By Mick Mulroy
Recently David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency theorists, posed the question of whether we are on the precipice of an insurgency in the United States. The answer to this question remains unclear. But it is important to review the facts. It is equally important to review the potential means to prevent an American insurgency from occurring.
A review of the facts requires examination of extremist groups on both the right and left of the political spectrum. Their commonalities and differences reveal much about the nature of extremism in the United States. What are the laws that allow the government to directly address a prospective insurgency? What are the available capabilities and techniques to respond to insurgencies? If it becomes necessary to defeat an insurgency in the United States, it will also be helpful to draw lessons—both good and bad—from our recent experiences overseas.
Our counterinsurgency track record is mixed at best. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan do not evoke visions of success. This is one case we can’t afford to lose. Albeit unlikely, if a substantial part of the American populace revolts against the government we will be facing an existential crisis. Given the stakes, and given the rise in violent extremism in the United States, a task force of nonpartisan former law enforcement, intelligence, military, academics, and reformed extremist group members should be created to study this issue and provide recommendations to our key government agencies.
Definition of an Insurgency
The CIA guide to insurgencies defines an insurgency as “a protracted political-military activity directed toward completely or partially controlling the resources of a country through the use of irregular military forces and illegal political organizations.” The CIA also calls groups in the pre-insurgency stage an “incipient insurgency.” Other experts refer to them as “proto-insurgencies.”
In these emergent stages, group leaders recruit followers, gather weapons, build their ideological justifications for violence, and seek popular support. Proto-insurgencies are vulnerable, but they also have considerable potential energy that can turn kinetic before governments have a chance to prepare for violence. Most proto-insurgencies fail, but those that make it out of the incipient stage often have momentum and dangerous capabilities.
In practicality, there are few substantive differences between the terms insurgency, civil war, rebellion, revolt, or insurrection. But given the domestic nature of this prospective case, it is important to call out the specific meaning of insurrection in the law.
U.S. Code defines insurrection as “a violent uprising by a group or movement acting for the specific purpose of overthrowing the constitutional government and seizing its powers. An insurrection occurs where a movement acts to overthrow the constitutional government and to take possession of its inherent powers.” This is more specific than the definition of insurgency, and it is the term the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uses to link extremist activities to applicable laws and authorities. Most importantly, the group must state its intent to overthrow the government of the United States.
Kilcullen places the number of extremist groups in the United States as roughly 380 far-right armed groups and 50 left-left armed groups. There has been growing concern by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the threat of domestic extremism and the use of terrorism as a domestic political tactic. The Center for Strategic and International Studies found that between January to August of 2020, far-right domestic groups committed 67 percent of reported domestic terrorist attacks and plots, while far-left domestic groups committed 20 percent of the attacks and plots. Salafi-jihadist groups only committed 7 percent of the attacks or plots to conduct attacks. This finding is reflected in many other reports and articles on the subject.
DHS concluded that racially motivated violent extremists—which they term white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—is and will remain the “most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” The FBI Director confirmed this fact in his testimony to Congress in September of this year.
An example of one of these WSE’s is the Northwest Front. Their stated purpose is to create an independent and sovereign nation of only white people within the United States. They claim that they will do this through internal immigration and not through violence. But the intent of that statement is likely to avoid prosecution. A group cannot create a sovereign country within the United States without violating the law.
Another group is the Boogaloo Bois, a group dedicated to preparing for another American civil war; ideally to many of the group’s followers, this would be a race war. This group is the best armed and was responsible for, “the worst terrorist incidents”. Although some are white-supremacists, many are not and they do partner with far-left groups that are anti-government. Their actions and rhetoric clearly indicate they intend to start the civil war they have been preparing for.
One of the common beliefs within these groups is the idea of the “Deep State” which has been propagated most successfully by the group QAnon. This theory suggests that there is a group of unelected individuals secretly running the government. They go further to thoroughly dehumanize these supposed clandestine power brokers by claiming they are blood-drinking satanic child traffickers. This is a typical insurgent tactic: Demonize the opposition to build support and justify violence. While these claims are easily refuted, and while the FBI regards QAnon as a domestic terrorism group, it is growing in popularity and in mainstream political gains. After the recent election, almost a million and a half Americans will be represented in Congress by a QAnon believer or at least a sympathizer. Some estimates put the number of total QAnon followers in the millions.
Recent examples of far-right extremist violence include the arrest of 13 men accused of plotting to kidnap and execute the governor of Michigan and six members of The Base, a transnational WSE, arrested in Georgia and Maryland and charged with plotting terrorist attacks and in June of 2020, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who intentionally drove his truck in a crowd of peaceful protesters. Far-right extremist groups were responsible for 90 percent of extremist-related killings in 2019.
Although far-left extremist groups conduct fewer attacks than the far-right, there were four times as many far-left incidents in 2020 so far than there were in all of 2019. They appear to be racing to catch up. There are approximately 393 million guns and 326 million people in the United States. Several far-left groups have also started arming themselves in a manner similar to that of their far-right counterparts. Far-left media has become increasingly more likely to promote violence as part of their political movement, as reported by the New York Times and Washington Post. The general logic behind this by the far-left is that if the far-right is armed, then the far-left believe they have no choice but to be armed as well.
One of the best-known examples of far-left is Antifa. The name is short for anti-fascist. It is not an organization in the traditional sense, but rather a network of groups and people with no central leadership or membership. Their goal to fight fascists such as white supremacists, far-right extremists, and in some cases also the United States government. They seek to do this to meet their political objectives through the use of intimidation tactics that are both nonviolent and violent. Actions include cybercrimes, harassment, physical violence, and property damage. Although there have been calls for Antifa to be labeled a terrorist organization, the facts do not seem to be there to support that designation.
A recent report by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) found that far-left extremist groups were conveying hateful and violent rhetoric against the police and that there was evidence that shows anarchists are using internet platforms to coordinate real-world attacks including in Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. They were using the same techniques of memes and codes that far-right groups have been known for using. NCRI said that these attacks used explosives and other projectiles and that they showed remarkable conformity indicating they were related and coordinated.
There are a growing number of far-left groups that are promoting arming themself as a way to protect themselves from armed far-right groups. One such group is the Redneck Revolt which claims it is a “national network of community defense projects from a broad spread of political, religious, and cultural backgrounds. It is a pro-worker, anti-racist, organization that focuses on working-class liberation from the oppressive systems which dominate our lives.” The group believes in being armed and doing so openly. They have over 20 branches across the United States. It is an offshoot of a group called the John Brown Gun Club.
The John Brown Gun Club is an armed, far-left group named after the famous abolitionist who took up arms against the United States at Harper’s Ferry Virginia and was executed for it. This group advocates for racial equity, LGBTQ+ rights, and the Second Amendment. They advocate for the abolition of the police and keeping the United States government in check. Academics have stated that although they claim the far-right is their enemy, it appears that their intended target is actually the government. Calls are growing for those on the left to confront this movement.
Whether these left-wing extremist groups truly stand for what they say they do, or whether they are mostly concerned with confronting the government or their far-right counterparts, their growth is troubling. The commonality in both the left and right is distrust of the government and their desire to confront it. Both sides seem to meet the CIA’s definition of an incipient insurgency and like all incipient insurgencies, these will be most effectively dealt with before they have a chance to grow and spread their messages of hate and violence.
Most successful insurgencies have foreign support. During the protest that followed the killing of George Floyd, there were indications that foreign actors such as Russia were exaggerating the tensions. The acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence stating that foreign adversaries were, “actively stoking & promoting violence & confrontation from multiple angles.” The FBI Director said in the past a variety of foreign adversaries are looking to, “amplify controversy in this country and they use state media, they use social media, some of that is through propaganda, some of that is through disinformation, some that are through just fake information.”
Polarization in the United States leaves us vulnerable to a foreign adversary with a robust intelligence service. Such an adversary—like Russia or China—could not only seek to enhance unrest through social media operations but also fund armed groups. The United States needs to determine whether this is happening and to what scale. If it is, we need to take direct steps to stop it, regardless of who it helps.
What should we do about it?
We should start by learning from the robust history of counterinsurgency cases. It appears that these groups want to generate the very crisis they claim to be concerned about: a confrontation with the government. We learned in Afghanistan and Iraq that being heavy-handed early on can spur rather than curtail insurgencies. In some ways, extreme violence unifies people who may not be normally inclined to support one another.
Standing U.S. Code would not allow us to conduct counterinsurgency operations the same way we would in a foreign country. Current counter-extremist efforts already working under proven authorities are best positioned to take the lead in preventing an insurgency in the United States. There are Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country. We should include special operations personnel from the CIA and the military that have served in counterinsurgency operations to serve as advisors. One of the most effective advice they can provide is how the ‘population-centric’ approach works best and intelligence should be the basis of all activities to ensure we do not further exaggerate the situation by making mistakes.
The FBI is and should be the lead agency in this effort, but they can truly benefit from the advice of these other organizations. They should also have to approve any direct action operation from any agency against a group that has been designated as an extremist group that wishes to violently confront the government. We need to avoid operations like the one we saw in Waco in 1993 that led to the death of 82 civilians including 25 children and 4 ATF agents. An incident that was cited by the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombings two years later.
The FBI will need additional funding if these groups continue to grow, they should be prepared to infiltrate every one of those that seek to overthrow the government by the use of force. Members of those organizations should believe that if they are planning a terrorist act, they may be planning one with an FBI special agent that will be testifying against them at their trial. This effort will need to increase as the threat increases to the point of saturation.
An article in the Military Times in June of this year details former service members from each branch of the service that has been involved in, and have committed terrorist acts for far-right extremist groups. The targeting of military members for recruitment in far-right extremists is of particular concern. Servicemembers bring with them knowledge of weapons and tactics and some actual experience in combat.
Those attributes take aspirations (albeit warped ones) and turn them into reality. We need to do everything we can to ensure that no military member becomes a member of these groups. A recent poll of active-duty personnel in 2019 found that 1 out of 3 out of 1,630 respondents has seen evidence of white supremacists in the military, up from 1 out of 5 in 2018.
Former Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones wrote that the Pentagon, “must respond forcefully to alarming evidence that white-supremacist groups and other extremist organizations might be seeping into the armed forces and targeting uniformed service members and veterans for recruitment, coveting their training in weapons and tactical knowledge.”
The U.S. Marine Corps has led the effort in rooting out this problem in the military and has been recognized for its early banning of the Confederate flag in barracks and zero-tolerance of racist images including tattoos. Following this, the Secretary of Defense banned all flags other than the United States and unit flags from military facilities. We should expand these steps to ensure that we are not creating the very problem that our law enforcement agencies will have to confront. Individuals trained in the U.S. military in combat arms would be the most lethal part of any extremist group that could initiate an American insurgency.
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a retired U.S. Marine, a retired Paramilitary Operations Officer in the CIA’s Special Activities Center, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East. He is currently a Senior Fellow for National Security and Defense Policy with the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, and the Co-founder of the Lobo Institute.