Over the past year, far-right extremists bombed a mosque, shared bomb-making materials online, and descended in droves on Charlottesville last August for a rally that left one person dead and dozens injured.
But when the largest annual gathering of FBI agents convenes this weekend — FBI National Academy Associates — attendees will get an earful from someone who thinks the real threat lies with the far left.
Dale Yeager, a forensic profiler and CEO of Seraph Inc., a private consulting firm for law enforcement, has been warning American law enforcement about left-wing extremism since the 1970s. On Tuesday, Yeager will headline the conference with his keynote, “Radical Left-Wing Gangs in America,” focused on "anti-fascist, or antifa, groups and their violent actions against civilians and police agencies in the U.S. and Canada.”
In his mind, the growth of right-wing extremism is a form of fake news; it’s the left, he says, that’s the bigger danger to America. “The United States is in a Second Civil War,” Yeager told VICE News. “We are. The one thing I disagree with is that it’s a cold civil war. There’s violence. And it’s not going to get better.”
But Yeager lays the blame for this at the feet of the fringe left, which he describes as “pseudo and full-blown socialist and neo-Marxist who despise Western civilization and liberal democracy.”
The numbers, however, don’t square with Yeager’s version of reality. According to data analyzed by the Investigative Fund and Reveal, the number of domestic terror cases from 2008 to 2016 — both thwarted and carried out — by far-right groups dramatically outpaced those carried out by leftist or Islamist groups. Their research relied on more than 12 different sources, including FBI and public databases, and collected primary court and law enforcement documents for almost every incident.
Their report found 115 cases of far-right domestic terror during that eight-year period. A third of those cases were foiled by law enforcement, and the fatal ones left a total of 79 people dead. Meanwhile, around three-quarters of the 63 Islamist-inspired terrorism cases were foiled, and the fatal cases resulted in 90 deaths. They also counted 19 cases linked to left-wing extremists, that left seven dead.
“Groups like antifa — yes, they are a nuisance. But on the threat scale, in terms of body count, white nationalists are actually killing people.”
“Groups like antifa — yes, they are a nuisance. Yes, they have hurt police by throwing things, and yes, they destroy property,” said Daryl Johnson, former senior analyst for domestic terrorism at Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis. “But on the threat scale, in terms of body count, white nationalists are actually killing people. So if you’re going to have a keynote speaker talking about a domestic threat, that’s what you need to be talking about.”
The FBI Academy Associates is a nonprofit based in Quantico, Virginia, and claims nearly 20,000 members, a cross-section of federal, state, and local law enforcement from around the world. It aims to coordinate and share materials about current public safety issues, but it also reflects the priorities of the Bureau, and certainly the attitudes of agents in the field.
This year’s conference will take place in Quebec City in Canada, and its agenda makes no mention of far-right extremists, whose resurgence has dominated headlines in recent years, especially after the deadly Unite the Right rally last summer. Far-right groups, from neo-Nazis to right-wing militias, have discussed or plotted bombing immigrant communities, public gatherings, mosques, and infrastructure like water systems or electric power grids.
Dana Ridenour, a former FBI agent who spent much of her 20-year stint at the Bureau as an undercover operative infiltrating left-wing extremist groups, such as the Animal Liberation Front, says the focus of these training conferences tends to reflect the emphasis in the Bureau. “Usually it’s the flavor of the month — whatever the problem area is, is where they tend to pitch resources,” she said. “Of course, the climate changes.”
But the question is whether left-wing groups deserve the Bureau’s focus in an era where right-wing organizations and militias increasingly operate in the open.
In response to a query from VICE News, John Kennedy, director of training and education for the FBI’s National Academy Associates, stressed that it is “not acting on behalf of the FBI.” “The opinions expressed by our speakers are their own and should not be construed to represent the views of the FBINAA or any other organization or agency,” Kennedy wrote in an email.
A joint intelligence bulletin issued May 10, 2017, by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, warned of the “persistent threat of lethal violence” posed by white supremacist extremists. The bulletin underscored the often “spontaneous and opportunistic nature” of white supremacist violence, which can complicate law enforcement intervention. It also noted how white supremacist violence has historically targeted minorities.
“There is no uptick in white supremacy violence. That’s a statistical inaccuracy.”
But Yeager thinks the emphasis on right-wing extremism is misplaced. “There is no uptick in white supremacy violence,” Yeager told VICE News. “That’s a statistical inaccuracy.”
In an interview, Yeager made the argument that far-left extremist groups were growing and posed a more significant threat to public safety than far-right extremist groups. Yeager did not provide data to support that assertion, but after years of having his warnings fall on deaf ears, he now believes he has the Bureau’s attention.
“We have an uptick in left-wing domestic terrorist groups. I talked about this in the early 2000s, and the response I got originally on a federal level was, ‘They’re tree-huggers; they won’t hurt anyone’,” Yeager said. “Nobody was listening. And then, all of a sudden in the last year of the Obama administration, I got a call from the Justice Department asking me to do training again.”
In 2016, during the presidential election season and the same year Yeager says he got a call from Obama’s DOJ, federal authorities started warning state and local officials about the rise in far-left activity, according to internal documents obtained by Politico. The documents, dated April 2016, were part of a joint assessment conducted by Homeland Security and the FBI, which concluded that “anarchist extremists” were instigating violence at public rallies.
“These antifa guys were showing up with weapons, shields, and bike helmets and just beating the shit out of people,” one senior law enforcement official told Politico.“They’re using Molotov cocktails, they’re starting fires, they’re throwing bombs and smashing windows.”
And last month, a group of Republican lawmakers even introduced a House bill called the “Unmask Antifa Act of 2018,” which would levy a fine or a prison sentence of up to 15 years for anyone caught “wearing a mask” and engaging in activities associated with antifa.
“All violent Islamist terrorist groups are politically left in their economic and governmental structure ideology”
Yeager draws a solid line between left-wing extremism and Islamic extremism, asserting they should be considered together. “All violent Islamist terrorist groups are politically left in their economic and governmental structure ideology,” he wrote in an email to VICE News. “They should be included in the violent-crimes data of leftist terrorism.”
Antifa is the new face on a thing Yeager has been warning the FBI about for years. At the GovSec conference four years ago, which caters to FBI, Homeland Security, and other government officials, Yeager focused on Juggalos (fans of the group Insane Clown Posse, whom the FBI classified as a gang in 2011) and the hardcore punk scene, among other groups. And at a different FBI conference two years ago, Yeager presented on “politically Leftist Domestic Terrorism,” focusing specifically on the veteran advocacy group ActUp to fight the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, PETA, and Black Lives Matter.
Escalation of violence
Extremism experts, while not sharing Yeager’s views, do acknowledge that clashes between the far right and the far left have intensified in recent years.
“On both sides there’s an escalation towards confrontation and violence,” said Chris Hamilton, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and an expert in domestic extremism. “My conversations with officials say they’re observing this on the left, but significantly on the right as well.”
In his first congressional testimony as FBI director last September, Christopher Wray said that there were around 1,000 open investigations into domestic terrorists, but did not say what percentage of those investigations were focused on far-right groups, like white supremacists, anti-government groups, and militia groups, versus far-left groups, or other ideologies.
In an email to VICE News, FBI spokesperson Kelsey Pietranton said that the number of open investigations remains at about 1,000, but she wasn’t able to provide a breakdown.
“Our focus is not on membership in particular groups but on individuals who commit violence and other criminal acts,” wrote Pietranton. “The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security, and cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Last November, Wray told members of the House Homeland Security Committee that the Bureau was actively looking into far-left groups that were organizing under antifa. “We are investigating a number of what we would call anarchist-extremist [groups],” he said. “People who are motivated to commit violent criminal activity on kind of an antifa ideology.”
Quebec City, where the FBI conference is being held, saw one of North America’s deadliest attacks by someone aligned with the far right in 2017 when Alexandre Bissonnette fired on a mosque, killing six and wounding 19. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center counted nine attacks with a combined total of 17 deaths by white supremacists in North America last year.
But an equivalence between left- and right-wing extremism in America has been expressed at the highest levels. In the wake of Charlottesville, President Donald Trump famously declined to condemn the neo-Nazis who attended the rally, describing some of them as “very fine people.”
“Antifa does conduct violent acts at political conventions or at economic summits. Like when Trump was inaugurated, some windows of stores were broken, and a limo was set on fire,” said Johnson, the former DHS analyst. “But to sit there and equate that to Charlottesville or any other number of incidents where the far right has killed people, seems off-base.”
Cover image: Antifascist counter-protesters confront far-right Patriot Prayer members holding a freedom march in Portland, Ore., on June 3, 2018. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)