Since the September 11 attacks, the notion of terrorism has looked somewhat one-dimensional in United States public discourse, with the majority of Americans coming to think of political violence as the acts of organized, foreign groups — from al Qaeda in the early 2000s to Islamic State (IS) today.
This frequently one-dimensional understanding of terrorism in the US has led both the public and law enforcement to overlook a very different kind of homegrown threat — one posed by antigovernment radicals, white supremacists, and other domestic and far-right ideologues.
In both cases — radical Islamism and far right extremism — a majority of terrorist attacks on US soil have been at the hands of individual "lone wolves" acting outside established groups. But violence caused by far right extremism has surpassed that caused by domestic "jihadis," according to a study published last month by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Still, much of the public's attention — and law enforcement's efforts — focus on the latter, the civil rights group said ahead of last month's White House summit on countering violent extremism.
"We felt that the report demonstrated pretty clearly that some attention should be paid to the domestic radical right," Ryan Lenz, a writer at the SPLC's Intelligence Project, told VICE News. "The domestic radical right has killed more people than radical Islam since 9/11 in the United States, without a doubt."
The report — titled "The Age of the Wolf," in reference to the lone nature of most attacks — surveyed violence carried out between April 1, 2009, and February 1, 2015, for a total of 63 victims of terrorism — ranging from migrants, to abortion providers, to FBI agents, to the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.
Almost half of the attacks during that time were apparently motivated by antigovernment sentiment, mostly carried out by people subscribing to the so-called "patriot" movement, while the other half came from ideologies of hate — ranging from white supremacy, to misogyny and anti-abortion ideologies, to radical Islamism.
That diversity of motives and ideology is hardly reflected in current conversations about homegrown violent extremism, the study suggests.
"It probably has a lot to do with national myopia: because of the severity of 9/11 there are blinders on regarding everything else," Lenz said. "Some people think that it's easier to focus on Muslims than it is on white Christians… I think it has a lot to do with the fact that in an effort to address the threat of radical Islam, people have forgotten that there are terrorists here at home too."
Still, defining and addressing "terrorism" remains an inexact science, the study claims. For instance, researchers had to determine whether in some cases ideology overrode mental illness, or the other way around.
"There are people that argue that antigovernment ideologies or other ideologies are in essence mental illnesses," Lenz noted.
While a majority of violent crimes are committed by young offenders — disproportionately within the 15 to 24 age group — ideological violence tends to be the work of a slighter older group, suggesting that "that perpetrators spend many years on the radical right, absorbing extremist ideology, before finally acting out violently," according to the study.
Researchers also found that the assailants — overwhelmingly male — used firearms in 59 percent of the cases, and explosives, arson, and other weapons in the remaining cases. That marks a shift from previous years, likely because procuring the material necessary to build explosives has become increasingly difficult, Lenz notes, while procuring guns is not.
Unifying attackers across the political spectrum was the propensity to act alone, after having cultivated one's radical ideology mostly online, rather than in physical meetings.
Seventy-four percent of the attacks surveyed were carried out by individuals acting alone — and 90 percent of them were carried out by two or less individuals — a growing challenge for law enforcement attempting to monitor and predict such attacks.
Instead, traditional hate group like the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, have struggled to stay relevant.
"The Klan is still a shadow of what it was, it's very much trying to reassert itself as a legitimate hate group and a legitimate presence in a field that is ever expanding," Lenz said. "What we are seeing is that the Klan will come into a situation that's already racially tense and they'll paper the community with fliers. But that's all their doing, they're just trying to enhance their national image by capitalizing on these situations."
But if the nature of lone wolf attacks has been a challenge for authorities, officials have also neglected domestic terrorism, the report alleges.
According to the report, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) team devoted to non-Islamic domestic terrorism all but fell apart in the aftermath of a 2009 report in which it highlighted the resurgence of the radical right in the aftermath of Obama's 2008 election.
That report was ferociously attacked by conservatives, forcing Janet Napolitano — DHS secretary at the time — to apologize for it, and resulting in the "virtual disbandment" of the department's work on non-Islamic domestic terrorism. The DHS did not immediately respond to VICE News' request for comment.
The report also noted that in recent years the FBI has published a number of reports on domestic terrorism, and that the Department of Justice has pledged to resurface its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, which has been dormant for the last decade. But so far, little has moved.
"On a federal level there is no agency that is working specifically on [non-Islamic] domestic terrorist threats, almost all of them are looking at foreign-oriented threat," Lenz said. "There is a need for that to come back."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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