The Diversification of Extremist Violence

May 15, 2018


far right protesters


Five years ago, if you had walked into a room of security professionals and asked what threats kept them up at night, you’d likely have heard about lone-wolf attacks inspired by ISIS or Al-Qa’ida. Indeed, since 9/11, much of our security architecture has been designed to mitigate threats from a very singular threat profile: an Islamist extremist, acting alone or with guidance from an international terrorist organization. As recent events demonstrate, however, many organizations remain attuned to an outdated threat model. Let’s take a look at several recent acts of extremist violence in the United States and Canada:

  • January 2017: Alexandre Bissonnette killed six people at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. Bissonnette reportedly made “frequent extreme comments on social media.

  • June 2017: Jeremy Christian stabbed two people to death when they intervened in his racist verbal assault of two young women on a Portland train. Christian identified as a white nationalist and praised Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a “true patriot.”

  • December 2017: Nicholas Giampa shot his girlfriend’s parents to death in Virginia after they warned their daughter about Giampa’s racist views. Giampa was a member of Atomwaffen Division, a secretive neo-Nazi group with members in 23 states. Although the group has fewer than 100 members, it has been associated with at least four murders since 2016.

  • December 2017: William Atchison killed two students at a high school in New Mexico. Atchison had an online fixation with other school shooters and posted racist and homophobic content online.

  • January 2018: Samuel Woodward murdered Blaze Bernstein in a likely hate crime. Woodward is also a member of the Atomwaffen Division.

  • March 2018: The FBI arrested four men in Illinois for involvement in the August 2017 bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. No one was killed in that attack, however, the men also sought to bomb a women’s health clinic in Illinois. One of the suspects told police that the men wanted to “scare [Muslims] out of the country,” and to “show them hey, you’re not welcome here, get the f— out.”

And what to make of Alek Minassian, part of a community of online “incels” (men who are involuntarily celibate) that blame women for rejecting them, who drove a van through crowds on April 21 in Toronto, killing at least ten people? Minassian’s attack was not the first of its kind: in 2014, Elliot Rodger killed three roommates before shooting several women in a Santa Barbara sorority house. Rodger left behind a manifesto that detailed his hatred for women and minorities.

This is only a partial list or recent incidents of domestic extremist violence. Threats today come from a startling diversity of threat actors driven by an unpredictable mix of personal and political grievances. Government organizations warned as far back as 2009 about the increasing threat from right-wing extremist groups (see reports from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and DHS). Unfortunately, their prescient reports became political footballs in debates over free speech, as conservative critics suggested that these reports were “half-baked warnings” that sought to demonize “loyal Americans.”

A slew of recent reporting from organizations that study violence supports the trends identified in the earlier DHS and CTC assessments, although their data categorization differs:

  • The GAO reports that, between September 12, 2001 and December 31, 2016, 225 people were killed by violent extremists in the United States. Of those, 106 were killed by far-right extremists, while 119 were killed by Islamist extremists. Of the 119 deaths attributed to Islamist groups, 49 were the result of the shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016.

  • The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that 59 percent of extremist-related fatalities in the United States in 2017 were caused by far-right extremists. Between 2008 and 2017, ADL assesses that 71 percent of extremist-related deaths in the United States were tied to right-wing extremism, while 26 percent were due to Islamist extremism.

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center assesses that “alt-right” lone actors killed 43 Americans between 2014 and January 2018, with 17 of those deaths coming in 2017. The perpetrators were all white men under the age of 30 (average age 26), and most had participated in some kind of online community associated with the far right.

  • Finally, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) found that, between 2010 and 2016, there was a “sharp increase” in the proportion of attacks carried out by right-wing extremists. START also notes an increase in attacks by religious extremists and a decline in attacks by left-wing or environmental extremist groups during the same time period.

To be sure, jihadist terrorist groups still pose a considerable threat: of the 14 plots that the UK counterterrorism police report disrupting in 2017, ten were from Islamist extremist groups, while four were from “extreme, right-wing” groups.  According to a recent New America study, the number of deaths per incident remains higher for Islamist extremist groups. So while right-wing attacks are becoming more frequent, Islamist extremist attacks are deadlier.

Unfortunately, much of the country was caught off-guard by the last summer’s violence at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.  But the indicators were there, particularly for those communities that have already suffered at the hands of right-wing extremists. For anyone fortunate enough not to have previously been targeted by such violence, Charlottesville provided a hard lesson about the potential for right-wing extremist attacks. The challenge for security professionals is still to find a needle in the haystack, but now we have a clearer understanding of just how many needles there are. Notably, these statistics do not include many school shootings, which, although they are terrifying, are not always categorized as having an extremist motivation.

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