UPDATE, Aug. 14, 2017: We’re resurfacing this story in the wake of violence between white supremacists and counterprotesters over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, that has left one dead and dozens injured.
An early high-water mark of Donald Trump’s presidency came Feb. 28, with his first address to Congress. Midway through the speech, the new president turned to national security: “We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from” – and here he paused for emphasis – “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Those words got him a standing ovation. A week later, he unveiled his second executive order banning entry for people from several Muslim-majority nations.
Trump frequently had excoriated his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and his chief political opponent, Hillary Clinton, as naive, even gutless, for preferring “violent extremism” to describe the nature of the global and domestic terrorist threat.
“Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” Trump said at one campaign speech in Ohio. During another, in Philadelphia, he drove home the attack: “We now have an administration and a former secretary of state who refuse to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ ”
It was a strange place to make his point. The only Islamist terror attack in Pennsylvania over the past 15 years was committed by Edward Archer, a mentally ill man who shot and injured a police officer in early 2016, later telling investigators that he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Far-right episodes of violent extremism were far more common.
Just two years before Trump’s Pennsylvania speech, anti-government radical Eric Matthew Frein ambushed two police officers in the township of Blooming Grove, killing one and wounding another, then led law enforcement authorities on a 48-day manhunt in the woods. (He was sentenced to death in April.)
Two months before that, police discovered that Eric Charles Smith, who ran a white supremacist church out of his home in the borough of Baldwin, had built a stockpile of some 20 homemade bombs.
In 2011, Eli Franklin Myers, an anti-government survivalist, shot two police officers, killing one, before being shot dead by state troopers in the small town of Webster. And in 2009, white supremacist Richard Poplawski opened fire on Pittsburgh police officers who had responded to a domestic dispute at his mother’s home, killing three and leaving two injured before surrendering. Poplawski, who was active on far-right websites, said he feared the police represented a plot by Obama to take away Americans’ guns.
This contrast, between Trump’s rhetoric and the reality of domestic terrorism, extends far beyond Pennsylvania. A database of nine years of domestic terrorism incidents compiled by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has produced a very different picture of the threat than that advanced by the current White House.
Explore domestic terror incidents across the US.
- From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
- During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
- Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
- Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities – making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.
Yet as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out in early February, Trump has yet to acknowledge the threat of right-wing violence:
Long before the 9/11 attacks, the worst terrorist attack on American territory occurred at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and co-conspirator Terry Nichols were unabashed radical right-wing terrorists. But check the record. You won’t hear Trump use those words.
Instead, with his statements, policies and personnel, the president has exhibited an obsession with the Islamist threat to the homeland.
As a candidate, Trump promised to institute a “shutdown of Muslims.” As president, he has signed two executive orders barring immigrants and refugees from a list of Muslim-majority nations, both blocked by the courts.
Two of his most influential advisers, who he brought with him into the White House, were retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn – who, before his short-lived tenure as national security adviser, had a record of making such incendiary remarks as, “Fear of Muslims is rational,” and, “I don’t see Islam as a religion” – and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who had called Islam a “religion of submission” and stoked fears that radical Muslims seek to create an “Islamic States of America.”
Trump brought in other figures associated with the demonization of Islam, from transition team adviser Frank Gaffney to national security adviser Sebastian Gorka.
While the president mostly failed to acknowledge a wave of post-election hate crimes targeting Muslims, Jewish institutions and communities of color, his team planned changes to the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program to focus it exclusively on the threat of Muslim radicals, including changing the program’s name to Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.
The president sometimes has appeared to grasp for data to justify this narrow approach. Intense protests and rapid court challenges greeted his first travel ban. By the time of his second, signed March 6, his staff had compiled information to justify it.
“According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country,” he claimed in the speech to Congress a week before signing the order. “We cannot allow our nation to become a sanctuary for extremists.”
But in examining incidents from 2008 through 2016, we could identify only 36 perpetrators or alleged perpetrators who were foreign born, 13 percent of the total. And only three came from a nation listed in his second travel ban. A Department of Homeland Security analysis likewise found that citizens of nations named in the ban are “rarely implicated in U.S.-based terrorism.”
The White House did not respond to interview requests or to detailed written queries.
Trump’s March executive order cites two specific terrorism convictions to bolster its claim that refugees constitute a significant threat to the United States:
For example, in January 2013, two Iraqi nationals admitted to the United States as refugees in 2009 were sentenced to 40 years and to life in prison, respectively, for multiple terrorism-related offenses. And in October 2014, a native of Somalia who had been brought to the United States as a child refugee and later became a naturalized United States citizen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction as part of a plot to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.
On closer inspection, even those examples are flawed. The first involved two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were convicted on charges of supporting terrorism in Iraq, not in the United States. (It was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway who had a month earlier mistaken the incident as an act of domestic terrorism she dubbed the “Bowling Green massacre.”) Moreover, people from Iraq were not barred by the March executive order.
The second case is one of the three incidents in our database involving people from countries included in the executive order, all of them from Somalia. Two of the incidents were pre-empted plots, one of which – the Portland “Christmas tree bomber” case the order cites – was an elaborate sting operation.
That sting targeted 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized citizen who grew up in Portland and suburban Beaverton, Oregon, having arrived as a refugee from Somalia’s civil war at age 3. Educated at local schools, he showed little interest in religion or politics until his teens, when he began attending services at a mosque led by a Wahhabi cleric in Portland.
Alienated at home, where his parents were going through a divorce, Mohamud began to visit extremist websites and, at 18, declared that he was heading off to a religious school in Yemen. His father panicked and called the FBI for help, setting in motion surveillance and, ultimately, the sting.
Mohamud was arrested at the annual Christmas tree lighting at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland on Nov. 26, 2010, after trying to detonate a fake truck bomb supplied by undercover FBI agents. Convicted of a single count of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction, he was sentenced to 30 years.
The response to Mohamud’s father’s call for help – surveillance and a sting – underscores another disparity: the federal government’s disproportionate commitment of investigative resources to rooting out Islamist terrorism.
Even against this backdrop, the sting operation targeting Mohamud stood out.
No evidence was introduced in court that Mohamud had ever owned a weapon, participated in a political action or had any previous encounters with law enforcement. The FBI had not gleaned evidence that Mohamud even sought information about how to build a bomb.
He likely would have been incapable of attempting the crime without the financial, logistical and motivational support of the FBI informants and agents. In fact, a few weeks before the Christmas tree lighting, an FBI agent assigned to the case wrote that Mohamud “would not make any attempts to conduct a terrorist attack without specific direction from the (undercover employees).”
Evidence was even introduced at trial that FBI operatives had blocked him from traveling to a cannery job in Alaska to keep him involved in the plot they had designed.
By contrast, less than two days after the Christmas tree sting, another Oregon youth, Cody Seth Crawford, then 24, launched a homemade firebomb into the offices of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis, Oregon, a mosque where Mohamud sometimes prayed. The bomb caused thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, though no injuries.
Crawford had written anti-Muslim screeds on Facebook in the wake of Mohamud’s arrest: “I ha te (sic) the ji-had’st (sic), they should go and realize what life is about!!! This guy on the news was a really bad guy !!! He went to the mosque right in front of my house here in Corvali (sic).” When he was arrested, according to court documents, he told his arresting officer, “you look like Obama. You are a Muslim like him” who is “going to burn in Hell like other Muslims.”
Citing Crawford’s history of mental illness, a federal judge sentenced him to five years’ probation, and he is now free.
“I consider what happened in my case a total victory for me,” Crawford recently told Reveal. “I kicked the federal government’s ass in court.”
The Crawford case highlights something else in the data: While perpetrators of plots or attacks targeting on the broader public received three life sentences, seven death sentences and, among definite sentences, an average of 14.5 years in prison, no perpetrator of a plot or attack targeting a mosque or Muslims was ever sentenced to life or death, and they were sentenced, on average, to under nine years.
Muslims, it seems, are taken quite seriously as potential perpetrators, but far less so as victims.
More than a million violent crimes are committed each year in the United States, while annual domestic terrorism incidents number in the dozens. Yet acts of terrorism have a special significance, said former FBI agent Michael German, because each one not only targets particular victims, but also “is an attack on civil society itself.”
What distinguishes an act of terrorism from a violent crime, explains former federal counterterror official Daryl Johnson, is the ideological component of “the perpetrator’s motivation, his ideology and what he wanted the outcome to be. There needs to be a desire to instill fear among the general public, change government policy, or draw attention to a political or social cause.”
Domestic counterterrorism work is centered at the FBI. The bureau has a Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit plus an analysis unit, which together have dozens of personnel working out of FBI headquarters in Washington, according to law enforcement sources. These agents and analysts support the FBI’s 56 field offices, each of which has at least one analyst dedicated to domestic terrorism, as well as Joint Terrorism Task Forces in 104 cities.
The FBI coordinates with a variety of federal agencies – such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service – that work domestic terrorism cases on an ad hoc basis. Other terrorist plots and acts are investigated and prosecuted only by state or local officials, who often bring more straightforward charges, such as murder, assault or arson. Still other terror cases never are prosecuted at all because no suspect is identified or the perpetrators are killed in the act.
But according to Johnson, who joined the Department of Homeland Security in 2004, the FBI formally tracks only the cases the FBI investigates itself – which risks leaving out many incidents that fit the federal criteria for domestic terrorism.
Johnson recalls a meeting in 2008 with his counterparts at FBI headquarters, where he talked about the militia movement resurgence that he and his colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security had noticed, based on tracking online activity and incident reports from state and local law enforcement.
“Well, the FBI checked their case data, and the FBI had only a half-dozen militia cases, and they compared that to the previous year, and there was no change, so to them, the militia threat was static,” Johnson said. “We saw the emergence of the second wave of the militia movement, and the FBI had no clue there was a second wave coming.”
The FBI declined to respond to an interview request or to detailed written queries.
While a variety of think tanks and journalistic organizations have compiled data that capture fragments of the domestic terrorism picture – Islamist attacks (The Heritage Foundation), deadly domestic terror attacks (the think tank New America), attacks on abortion clinics (the National Abortion Federation) and far-right plots and attacks (the Southern Poverty Law Center) – The Investigative Fund database is the only one that gathers incidents that span the full range of ideologies and that includes both plots and attacks and both federal and local prosecutions. It also catalogues each incident according to a diverse range of variables, such as target, ideology, movement affiliation, sentence, and whether federal charges or terrorism charges were filed. (See our methodology here.)
The database vividly illustrates the ways in which Islamist incidents have received disproportionate attention from federal law enforcement.
While a majority of the incidents were perpetrated by right-wing extremists (57 percent), the database indicates that federal law enforcement agencies focused their energies on pre-empting and prosecuting Islamist attacks, which constituted 31 percent of all incidents, a finding confirmed by counterterror experts.
For instance, 84 percent of Islamist incidents resulting in arrests involved terrorism charges, and all the law enforcement resources that implies, as opposed to 9 percent of far-right incidents.
While federal charges of some kind were filed in 91 percent of the Islamist incidents that led to arrests, federal prosecutors handled 60 percent of far-right cases, leaving many in the hands of state or local authorities.
Moreover, three-quarters of the Islamist incidents in the database were pre-empted plots, including elaborate sting operations, while 35 percent of far-right incidents were pre-empted, a much smaller ratio. That disparity, counterterror experts say, is an indication that far fewer investigative resources – such as analysts, paid informants and undercover operatives – have been deployed to halt far-right attacks.
Yet even though most Islamists were charged only in connection with plots, they often were sentenced as harshly as or more harshly than right-wing extremists, who mostly succeeded in committing acts of terror. Among the Islamist cases, 8 percent got life sentences, 2 percent got death sentences, and the average sentence for the other cases was 21 years in prison. Among far-right cases, 12 percent got life sentences, 5 percent got death sentences, and the average sentence for the rest was eight years.
German, the former FBI agent, is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security program and tours the country briefing local and federal law enforcement officers on domestic terror. In his presentations, he cautions officers against a worldview that “only sees a terrorist if he’s wearing a turban” and is blind to the threat from far-right extremists.
“The thing that strikes me most often is not just that they don’t know this information, but that they actively resist it,” he said. “They are incredibly hostile to it. That’s troubling to me. Not only are police given bad information, but they are trained or inclined to resist true information.
“When violence by minorities is characterized as terrorism, and therefore requiring more resources and more attention, but violence against minorities somehow doesn’t merit that same attention or resources, that is where we see overt discrimination.”
Consider, for example, the following incident in light of the investigative resources put into the Christmas tree sting in Oregon or any of dozens of other complex operations targeting would-be Islamist attackers: the June 8, 2014, rampage in Las Vegas by so-called Patriot movement extremists Jerad and Amanda Miller. They gunned down two police officers in a pizzeria, leaving a swastika and “Don’t tread on me” flag on one of the dead before killing a nearby civilian who attempted to intervene. Both were killed in a shootout with police.
Prior to their rampage, the Millers had left a public trail of warning signs suggesting that they posed a likely threat, yet there’s no indication that a single law enforcement officer or informant was ever assigned to monitor them.
The couple had drifted to Nevada from Indiana five months earlier. Not long after arriving, Jerad Miller was pulled over and ticketed for driving with a suspended license; he responded by calling the Indiana Department of Motor Vehicles, threatening to shoot anyone who tried to arrest him. The call triggered a visit by Las Vegas detectives who questioned Miller but reported no “ongoing or potential threat.”
The Millers then joined the anti-government standoff with law enforcement at the Bundy Ranch in April 2014, where Jerad Miller, who had several past convictions, including one for auto theft, was filmed by news cameras brandishing weapons – illegal for a convicted felon – and promising to retaliate if federal officers “bring violence to us.” The Bundys say they asked the couple to leave because their views were so fringe.
Throughout this period, Jerad Miller was posting anti-government rants on Facebook and YouTube under the username USATruePatriot, including one in the days before the killings that read, “To stop this oppression, I fear, can only be accomplished with bloodshed.”
Even after the rampage, terrorism was not the law enforcement focus. Instead, the Justice Department’s after-action report focused narrowly on the Las Vegas Police Department’s tactical response on the day of the shooting.
“If the Millers had placed ISIS flags over those police officers, instead of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag, what you probably would have seen is a deep investigation into where they got their weapons, and who they were associated with, and who knew they had the weapons and follow-on prosecutions,” German said.
Daryl Johnson is the picture of a federal intelligence analyst: conservative, detail-oriented, fact-driven and relentlessly serious. A Mormon and a Republican, he grew up in Virginia, attended Brigham Young University and began his intelligence career in the Army. He had long enjoyed a reputation as a no-nonsense analyst with a knack for getting it right.
“I wanted to make the country a safer place,” he said. “I have always been a good, red-blooded American patriot.”
When Johnson moved from Army intelligence to work in the intelligence division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 1999, federal counterterrorism efforts were focused heavily on far-right radicals. This was in the wake of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured 680; Eric Rudolph’s 1996 backpack bombing of the Atlanta Olympics, which killed one person and injured 111, followed by his bombings months later of a lesbian nightclub and an abortion clinic; and white supremacist Benjamin Smith’s 1999 shooting spree directed at blacks, Asians and Jews in cities across Illinois and Indiana, which left two people dead and nine wounded.
In his book “Right-Wing Resurgence,” Johnson recalls driving to the site of the Oklahoma City federal building a few months after it was destroyed, where he saw “the makeshift memorial of teddy bears, flowers, and handwritten notes to those that perished,” he writes. The photo he took that day “serves as a constant reminder … of the terrifying threat of homegrown extremism.”
The attack also served as a national wake-up call.
“Threats from domestic terrorism continue to build as militia extremists,
particularly those operating in the western United States, gain new adherents,
stockpile weapons, and prepare for armed conflict with the federal government,” warned a report that the FBI’s Counterterrorism Threat Assessment and Warning Unit issued in 1996. “The potential for domestic right-wing terrorism remains a threat.”
The landscape changed dramatically after 9/11. Those attacks, coordinated by al-Qaida, heralded a fresh wave of international terrorist attacks and plots that required high levels of attention from federal authorities.
For several years after the trauma of that day, right-wing domestic terrorism subsided. A 2011 Heritage Foundation study, based on terrorism data collected by the RAND Corp., found that between 2001 and 2009, there were 91 homegrown terrorist attacks of all kinds against the United States, while there were 380 terrorist attacks against U.S. targets abroad. The terror threat seemed to have gone global.
Sept. 11 also sparked a massive rearrangement of the federal terrorism response, including the creation in 2002 of the Department of Homeland Security, under whose auspices federal counterterrorism efforts were to be combined. Johnson, from his perch at the ATF, could see the writing on the wall as the agency’s intelligence-gathering division underwent a major downshift.
Listen to the podcast
“I resisted for a while, but joined DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) in 2004 just as it opened up its new domestic terrorism division,” he said.
He was recruited specifically for his background in non-Islamist terrorism, he recalls. By 2008, he says, he was overseeing an office with eight full-time analysts dedicated to tackling non-Islamist domestic terror threats. However, Johnson says that over time, in the face of “political pressure,” the section was dismantled.
The trend lines made no sense. Johnson’s staff was being downsized just as his team was observing a fresh uptick in domestic terrorism from right-wing radicals.
“The United States is engaged in a generational fight against terrorists who seek to attack the American people, our country, and our way of life,” David Lapan, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, wrote in an email. “We reject criticism that DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) is overly focused on any particular group or element as we concentrate on all threats of terrorism to the Homeland.”
Lapan said that for the past two years, the department has used a national terrorism advisory bulletin “to highlight the continuing threat from all forms of terrorism, including homegrown violent extremists, many of whom are inspired online to violence by foreign terrorist organizations.”
What especially caught the attention of law enforcement analysts during Johnson’s tenure was far-right extremists’ increasing recruitment of members of the military and experienced veterans. That raised red flags, because if these recruits were radicalized into planning acts of terror, they would have the skills to execute them, as the examples of McVeigh and Rudolph, both military veterans, suggested.
Warnings included a July 2008 FBI assessment, titled, “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel since 9/11.” Though the report found that the number of identifiable neo-Nazis with military training was small, a little over 200, it added:
Military experience – ranging from failure at basic training to success in special operations forces – is found throughout the white supremacist extremist movement. FBI reporting indicates extremist leaders have historically favored recruiting active and former military personnel for their knowledge of firearms, explosives, and tactical skills and their access to weapons and intelligence in preparation for an anticipated war against the federal government, Jews, and people of color.
Johnson’s section noticed the same trend and produced a bulletin that was circulated in April 2009 to law enforcement officers around the nation. It alerted them to the rising risk of terrorist attacks by right-wing extremists and noted that the Department of Homeland Security “is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”
Unlike the FBI assessment, Johnson’s bulletin was distributed during the early months of the new Obama administration. This time, a media firestorm erupted. Conservative radio and television hosts from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Savage and Glenn Beck denounced the report, claiming it was “singling out troops” for vilification, along with “normal conservatives” who might share the same concerns that animated the radicals identified in the bulletin, such as opposition to abortion and federal control over public lands. On Fox News, William Kristol charged that Obama administration officials “think about veterans” as “pathological killers.” Once the American Legion, too, denounced the report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued an apology.
The blowback had powerful long-term effects on the shape of counterterrorism policy. Because of the increasing focus on Islamist terrorism, Johnson’s team already had been reduced.
After the controversy, the office was stripped down to one full-time staffer; Johnson himself departed in April 2010. Efforts to counter far-right terror at the department were effectively dead. As The Washington Post later reported:
The analytical unit that produced that report has been effectively eviscerated. Much of its work – including a digest of domestic terror incidents and the distribution of definitions for terms such as “white supremacist” and “Christian Identity” – has been blocked.
The office employed only two full-time analysts for the rest of the Obama years. That small team hasn’t grown since the new administration arrived. Lapan, the homeland security spokesman, declined to provide specifics on personnel but confirmed that the department has “a small team of analysts dedicated to domestic terrorism.”
Congress also played a role in pushing counterterrorism work to focus exclusively on the threat of radical Islamist ideology. When the House Homeland Security Committee held hearings on domestic terrorism in early 2011, the committee chairman, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, announced that they would have a narrow scope:
This Committee cannot live in denial, which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed by the Justice Department’s own record not one terror related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or anti-war groups.
In fact, during the two years preceding King’s hearing, The Investigative Fund database includes 27 terror incidents involving far-right forces and two involving animal rights extremists. In the two months before King made these remarks, a neo-Nazi left a backpack bomb along the intended path of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Washington, and another was arrested in Phoenix with a truckload of homemade bombs he intended to leave near the Mexico border. None of these were mentioned in the Justice Department report King cited.
King’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, urged King to examine “the homeland security threat posed by anti-government and white supremacist groups” and warned against “a narrow focus that excludes known threats.”
It was white supremacist Wade Michael Page’s rampage in Wisconsin the following year, in which he gunned down six Sikhs at worship, that finally moved the Senate to hold hearings on right-wing extremism. Johnson, by now a former counterterror official, was invited to testify.
“The threat from domestic terrorism motivated by extremist ideologies is often dismissed and overlooked in the national media and within the U.S. government. Yet we are currently seeing an upsurge in domestic non-Islamic extremist activity,” he said. “Today, the bulk of violent domestic activity emanates from the right wing.”
While federal officials were turning their attention away from the far right, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, had noticed something dramatic. While most such groups had collapsed after 9/11, the law center noticed an explosion of so-called Patriot groups that began in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, and reached a peak in 2012, when the group counted 1,360 active Patriot groups and 1,007 hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads and neo-Nazis.
According to our database, during this same period, from 2008 to 2013, terror plots and actions by far-right groups outnumbered Islamist domestic terror cases by more than 2 to 1. Far-right extremists also inflicted three times as many deaths as Islamists during this period.
In October 2015, the Department of Justice belatedly announced plans to tackle the problem by creating a new domestic terrorism counsel to lead a long-dormant office intended to track trends and increase intelligence sharing about potential threats among U.S. attorney’s offices nationwide.
“Looking back over the past few years,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in making the announcement, “we recognize that according to at least one study more people died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than attacks associated with international terrorist groups.”
Eventually, FBI official Thomas Brzozowski was named to the position, which he used as a platform to raise awareness about the full scope of domestic terror threats.
“It is not just a function of a couple of militia-related guys taking over something out West. It’s not just a bunch of white supremacist in white hoods,” he told an audience at George Washington University in October. “It is not relegated toward a particular ideology. In fact, the nature of the underlying ideology is immaterial to how we approach domestic terrorism.”
The Department of Justice says he remains in the position, but he did not respond to interview requests and appears not to have spoken publicly since the Trump administration took office.
By now, the steady drumbeat of terror plots and attacks from the far right has begun to attract renewed attention, among them incidents involving the “sovereign citizens” movement, white supremacists, Patriot and militia movements, and anti-abortion fanatics, including some radical Christians. Their targets are police and military, Sikhs and Muslims, African Americans and Jews, power grids and transit hubs, abortion clinics and black churches and immigrant communities.
Despite law enforcement concerns about lethal attacks against police sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement – captured in the slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” along with dozens of bills extending hate crimes protections to police – only two incidents of domestic terrorism in the database can plausibly be attributed to a perpetrator with such sympathies. They are the December 2014 killings of two police officers in their patrol car in New York City and the July 2016 sniper shooting in Dallas, which left five officers dead and nine wounded.
Adherents of sovereign citizen ideology – whose animus against what they see as an illegitimate police state can be so extreme that they have been known to open fire on officers at traffic stops – pose a far more extensive threat to law enforcement officers. The FBI, in a 2011 report, had said the sovereign citizen threat “likely will grow.” Sovereign citizens alone, according to the database, have been responsible for 14 attacks on law enforcement from 2008 to 2016, which led to the deaths of nine officers and injuries to 12. Of the 40 total plots and attacks targeting police, 83 percent involved right-wing anti-government extremists, resulting in 23 fatalities.
The database catalogues an enormous number of far-right incidents, averaging more than a dozen a year. Consider this sampling, only one of which, the last, was prosecuted as terrorism:
July 27, 2008, Knoxville, Tennessee: Jim David Adkisson, the author of a manifesto urging violent war against liberals, opens fire inside a Unitarian church during the youth performance of a musical, killing two and wounding seven.
Feb. 26, 2009, Miramar Beach, Florida: Dannie Baker, a former Republican Party volunteer who believed that “Washington D.C. Dictators” wanted to “overthrow us with foreign illegals,” opens fire on a roomful of Chilean foreign-exchange students, killing two and injuring three. May 20, 2010, West Memphis, Arkansas: Sovereign citizen adherents Jerry and Joe Kane, a father-and-son duo, kill two officers when pulled over by police, then die in a shootout.
Jan. 18, 2011, Spokane, Washington: Neo-Nazi Kevin William Harpham plants a backpack bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Day Jr. Day parade; no one is injured because it is spotted and defused.
Aug. 5, 2012, Oak Creek, Wisconsin: Wade Michael Page, a member of the neo-Nazi group Hammerskin Nation, kills six and wounds four during a shooting rampage in a Sikh temple before killing himself.
April 13, 2014, Overland Park, Kansas: Frazier Glenn Miller, a former grand dragon of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, embarks on a shooting rampage at two Jewish community institutions, killing three.
June 17, 2015, Charleston, South Carolina: Dylann Roof, a white supremacist radicalized online, joins a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church, then opens fire, killing nine black worshippers and wounding another.
Nov. 27, 2015, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Robert Lewis Dear opens fire on patients arriving at a Planned Parenthood clinic, then engages in a gunbattle with police, killing three people, including a police officer, and injuring nine. He says, “No more baby parts,” as he is arrested.
Oct. 14, 2016, Garden City, Kansas: Three Kansas militia members, Curtis Allen, Gavin Wright and Patrick Stein, are arrested for allegedly plotting to bomb an apartment complex, home to Somali immigrants. According to the FBI, which infiltrated the group, they called Muslims “cockroaches” and hoped to inspire other militia members.
Allen, Wright and Stein not only stockpiled a huge cache of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition, but they also plotted to construct and detonate four Oklahoma City-style truck bombs loaded with fertilizer and fuel in the center of the residential complex, then shoot survivors as they fled.
The scheduled day for their attack: Nov. 9, the day after the 2016 election. The men were motivated, Stein’s attorney said, by their belief that if Trump were to win, Obama would declare martial law to prevent him from taking office. In a voice recording of one of the plotters:
The only fucking way this country’s ever going to get turned around is it will be a bloodbath, and it will be a nasty, messy motherfucker. Unless a lot more people in this country wake up and smell the fucking coffee and decide they want this country back … we might be too late, if they do wake up. … I think we can get it done. But it ain’t going to be nothing nice about it.
In responding to news of the men’s arrest, Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, noted “an incredible increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment over the past few years,” particularly “within the ranks of the anti-government movement.” The presidential campaign, she added, has “produced some of the rawest nativist appeals in recent memory.”
She says those appeals might have played a role in the surge of hate incidents since the election, including a wave of anti-Semitic threats and attacks and anti-Muslim hate crimes. Many incidents, she notes, “involved attackers who self-identified as Trump supporters or committed their acts in his name,” such as swastika-laden graffiti saying, “Make America White Again,” or an assault on a Muslim student and his Latino friend in which the attacker shouted Trump’s name.
While Trump, in his February address to Congress, did respond to these incidents in general terms, saying, “We are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms,” his policies appear to have sent a different message. In hundreds of the nearly 1,400 hate incidents around the nation that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted in the three months following the Nov. 8 elections, the perpetrators directly referenced the election or Trump.
In particular, his administration’s decision to focus the Countering Violent Extremism program exclusively on Islamists has been interpreted by many white supremacists as a green light.
“Donald Trump wants to remove us from undue federal scrutiny by removing ‘white supremacists’ from the definition of ‘extremism,’ ” Andrew Anglin, editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, wrote in a post. “Donald Trump is setting us free.” He went on:
It’s fair to say that if the Trump team is not listening to us directly (I assume they are), they are thinking along very similar lines. …This is absolutely a signal of favor to us.
Daryl Johnson, the former intelligence analyst, warns that continuing to focus counterterrorism efforts disproportionately on Islamists risks fueling that threat.
“Muslim Americans already feel targeted and alienated,” he said. Reconfiguring the Countering Violent Extremism program around Islamists “pretty much validates their suspicions” and even risks aggravating extremism within the Muslim community.
“When you turn a blind eye to all the uptick in hate or wait a long time before you even address the hate incidents that we’ve been seeing against Muslims and against the Jewish community,” he said, “I think that just emboldens the far right in thinking that they have free rein to do whatever they want.”