Donald Trump’s presidency was bookended with two of the ugliest outbursts of white nationalist violence in 21st century America – the 2017 far-right rally in Charlottesville and the 2021 storming of the US Capitol by his extremist supporters to sabotage the election results.
Rightwing apologists like to downplay these lethal events or dismiss them as aberrations, but experts warn this is a form of terrorism that’s not only entrenched but has ballooned to become the biggest domestic security threat in the US.
In the 20 years since 9/11, far-right extremists killed more people in the US than did American-based Islamist fundamentalists – but that’s often hard to discern from the way the federal government has treated domestic terrorism.
Earlier this year an intelligence report warned that racially-motivated extremists posed the most lethal domestic terrorism threat. It said the menace was now more serious than potential attacks from overseas, and the White House published a strategy for countering the problem.
The FBI director, Christopher Wray, told Congress that the 6 January insurrection wasn’t an isolated event and “the problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a number of years”.
Wray added that white supremacists comprise “the biggest chunk of our domestic terrorism portfolio overall” and “have been responsible for the most lethal attacks over the last decade”.
But warnings of rightwing extremism have long been minimized. Attention and resources were overwhelmingly channeled into stopping al-Qaida or, later, Isis sending in terrorists from abroad or inspiring radical sympathizers within the US to attack the homeland.
“It’s undeniable that federal law enforcement has underplayed and misunderstood the level of white supremacist violence,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) national security project.
“And that’s in part because of the post-9/11 emphasis on surveillance and investigations of Muslims, immigrants and communities of color whom law enforcement views wrongly and unfairly through a security threat lens,” she added.
Shamsi warned that after anti-government zealot Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City killing 168 and injuring 680 in 1995, the worst terrorism attack on US soil before 9/11, the threat to public safety from white supremacist violence “never went away – and is now escalating”.
Many government and non government experts study the phenomenon of domestic terrorism, reviewing deliberate threats or acts of violence in the US driven by ideological goals that intimidate society.
The New America thinktank in Washington DC, has analyzed the 251 killings it defined as perpetrated by US domestic terrorists since the 9/11 catastrophe.
Its report concluded that far-right extremists killed 114 people spanning more than three dozen violent attacks, while US-based individuals it terms “jihadists” killed 107 people across 14 attacks.
New America considered far-right domestic terrorism to consist of anti-government, militia-related, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violent threats and acts. The thinktank outlined domestic “jihadism” as those espousing versions of the late Osama bin Laden’s ideology aiming at global war to establish theocratic fundamentalist-Islamic regimes, and influenced but not funded or trained by overseas terrorist groups.
The report said: “Far from being foreign infiltrators, the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents” including those involved in “every lethal attack except one” since 9/11.
The Department of Justice cracks down hard on people in the US threatening violence in the name of al-Qaida or Isis or actions such as donating to such groups, bringing terrorism-related charges often resulting in long prison sentences, regardless of whether an attack was carried out.
But despite a landscape of rising white nationalist threats and violence, a 2019 Brennan Center for Justice report found that such attacks have been given “inadequate” regard by the government, charged as lesser crimes of hate or gang violence, not terrorism, with a lack of urgency and consequence, and cases passed from federal to state or local law enforcement.
David Sterman, one of the authors of the New America report, said: “The far right hasn’t been given as much attention as it should be given.”
Its versions of extremism had apparently proved “harder to police” as a threat, in part because of views hewing closer to mainstream US politics, he said, adding that racism “certainly plays a role, and a big role” in enforcement disparities.
Meanwhile, arguments that more laws are needed to deal with white supremacy are spurious, Shamsi has opined – arguing that law enforcement has plenty of legal tools and just needs to use them – and noting that “existing laws and police authority adequately addresses white supremacist violence, and new and unnecessary power will inevitably be used to wrongly target Black and brown people” in the US.
In the public’s mind, the word terrorism may be typically associated with bombings and hijackings, causing mass-casualty events and mentioned in many thwarted plots.
But ideologically-driven shootings count for the vast majority of domestic terrorism deaths in all categories, sometimes with just one victim at a time.
The Oklahoma bombing put a fresh spotlight on far-right domestic terrorism but after 9/11 George W Bush’s administration swung maximum power into fighting Islamist extremists.
During his two terms, while America launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were seven fatal incidents at home categorized in the New America report as far-right terrorism, in total killing 10 and wounding 11, with motives including retaliation for 9/11, anti-gay ideology and white supremacy. There were two fatal incidents described by the thinktank as perpetrated by domestic jihadists, killing three and injuring nine altogether.
Domestic terrorism escalated during Barack Obama’s two terms, especially white nationalism and anti-government violence. In a drip-drip of lethal attacks mostly taking out one to three people per incident, far-right extremists killed 56 people and wounded 40.
In 2009 Obama administration intelligence officials issued a chilling warning to US police about the rise in violent rightwing groups fueled at that time by the economic recession, returning disgruntled military veterans and racist hostility over the election of America’s first Black president.
The warning pretty much drowned in conservative backlash politics. In August 2011, the White House released Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, which it described as the first national strategy to prevent violent extremism domestically. But far right attacks rose.
The Obama administration saw fewer slayings in the name of support for al-Qaida or Isis and their ideologies, but the eight incidents that did occur killed and injured many more in total than far-right attacks – 91 dead and 280 wounded in total, including: the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in Texas by a soldier opposing the Afghanistan war, killing 13; the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 that killed four and injured more than 170; a shooting in San Bernardino, California, in 2015 where two people killed 14 and were found to have bomb-making equipment; and the 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, with 49 shot to death and 53 injured.
Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was marked by his white nationalist rhetoric. He put this into action upon taking office, from the travel ban blocking immigrants from a list of majority-Muslim countries to slashing America’s refugee intake, to solidifying the barrier on the US-Mexico border, while separating families and blocking even asylum seekers there.
Trump emboldened white supremacist groups and far-right terrorism. The dozen lethal far-right terrorist attacks during the Trump administration killed a total of 48 people and injured 59, and included antisemitic and anti-immigrant violence.
By comparison with the 251 post-9/11 domestic terrorism killings, on September 11, 2001 itself, 2,977 people were murdered by al-Qaida hijackers. More than that toll have died since from illnesses related to the toxins unleashed at New York’s Ground Zero.
Meanwhile, almost 640,000 people have died of coronavirus in the US since January 2020; more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US last year and there are almost 20,000 homicides annually, three quarters of them resulting from gun violence and around twice that number of motor vehicle deaths.
But the relatively small death toll from domestic terrorism belies its outsize intimidatory and divisive effects on society.
Since the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last month, Joe Biden has repeatedly referred to varieties of related terrorism “metastasizing” in numerous parts of the world.
It’s unclear just how much of a threat this will be to the US from abroad or from within its own borders going forward.
But Wray using that same word to describe the deepening terrorist threat from the far right at home surely means that on both fronts, America can never claim it wasn’t warned.