Last week, after the deadly mosque attacks in New Zealand, President Trump was asked whether he believed white nationalism was a growing threat. “I don’t, really,” he replied. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
Terrorism experts firmly disagree, pointing to data that says far-right extremist violence in the U.S. and Europe is becoming more frequent and potentially more deadly.
But while other countries have taken significant steps to identify the threat and counter it through dedicated intelligence programs, the Trump administration has cut or cancelled initiatives that were designed to combat domestic extremism.
Shortly after taking office, the administration defunded the Obama-era Countering Violent Extremism Program, which launched in 2016 and had allocated $10 million toward organizations fighting domestic extremism. In addition, the administration froze funds that had already been allocated, including a $400,000 grant for Hope Not Hate, a Chicago-based organization that deradicalizes neo-Nazis.
“In the U.S., we lack any political will to deal with it appropriately. That’s due in part to the nationalist politics that define the right-wing extremist movement at home,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who was involved in numerous high-profile counterterrorism operations, and is now executive director of the Soufan Center, an organization dedicated to researching global security issues. “We’re not doing much to counter it.”
Terrorism experts say the New Zealand attack is further evidence that far-right extremism is now a global terror threat, often originating and spreading in the online world. The New Zealand attacker, who left 50 dead, published a lengthy manifesto online that revealed his deep entrenchment in the modern white supremacist movement, which is connected internationally via forums like 8chan and 4chan and gaming chat rooms, and amplified through social media.
“After 50 people were murdered, the president never called it terrorism”
“After 50 people were murdered, the president never called it terrorism. That makes that blind spot even more glaring,” said Soufan. “Unfortunately we see some sort of compliance when it comes to dealing with the ideology and actions of right-wing extremism.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s “Office of Community Partnerships,” which oversaw the extremism program, had a budget of $21 million and a staff of 16 full-time employees and 25 contractors under Obama. The Trump administration rebranded it “The Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships” soon after taking office, cut its staff to eight full-time employees, and reduced its budget to less than $3 million.
Former Director George Selim resigned in June 2017, saying that the environment had become “too polarized” and he felt he could no longer do his job effectively.
That was months before hundreds of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, for the violent “Unite the Right” in August 2017.
The data shows far-right extremism is a bigger problem than Islamic extremism in the U.S. There have been more than 70 deadly attacks by the far right in the U.S. in the last 17 years, compared to 26 carried out by radicalized Muslims, according to an analysis by NPR last October, citing research from private organizations and federal data.
A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that the number of active hate groups in the U.S. reached a record high of 1,020 in 2018, driven largely by a surge in white nationalist groups.
In 2018, far-right extremists carried out a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killed two black people who were grocery shopping in Kentucky, and waged a weeklong package-bombing campaign targeting the president’s biggest critics.
Days after the New Zealand attacks, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen acknowledged the dangers of domestic terrorism but stopped short of calling it far-right extremism. “We, too, have seen the face of such evil with attacks in places such as Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Charleston,” she said as part of her “state of national security” speech Monday.
“My department assesses that the primary terrorist threat to the United States continues to be from Islamist militants and those they inspire,” Nielsen said, “but we should not—and cannot—ignore the real and serious danger posed by domestic terrorists.”
In an email to VICE news, DHS spokesperson Tyler Q. Houlton wrote that the “Department of Homeland Security was committed to combating all forms of violent extremism, especially movements that espouse racial supremacy or bigotry.”
“DHS takes all threats to the homeland, both foreign and domestic, very seriously,” Houlton wrote. “To suggest otherwise is an affront to the men and women of DHS that work tirelessly every day to ensure the safety of the American people.”
At the Department of Justice, efforts to contain domestic right-wing extremism have been confined largely to prosecuting celebrated hate crimes and launching a website. In response to a question from VICE News, a spokesperson sent examples of prosecutions for hate crimes under the Trump administration, including the prosecution of the young neo-Nazi who rammed his car into a crowd of protesters during the Charlottesville rally in 2017.
They also noted that two days after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last October, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein allocated nearly $900,000 to the University of New Hampshire to conduct “a national survey of hate crime incidents and victimization.”
Rosenstein also said that the Justice Department was directing some funds to improving hate crime prosecution and data collection, including launching a new hate crimes website.
These efforts contrast with other Western countries, which have taken a much more aggressive stance toward far-right extremism. “Our allies recognize how dangerous this threat is,” Soufan said.
Both Germany and the United Kingdom, which have also seen recent resurgences in far-right extremist activity, have dedicated significant resources to the problem. Last year, MI5 — the U.K.’s domestic counterintelligence agency — was given additional authority to gather intelligence and monitor far-right extremist groups for possible threats to national security. The decision signaled that the British intelligence community were treating far-right extremism with the same level of seriousness as they do Islamist and Northern Ireland-related terrorism.
Meanwhile, Germany is planning to grow “Department Two” of its federal domestic intelligence agency, which monitors far-right extremism, by 50 percent in 2019. “On numbers, I won’t comment. They are secret,” said Thomas Haldenwang, the president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, in December. “But my goal for the department on right-wing extremism is that it approach the size of our largest department that works on Islamist terrorism.”
In January, Germany’s domestic spy agency announced it was investigating the far-right, anti-immigrant political party AfD for possible violations of the constitutional safeguards against extremism.
But experts say that the Obama administration also failed to heed warnings about the threat posed by the far right.
In 2009, Daryl Johnson, an analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, issued a report warning about a potential resurgence of right-wing extremism, driven by the financial crisis, and by the election of America’s first black president. His report warned that returning military veterans, in particular, might be targeted for recruitment by far-right extremists.
Republicans demanded DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano retract his report, and called for him to be fired. The American Legion, an organization representing veterans, also blasted the report and demanded an apology. Eventually, Napolitano issued an apology, and withdrew the report. Johnson left DHS in 2010 after his team was disbanded.
Today, he runs DT Analytics, a private security consulting firm for state and local law enforcement, and is considered a national expert in domestic extremism. Johnson said he expected the far-right threat to peter out after Obama’s presidency and when Republicans took back control of the White House.
Now, he says, he was wrong.
“The fact that it’s still operating at a heightened level, despite Republicans being in power, is very concerning, and goes against the trending I’ve seen in 40 years,” said Johnson.
Johnson testified at a congressional hearing organized by Sen. Dick Durbin in 2012, after a white supremacist carried out a mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, leaving six dead. “I laid out what the landscape was, in the aftermath of that shooting, and laid out my recommendations,” said Johnson. “None of them, to my knowledge, have been considered.”
One of his recommendations was to reinstate an annual FBI report on domestic terrorism. That report, which was defunded in 2005, showed which extremist groups were active and where. As a result, Congress and the media have to rely on research by private organizations or nonprofits like the Southern Poverty Law Center, or by research programs at universities, to understand the extent of the problem.
Other recommendations included increasing domestic terrorism training for state and local law enforcement, and broadening the federal government’s current definition of domestic terrorism.
Soufan sees a lot of similarities between the far-right extremist movement and the jihadi terror movement. “There’s a striking resemblance in the way they do things,” said Soufan. “From utilizing social media, to promoting violence as the only way to create a pure society, to promoting a militaristic lifestyle,” he said.
And based on those similarities, Soufan said that the U.S. should know how to disrupt those networks. “We need to tackle right-wing ideology in its global dimensions in a very similar way to how we have been treating Islamist terrorism as a global phenomenon,” he said. We know how to dismantle networks and take down networks. We should share information with partners overseas the same way we cooperate in fighting terrorism.”
On Monday, the Daily Beast reported that the House Judiciary Committee is organizing hearings to discuss the rising threat of white nationalism, which they aim to hold in April.
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a joint news conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in the Rose Garden at the White House March 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)