By Liam McHugh and Tobias Armour
Most of the country watched the events of January 6th at the United States Capitol stunned with disbelief. Confederate flags along with QAnon and “Stop the Steal” shirts tore across TV screens and the product of ideological extremism left a permanent stain on the face of American democracy. At the same time, one of the nation’s most coveted procedures was underway. At some point during the riot, many watching on TV muttered the words “how could this happen?” or “I can’t believe this”, but in reality, this incredibly irreverent event could be seen coming for months. “The insurrection at the capitol was not a brain aneurysm; it was a side effect of diabetes.”
That is a quote from Chris Fussell, former Navy SEAL and current president of the McChrystal Group. Medical allegories aside, Mr. Fussell outlines the true nature of domestic violent extremism, which has forced itself into the national spotlight. The truth is, domestic violent extremism in the United States is not a new phenomenon, nor has it been confined to one side of the political spectrum. The anger, hate, and deranged set of beliefs that were thrust onto the American center stage that day is a contorted patchwork of movements and ideologies deeply ingrained in our country’s history.
It is abundantly clear that the events of January 6th, 2020, were executed by individuals and groups assembled on the far-right of the political spectrum. Still, the trend in extremist ideologies that can easily escalate to violence in the United States is more diverse and complex. The call to tackle this issue has been heard loud and clear, but developing a strategy and implementing it successfully is the hard part. One of the clearest obstacles to overcome to comprehend the trends in Domestic Violent Extremism (DVE) – on the Right and Left of the political spectrum – politicians must drop the rhetoric that fuels the discourse of extremists and agree upon a clear definition of DVE and the extremist movements behind events like the storming of the Capitol. Taking action must include a shared narrative and understanding among policymakers. Moving forward without one guarantees internal roadblocks based on differing opinions and partisan stances.
Defining the Problem
Following the January 6th Capitol Riot, media outlets across the country used a wheel of labels to describe what took place and who participated. The first challenge for policymakers and leaders must overcome in order to successfully confront the threat of DVE is to define the problem. There are over 250 definitions of terrorism among scholars, organizations, and government agencies around the world, therefore creating a clear communicable definition of Domestic Terrorism becomes more difficult. Recently, US Federal Agencies have taken a stronger stance on identifying and preventing Domestic Violent Extremism, including adopting inter-agency terminology. Specifically, in November 2020, the FBI and DHS in consultation with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) defined Domestic Terrorism as:
“activities involving acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the US or any State; appearing to be intended to: intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping, and occuring primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the US.”
While this definition creates a foundation for understanding acts of terror that are ideologically and locationally domestic, prosecutors lack the judicial tools to federally charge individuals for the crime of terrorism without an international linkage, such as aiding a terrorist organization.
Following a significant increase in Domestic Violent Extremism over the years, long-overdue attention is now attuned to this problem by law enforcement agencies, policymakers, and academics. While this focus is a step in the right direction to help understand and mitigate the problem of increased ideological extremism within the U.S., federal legal statutes specific to Domestic Violent Extremism are bleak. While 18 U.S.C. § 2331(5) clearly defines statutory offenses comprising international terrorism, which are distinctively attacks that transcend national boundaries, domestic terrorism charges derive from a patchwork of federal crimes of terrorism under section 2332b(g)(5)(B), and most often nonterrorism related charges since they are more easily applied in the court of law.
In essence, many policymakers and academics emphasize the need for a federal criminal statute specific to domestic terrorism in order to avoid sifting through the array of federal charges to make a case stick. Not only would a designated domestic terrorism statute usher in applicable charges for individuals conspiring to carry out an attack, and those who succeeded in carrying out attacks, but it would send an unmistakably explicit message to ideological extremists in the U.S. plotting attacks
Defining the domestic threat will be challenging because many of the causes are so ingrained in our society. Two decades of battling Islamic extremism will not translate well to fighting domestic extremists because the threat from Islamic extremists has primarily been from abroad, but also the Islamic culture is perceived as distant for most Americans. It would even be dubious to say that the tactics used against Islamic extremism over the years would be effective in countering domestic extremism. Bringing the counterterrorism experience of the last twenty years stateside to face the domestic threat without applying the “this is how we have always done it” approach is critical.
Social and Institutional Factors
Once the threat is defined, the battlespace on which it is confronted has to be fully understood. Two silos of this space have gained importance: the social media landscape and the interaction of the threat with important American institutions, most pointedly the military. A significant portion of this battlefield are social media and encrypted messaging platforms, but as larger platforms crackdown on potential extremist ideologies more obscure and niche, outlets will arise. This is another area where clearly defined and functional policy needs to be implemented. Already, tech companies’ regulatory decisions have been a source of argument and division. A playbook created by both public and private entities must be created to take the first step in fighting the many aspects of DVE that live, fester, and grow online. Making ad hoc decisions off of ad hoc strategy in each respective situation on these connected platforms is a recipe for an unconnected and unsustainable outcome, and an even further disillusioned and riled citizenry.
The unique role of the military must continue to be acknowledged as well. There are documented connections between current and former military personnel and DVE groups. As of March 23, 37 of those arrested for their actions at the Capitol had some personal affiliation with the military. Three out of the 37 are on active duty enlistments. Secretary of Defense Austin has made it clear that any inkling of extremist tendency is a “view(s) and conduct that run counter to everything that we believe in, and which can actually tear at the fabric of who we are as an institution…It’s not new to our country and sadly, it’s not new to our military.” He also pointed to the necessity for tough but deft leadership when instances of extremist ideology are displayed within the ranks. Understanding the specifics of how domestic extremist groups recruit military personnel into their ranks if those in the military are more prone to extremism, and how to make organizational decisions to prevent members from taking the steps to radicalization is necessary now.
SecDef Austin also touched on the new phenomenon of social media and how the increased connectivity – enabled by social media – can create easy ways for ideas to be twisted and perpetuated to the point of extremism. “What is new is the speed and pervasiveness with which extremist ideology can spread today thanks to social media and the aggressive, organized and emboldened attitude many of these hate groups and their sympathizers are applying to their recruitment and operation.” Many don’t think of the brave men and women in uniform when they open up Instagram or TikTok, but social media’s power hasn’t passed the military by. With domestic extremist groups becoming more agile and intelligent in the social media space, the military leadership has to continue to learn about this 21st-century phenomenon, and adapt their messages and training, just like the tech companies are adjusting their platforms and content.
It’s a tough problem to quell because of its fragmented and disjointed nature. There is no one single group that encompasses all those who might be a threat to act on their domestic extremist tendencies. Multiple groups can hold a certain, similar strand of belief while differing on something else. They have learned to find common ground and utilize one another for their own gain. To make strides against this very real threat, the US will have to understand its depth and severity and make the choice right now to allocate the resources necessary to handle this problem of considerable magnitude.
Our leaders also need to understand how the problem has permeated the different pillars of today’s society. It’s found in some of the oldest and proudest institutions in the country, along with extremist ideologies that have woven their way into society in the past decade. Blundering forward without a calculated and coherent strategy could force more citizens into the very groups that need to be destroyed. That should be something that America has learned over the past 20 years. We cannot let the mistakes of the past augment the enemy of the future, especially when that enemy is internal to our borders.
It’s understandable to think of the radical right as one coherent movement. People often look at extremists as a person who has taken a set of moderate beliefs to the umpteenth degree, and the right is often defined by a specific set of values or opinions on certain matters. Today, these matters consist of but are not limited to, government’s role in private business, gun control, abortion, and immigration. It’s not beyond reason to think that the core beliefs of the more conservative right would create, in some capacity, the foundation for the radical extremists on the right.
In reality, the radical right is nuanced and divided. The election of President Joe Biden, and the departure of Donald Trump, created a situation where these different divisions came together in the national spotlight, seeming to be one and the same. The saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” most certainly applies here, but the groups who connected to one another in response to what they saw as the left’s blatant attempt to steal power from a figurehead they had attached themselves to need to be understood from an organizational standpoint as the individual pieces of the puzzle that they truly are. The American people, and the media, are doing themselves a disfavor by only looking at the surface, and therefore seeing a cohesive movement. Understanding the patchwork is one of the first steps in stopping what the Department of Homeland Security refers to as a growing threat from these violent extremists.
Domestic extremism has been alive and well in America. The focus on the “Far Enemy” as jihadists call it, has taken the spotlight away from what’s going on inside the border and placed it on other parts of the world. While this wasn’t necessarily a mistake, it’s imperative to understand the history of radical behavior that this country has to contend with. Some of the oft-believed heroic aspects of the beginning of the nation form the core of the extremist groups threatening violence today.
To begin broadly, the right has been made up of three main pillars: white supremacists, anti-government movements, and Christian fundamentalists. In recent years, conspiracy theorists, most notably the followers of Qanon, have added themselves to those three classic foundations. The exact boundaries of these groups can be debated to no end. Each of these different pillars encompasses multiple different groups and movements but generally adheres to a certain core set of beliefs.
White Supremacists encompass what experts refer to as classic or traditional white supremacists, the different sub-divisions of the Neo-Nazi movement, Skinheads, the Base, Atomwaffe, and the resulting offshoots of all of these groups. A recently de-classified ODNI report referred to them as “racially or ethnically motivated extremists.” With a belief system based on racial hate, White Supremacists see the White race as inherently superior to all others. This view is based on a twisted mix of religious, pseudo-scientific, and socio-cultural assertions that followers of the movement believe prove the European White and its descendants as superior in all ways to others. This natural ability should lead to an official race hierarchy, with the “Aryan” race sitting in a place of power atop the rest. This ideology is, in the eyes of its practitioners, under extreme siege right now, with more and more attention being paid to the disenfranchised situation of Black Americans and their societies, and a much more favorable attitude towards immigration exhibited by the administration in the White House.
Anti-government / federalist groups (often referred to as Libertarian-anarchists) form another component of the far right, and have featured heavily in the media’s recent coverage of domestic extremism. Like the White Supremacist vein, this general grouping holds some similar anti-government beliefs but is a diversified gaggle, swearing loyalty to different specific milieus. The Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and Boogaloo Boys are some examples of these groups with nationwide membership. They are joined in this anti-government sector of the extremist right by many local, smaller groups.
An example of one of these smaller groups would be the Wolverine Watchmen, whose plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was foiled last October. The Watchmen’s membership exemplified many who would fall into this general category: they believed that drastic action was needed to protect their own American rights and liberties from the creep of government control and regulation. The Covid-19 Pandemic and subsequent government-mandated lockdowns have exacerbated this group’s hatred towards those in power, and in their eyes, given them increased license to arm themselves and eventually take action against tyranny coming down the pike from Washington and other local statehouses.
The Christian fundamentalist bloc rounds out the general typologies creating the far right. While not as active as the other two groups on their own, Christian fundamentalists often find a way to tie into the actions of the other two. This comes from their core belief that America should stay a fundamentally Christian nation, governed by a Christian belief structure, and any departure from that is a direct assault against their preferred way of life. These fundamentalists have been extremely vocal in the conversation around abortion rights. They see every pro-choice win as a continuation of the assault on America’s Christian roots. These views tie in easily with aspects of White Supremacy and anti-government movements.
One of the defining features of the right has been the spawned groups that don’t necessarily fit into any of these mentioned categories in a perfect way. A good example of one of these category busting or combining groups would be the Proud Boys. Some experts say the group was founded to give men a place to feel camaraderie and brotherhood, but its antics since its founding have demonstrated many of the foundational aspects of other radical right categories. Starting as a “fringe group…with frat-boy antics…looking to piss people off” and play to men’s wayward sense of modern masculinity, the group has taken on a much more sinister outlook in the years since its inception. In a perfect example of how his group has combined other categories of the radical right into its agenda, the leader of the American Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, was arrested in Washington D.C. days before the January 6th insurrection for burning a Black Lives Matter banner and carrying empty ammo cartridges.
That ability to find common ground has been one of the defining features of the modern extreme right. Incorrectly believed to be a singular group governed by a dogmatic set of beliefs, it’s really a patchwork of different groups that have found some sort of commonality with one another. To look at it as a singular entity is to mischaracterize and misunderstand it.
Countering the extreme right is the extreme left. As many right-wing extremists are provoked by gains on the left side of the political spectrum, left-wing extremists have responded to political gains on the right and increasingly as a rebuttal to the rise in explicit right-wing extremist activity. The two are also defined by one another. As the right arms itself, the left is realizing it has to do the same. As the right actively recruits and begins to adapt itself to the social media atmosphere of 2021, so does the far left. Neither the right nor left can be examined without a due study of the other. “Antifa”, and the kind of cloud around it, has grown in national recognition. There are also smaller, more select groups that identify with leftist milieus, but they have not been given the same screen time as their counterparts on the right.
The federal government has not sufficiently countered these growing domestic threats. To do so, it will have to identify the characteristics of each group and subsect, but also the commonalities that allow them to come together when they see it as beneficial. The government will have to allow the fight against Islamic extremism to help them counter this growing threat, but not let it inform it completely. If it follows the playbook created over the last 20 years to fight jihad to the letter to fight this homegrown threat, it will fail.
Since the January 6th insurrection, attention has been focused on right-wing extremism, but before that Former President Donald Trump emphasized the threat of left-wing extremism over the right. Ambiguity regarding left-wing extremism over the past year is a result of political rhetoric from both sides of the aisle – Republicans overplaying the threat while Democrats underplay the threat. The fact is, left-wing extremism is alive in the United States and has been increasing in recent years. In order to analyze the threat posed by left-wing extremists, we must first define this activity.
The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) defines left-wing extremism as:
“the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism; pursue environmental or animal rights issues; espouse pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; or support a decentralized social and political system such as anarchism”.
As the definition implies, left-wing extremist groups can be broken down further by ideology: Anarchists, Environmental and Animal Rights groups, and the popular but often mischaracterized Anti-fascists, better known as “Antifa”.
Left-wing anarchist groups (referred to as Anarcho-socialists) differ from their right-wing counterparts in that they espouse anti-capitalist views in addition to being anti-government. Anarcho-socialist groups often target government, military, and law enforcement facilities such as an attempted attack on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington in 2019. Their goal is to disrupt government and corporate overreach on people’s lives and often intersect with anti-fascist and environmental extremist ideologies.
Similarly, Environmental and Animal Rights groups such as Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front conduct attacks on industries and institutions they believe are exploiting animals and the environment. These groups have conducted small-scale attacks on lumber and oil companies, as well as institutions that conduct animal testing and stores that sell animal fur or skin. While these attacks mostly involve arson and destruction of property, the increased threat of climate change could escalate to more severe forms of violence.
Lastly, “Antifa” is a decentralized network of individuals who oppose real and perceived fascist, racist, or general right-wing extremist activity. Although many politicians and pundits have claimed the group is a terrorist organization, “antifa” is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups and FBI Director Christopher Wray determined that it’s “not an organization” but rather an “ideology with no hierarchical structure or tactics”. The ambiguity of antifa’s structure and operations make it difficult for law enforcement to track since there is no leader and their activities are loosely organized through social media.
Furthermore, the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) released a report identifying an increase in militant social media discourse by anarcho-socialists and antifa supporters. There has only been one death caused by a self proclaimed Antifa follower, and the Department of Justice has not charged anyone involved with Antifa in connection with the civil unrest last summer after hundreds of investigations. The threat of left-wing extremist violence should not be overlooked as the increase in militant rhetoric on social media could be a picture of what is to come.
The Real Issue
Comparing the reality of DVE is a critical step in mitigating the issues as a whole. While left-wing extremism is a growing threat in the U.S., federal law enforcement, the intelligence community, and academic institutions have clearly identified right-wing extremism as presenting the most lethal threat of violence, primarily racially motivated violence. The dataset of domestic terrorist attacks compiled by CSIS between 1994 and 2020 includes 893 attacks and plots. According to the data, 57% of the attacks and plots were perpetrated by right-wing extremist groups causing 335 deaths. On the contrary, 25% of attacks and plots in this timeframe were perpetrated by left-wing groups and caused 22 deaths.
The right-wing extremist threat deserves to be center stage for law enforcement operations, mitigation and deradicalization efforts. The threat posed by right-wing extremists is deeply rooted in the U.S. and must be reckoned with. Additionally, the rise in violence by right-wing groups will continue to provoke a response and mobilization by left-wing extremism in a tit-for-tat manner seen in countless examples within conflicts. While the causes and history of DVE are deeply rooted, the means and tactics used by extremist ideologues are constantly evolving. The fight against DVE will require less finger-pointing and face-saving on behalf of politicians on both sides, and open conversation between politicians with facts backed by government agencies and academic experts.
Right-wing and left-wing extremism are not exclusively the only threats facing this country. Religious extremism, such as homegrown violent jihadism, has been at the top of the list of threats for years. The difference is that the left and right-wing extremist movements overlap with politics to a staggering degree, and are having a real impact on our already polarized country. Terrorism experts who have shifted their focus to the growing trend in DVE expect extremist violence to increase in the United States. Due to “excessively polarized behavior” of politicians and talking heads, we can expect more exogenous events to become fodder for extremist groups.
There are several ways in which domestic violent extremism can and must be combated against. First, disinformation has made its way into the mainstream and has played a critical role in the public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the 2020 Presidential Election. Combatting disinformation and demanding accountability from broadcast and social media networks will be a difficult task going forward, but should not be overlooked. Second, deradicalization programs need to be studied and implemented in as many areas of society as possible.
The combination of rampant disinformation and extremist groups exploiting social media to recruit followers must be countered in an evidence-based effort. Lastly, we must hold our elected officials to a higher standard, the truth would be a good place to start. Both parties need to be held accountable for their inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation that fuels the likelihood of violent behavior that has situated this country in an extremely uncomfortable position for everyone. Without a middle ground where politicians can act like they live on the same planet, nothing will be done to address the growing trend of right and left-wing violent extremism in the United States and around the world.
About the authors:
Liam McHugh is a Fellow at Lobo Institute and a recent graduate from John Jay College with a Masters in Criminal Justice, specializing in Terrorism Studies and Criminal Law & Procedure. He also received Advanced Certificates in Terrorism Studies and Criminal Investigation. As an undergraduate at the University of Denver, Liam studied Psychology, Criminology, and International Studies. Outside his work at Lobo Institute, Liam works for Western Union as an FIU Investigator.
Tobias Armour is a Research Intern at Lobo Institute and a recent graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies with a Masters in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies, with a focus in Financial Crime Management and Cybersecurity. Outside his work at Lobo Institute, Tobias works as a Cybersecurity Risk Consultant.
The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and podcasts, please go to Lobo Institute.