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The U.S. Doesn't Prosecute Far-Right Extremists as Terrorists. Here's How It Could.

If officials at the State Department wanted to address the growing far-right threat, they could.

by Tess Owen
Jun 20 2019, 4:58pm

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Florida teen Andrew Oneschuk once bought a fake passport and a one-way ticket to Kiev to join the Azov Battalion, Ukraine’s far-right paramilitary regiment. His parents foiled his plan, but Azov liked Andrew; a year later, in 2016, they dialed him in to their podcast as a special guest.

Oneschuk went on to become an active member of the violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen. When he was murdered in his Tampa condo in 2017, investigators found bomb-making materials, a copy of “Mein Kampf,” and other white supremacist propaganda.

Aided by their “Western Outreach Center,” Azov has been radicalizing, recruiting, and training American white supremacists for years, according to the FBI. But none of the Americans who allegedly dabbled in foreign extremism with Azov are considered terrorists in the eyes of the U.S. State Department.

Since 9/11, U.S. officials have almost exclusively applied the label of “terrorism” to the threat posed by Islamist jihadists. At the same time, attacks by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS on American soil have declined in recent years, while the far-right has become increasingly violent, organized, and global. The U.S. also currently has no specific statue to address homegrown terrorism.

But if officials at the State Department wanted to address the growing far-right threat, they could, according to counterterrorism experts and former government officials.

By putting far-right foreign groups like Azov on the U.S.’ foreign terror list, the government could potentially prosecute associated domestic groups as terrorists. Right now, prosecutors can generally charge someone with terrorism only if they provide support to one of the 67 foreign terrorist organizations (or “FTOs”) — the vast majority of which are Islamist groups.

"Domestic terrorists are borrowing from the ISIS handbook."

For example, if the State Department had put Azov on the foreign terror list, officials could have charged members of California’s white supremacist Rise Above Movement with “providing material support” to a foreign terrorist organization. Rise Above, a street-fighting club, sent some of its recruits to Ukraine to train alongside Azov in 2018, according to the FBI.

“I think it would be a very positive step for the current administration to use its FTO tool in a way that didn’t solely look at Islamist, jihadist, and Salafi organizations,” said Jason Blazakis, a former State Department official who ran foreign terror designation efforts and now directs the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute on International Studies.

A spokesperson said the State Department doesn’t “discuss deliberations or the potential deliberations of our designations process.” But the government is well aware of Azov’s extremist leanings. In March 2018, Congress tacked on a provision to its spending bill that barred the U.S. from arming Azov in the fight against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine because of the militia’s ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

“A wake-up call”

Between 2009 and 2018, right-wing extremists, like white nationalists, accounted for 73% of extremist murders, compared to 23% by jihadis, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hate in America.

Though the FBI has described the threat as “persistent and pervasive,” President Donald Trump has said he doesn’t consider white nationalism an urgent security issue. His administration has also slashed programs designed to combat violent extremism.

Counterterrorism experts have highlighted another worrying trend: While the majority of far-right outfits in the U.S. are shoddy and poorly funded, others have become increasingly sophisticated through building international alliances online, where they share resources, training, ideas, and propaganda.

“This is something that all of us working in the space of terrorism are talking about now,” said Meredith Stricker, executive director of the Soufan Center, which researches global security issues.

The attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March were a turning point for counterterrorism experts, according to Stricker. The shooter, a 28-year-old Australian man, posted a lengthy manifesto to the imageboard site 8chan, in which he flaunted a deep familiarity with the core ideas and thought leaders of the modern far-right.

“This was a wake up call, if not a warning bell, to those of us working in this space,” Stricker said.

The Soufan Center also identified ties between the New Zealand shooter and the Azov Battalion. In his manifesto, the shooter claimed he’d visited Ukraine during his travels abroad and adorned his flak jacket with the black sun, a neo-Nazi symbol commonly used by Azov. (Azov has refuted Soufan’s reporting and stated that the group had no relation to the New Zealand shooter.)

But researchers say that organizations like Azov are looking to Islamist terror groups for recruitment tips.

“There are striking resemblances between al-Qaeda’s Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) and the Azov Battalion’s ‘Western Outreach Office,” wrote Soufan Center in a March bulletin, “both of which had the responsibility for promoting the cause and helping recruits reach the battlefield.”

In another example of the far-right spreading its tentacles across the globe, Atomwaffen is believed to be active or have affiliates in Germany, the U.K., and Canada. International authorities have linked the group to at least five killings in three U.S. states between 2017 and 2018, including Oneschuck in Florida. But the Atomwaffen-linked killings have been prosecuted as murder or hate crimes — not terrorism.

Casting a wider net

Since 9/11, the State Department has designated 48 groups as foreign terrorist organizations, 43 of which were Islamist extremist groups. Broadly, the organizations have to be overseas, possess the intent and capabilities to carry out terror attacks, and pose a threat to U.S. national interests.

The remaining five groups are a mixed bag. Among them are a Greek anarcho-Communist group that bombed government buildings in Athens, the armed wing of the Philippines' communist party, the Continuity Ireland Republican Army — which targeted British security forces with bombings — and a secular coalition of armed groups operating in the West Bank.

Most recently, the Trump administration designated the Revolutionary Guard — a powerful arm of Iran’s military — as a foreign terrorist group in April. That was the first time the had U.S. labeled an official part of another nation’s government as terrorists. Early Thursday morning, the Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone.

If the Trump administration designated far-right foreign groups as terrorists, officials could cast an even wider net both abroad and at home.

Take the U.K.-based neo-Nazi group, National Action. The U.K.’s Home Office designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2016 — the first time the British government had flagged a far-right group as such since World War II.

“I know [National Action] was on the radar,” Blazakis recalled from his time at the State Department. “I looked into the group myself, but there wasn't any interest.”

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James Alex Fields Jr., left, holds a black shield in Charlottesville, Va., where a white supremacist rally took place. (Alan Goffinski via AP, File)

Researchers from the U.K.’s Hope Not Hate, an anti-fascism advocacy group, have identified links between National Action’s various aliases and American extremists. In particular, the group found an overlap with U.S. neo-Nazi group Vanguard America. James Alex Fields, an alleged member of that group, drove his car into a crowd of protesters and killed Heather Heyer after the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

Despite carrying the logo of a white nationalist group with suspected ties to National Action during the rally, Fields wasn’t hit with any terrorism-related charges. He was convicted of murder and has pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges.

Experts say that designating far-right groups, like National Action, as terrorist organizations would give investigators additional tools needed to infiltrate foreign extremist networks.

“It would be easier for law enforcement to use undercover informants to pose as a far-right foreign-based extremist who claim they’re part of that organization,” Blazakis said. “And that person could try to become part of a domestic organization, insert him or herself into the organization, and learn about it.”

But not everyone thinks that designations for foreign terror organizations should function as a back door to target domestic groups in the U.S. Using that system against far-right extremism could invite the potential for abuse — especially given the heightened political climate in the U.S.

For example, the black-clad activists organizing under the internationally recognized banner of “antifa” are a favorite boogieman of the GOP and right-wing media, who have regularly attempted to draw a moral equivalence between the leftist movement and far-right extremists. Antifa activists often damage property and engage in sometimes violent confrontations with fascists or police. But to date, antifa has been linked to zero murders.

“Part of the challenge is once you get into the far-right territory, there’s a slippery slope. And that’s because of the amorphous concept of far-right,” said Eric Rosand, a former senior counterterrorism official at the State Department who now works at the Brookings Institute.

There’s also a question of whether the foreign terror designation system would even be an effective way to combat the current threat. At the recent congressional hearing on the threat of white supremacy, intelligence officials acknowledged that the domestic terror threat had morphed since 9/11.

At that time, the FBI was dealing with “sophisticated, externally directed plots,” said the bureau’s assistant director of counterterrorism Michael McGarrity. Now, agents deal with “self-radicalized lone actors” who “often act without specific guidance from a group.”

“Domestic terrorists are borrowing from the ISIS handbook by using social media to recruit, radicalize and inspire Americans to violence,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who oversees threat prevention policy at DHS, at a recent congressional hearing on white supremacy.

Cover image: Combatants of Ukrainian Azov battalion pray near Bohdan Khmelnytsky monument before they were sent on a theater of ATO. (Photo by Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto) (Photo by NurPhoto/Corbis via Getty Images)

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