They must prioritize, and sometimes a lone assailant slips through the cracks and is able to conduct an attack.
This is the principle behind leaderless resistance; and those adopting it explicitly seek to present a challenge for law enforcement. However, as we will discuss later, this model also brings with it some significant shortcomings in terms of terrorist tradecraft.
When we examine white supremacist activity over the past decade, we can see that most of the larger groups that have attempted to conduct attacks have been taken down before they could complete their attack cycles.
Two cells of the Base that were arrested earlier this year in Georgia and Maryland are prime examples. Even though members of the group Atomwaffen Division did conduct some murders, these murders were carried out by individual members of the group acting as lone attackers and not as part of a plot by a larger group.
Two of the murders ascribed to Atomwaffen were the result of one group member killing two others.
Indeed, a review of the deadly white supremacist terrorist attacks in the United States over the past decade illustrates they are far more often representative of the Hunter lone assailant model than of the Turner Diaries hierarchical group model.
- August 2012 armed assault at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin – lone gunman
- April 2014 armed assault at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas – lone gunman
- June 2015 armed assault at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina – lone gunman
- July 2015 armed assault at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana – lone gunman
- March 2017 sword attack against an African American man in New York City – lone attacker
- May 2017 stabbing attack on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon – lone attacker
- December 2017 vehicular assault in Charlottesville, Virginia – lone attacker
- October 2018 armed assault at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – lone gunman
- April 2019 armed assault at a synagogue in Poway, California – lone gunman
- August 2019 armed assault at a WalMart in El Paso, Texas– lone gunman
This is by no means to suggest that the government should stop its efforts to infiltrate and thwart large white-supremacist plots. Large plots have the potential to pose the gravest threat, even if they are the least likely to succeed due to law enforcement interdiction. Because of this, it is imperative that efforts to detect and thwart such plots continue.
However, as demonstrated by the list above, attacks by lone assailants and small cells are more likely to succeed than bigger plots. This fact has some important implications for security professionals.
First, it is noteworthy that the above list of deadly white supremacist terrorist attacks is made up exclusively of attacks against soft targets – venues or people with very little security. Houses of worship are frequently selected and those responsible for securing houses of worship must remain vigilant.
The method of attack is also significant. Rather than the bombings we saw white supremacists conduct in the 1990s, such as the Oklahoma City and Olympic Park attacks, deadly incidents over the past decade have featured simple attacks using readily available weapons such as guns, knives and vehicles.
This is generally tracking with what we’ve seen with jihadist attacks, where there has been a significant shift toward simple shootings, stabbings and vehicular assaults since 2010. Even the most recent successful jihadist bombing attacks – the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the New York New Jersey bombings in 2016 – involved small, simple pressure cooker and pipe bombs, rather than larger devices.
The reason that attackers are choosing soft targets and simple attack methods is that they generally lack the terrorist tradecraft required to conduct more sophisticated attacks.
Occasionally a lone assailant will be able to pull off a sophisticated attack, an example being the attacker behind the 2011 vehicle bombing and armed assault in Norway. But in the typical case when someone operating independently does attempt a complex, spectacular attack, the perpetrator finds a need to reach out for assistance.
Quite frequently such people seek help with obtaining explosives or bomb-making expertise and this has often led them into government sting operations.
A good recent example of this was the May 2020 case in which a white supremacist in Kansas sought help in conducting an attack against a Kansas City hospital. His effort to reach out for help ended up connecting him to an undercover FBI agent, and ultimately the man committed suicide after being shot and wounded when authorities attempted to arrest him. There are many other similar examples.
But bomb-making and operational security are not the only elements of terrorist tradecraft these lone assailants and small cells operating under the leaderless resistance model struggle with.
They also tend to exhibit terrible surveillance tradecraft, and this results in their being vulnerable to detection as they conduct the surveillance required to progress through their attack cycle. Because of this, efforts to look for pre-operational surveillance are a very powerful tool in mitigating the threat posed by such assailants.
Another lesson we can take from white supremacist plots and attacks is the importance of what I call “grassroots defenders” – citizens and even police on patrol who notice suspicious behavior and report it for further investigation.
Some people scoff at the “see something, say something” campaign, but people who see and report suspicious phenomena have been able to tip off the authorities and help thwart many terrorist attacks.
Returning to our shark analogy, such tips can help focus the powerful sensors of law enforcement on a specific bait fish that poses a threat and allow them to thwart the attack and save lives.
Countering terrorism is not just the responsibility of the FBI or the Department of Justice. It is a community responsibility and grassroots defenders play a critical role in helping keep their communities and neighbors safe.
Scott Stewart, a vice-president at TorchStone Global, is a seasoned protective intelligence practitioner with 35 years of analytical, investigative and security experience. As a special agent with the US State Department, he was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations. He was the lead State Department investigator assigned to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the follow-up New York City bomb plot. He also led a team of American agents assisting the Argentine investigation of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and was involved in investigations following a series of attacks and attempted attacks by the Iraqi intelligence service during the first Gulf War.