Don’t stoke the ego of white supremacists

In his Just Security post, “18 Years After 9/11, We Face a New International Terrorist Threat,” Georgetown law professor Joshua Geltzer argues for a well-intended but ultimately misguided approach to countering what he describes as the “dangers we face from the growing international white supremacist terrorist threat.”

ISIS Fighters
Photo: Long War Journal

Geltzer seems to think the risk posed by white supremacists is on a par with the “violence perpetrated by al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and others.”  Indeed, because he believes there is a “global surge in violence inspired by white supremacist ideologies,” he wants to rebrand domestic white supremacists as international terrorists, and use many of the same “tools” against them as have been employed to combat the U.S.’s jihadist enemies.

White supremacists certainly present “a persistent security threat” deserving of more law enforcement attention and resourcing, but the notion that they are on the same level as the international jihadist organizations America’s been waging war against for the last 18 years is counterfactual and ultimately counterproductive.

White supremacists at Charlottesville, VA, in 2017
Photo: Shutterstock

In their dreams white supremacists may wish they had the capabilities of still-formidable groups like “al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and others,” but they don’t, and we shouldn’t let their egos think they do.  Moreover, while the peril is real, unnecessarily inflating it in the eyes of the public beyond what the facts warrant only serves to enhance the ability of white supremacists to employ fear and intimidation for their own nefarious purposes.

How lethal have white supremacists been relative to international terrorist organizations? 

Let’s get the facts: The Guardian reported on August 4th that “in the past eight years, more than 175 people around the world have been killed in at least 16 high-profile attacks motivated, or apparently motivated, by white nationalist conspiracy theories.”  The loss of 175 people – an average of about 22 deaths a year worldwide – is unquestionably tragic, but the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) reports that in a single year – 2017 – “there were 10,900 terrorist attacks around the world, which killed more than 26,400 people.”  As recently as 2014, the GTD shows there were 45,000 deaths from terror attacks worldwide.

That said, no one disputes that white supremacists have inflicted real harm here in the U.S.  The New America Foundation (where Geltzer is a Fellow), claims that in the 18 years since 9/11, some 109 people have been killed on American soil by “far-right terrorism.”  That figure includes not just white supremacist killings, but also “anti-government” as well as  “anti-abortion violence.”  They contrast that with the 104 people killed by jihadists inside the U.S, with the inference being that white supremacists present the same kind of danger as do international terrorist organizations like “al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and others.”

However, the New America calculations are misleading in part because they narrow the period under consideration by one day in order to avoid including the 3,000 people killed by international terrorists in the 9/11 attacks.  They also fail to include the estimated 2,000 first responders who have died since 9/11 because of “cancer they developed as a result of exposure to the toxic blend of ash, chemicals and other toxic materials they dug through to find survivors” of the jihadist attack.

Moreover, as heart-rending as the deaths of 109 people at the hands of “far right” terrorism really is, context does matter when formulating approaches and allocating resources.  Sadly, the 109 were among more than 277,000 murders the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security says took place in the U.S. over the exact same time period.

The New America figures also overlook the deaths of Americans overseas that occurred in the fight to keep international terrorists from conducting another deadly 9/11 attack.  Graham Allison of Harvard’s Kennedy School explains why the jihadists have not succeeded in killing more Americans in the U.S.:

Prof Allison

“Unquestionably, many of the actions taken since 9/11 have prevented attacks.  Osama bin Laden had active plans for additional attacks, including aspirations for a nuclear 9/11.  What prevented that, first and foremost, was a relentless counterterrorism campaign that killed or captured most of al Qaeda’s leadership and left the others spending most of their time trying to survive rather than perfecting plots for future terrorist attacks.  Destruction of their headquarters and training camps meant that thousands of individuals who would have been planning, training and then conducting terrorist attacks never got their chance.”

That “relentless counterterrorism campaign” against jihadists that Allison references came at an enormous cost to America’s military: 5,300 U.S. troops have been killed in action fighting Islamic extremists overseas since 9/11, and more than 50,000 have been wounded in action in the same effort.

For the New America Foundation those Americans killed by jihadists overseas somehow ‘don’t count’, even though it was their sacrifice that has kept the number of Americans killed at home relatively low.  In making an assessment, doesn’t it make more sense to consider all American losses to terrorists?

The value of defeating international terrorist organizations overseas

Importantly, David Schanzer, Director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, suggests that success in defeating international terrorist organizations overseas is instrumental in reducing the danger of jihadist violence here at home.  He says:

Prof Schanzer

“I also believe that the incidence of violence by extremist Muslim-Americans rises when foreign insurgent movements are successful – that is, they are gaining territory, they are making claims to be an authentic alternative Islamist society, and they are pushing this message aggressively through social media.  When they are ascendant in this way, their call for like-minded diaspora Muslims to “do something” can be compelling to at least a small cohort of Muslim-Americans.  When these movements don’t seem to be doing much themselves, their use of guilt or shame to compel violence by diaspora Muslims loses its bite, as has been the case as ISIS has gradually lost its so-called caliphate over the past 4 years.”

From a global perspective, America’s current military and law enforcement approach seems to have had real success in helping to keep the scourge of international terrorism from our shores, even as Muslim-majority countries continue to suffer greatly.

In a March 18, 2019 article, Pacific Standard said the Global Terrorism Database shows “the vast majority of terrorist attacks occur in Muslim-majority countries, and that the majority of victims of terrorism are Muslim.”  The same article noted a 2016 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that found that “[a]lmost all of the human impact of extremist attacks is Muslims killing or injuring fellow Muslims.”

The role of ideology? 

Prof Geltzer

Professor Geltzer insists it’s an internationalized “ideology underlying these [white supremacist] terrorist attacks.”  However, Melissa Etehad dug deeper into the sources of radicalization in a Los Angeles Times article this past August and found the issue is much more complicated.  She indicates that both ISIS and white nationalist recruits share broad personality traits; that is, that they are not necessarily already formed zealots drawn to the ideology by its evil nature, but rather “young men who feel alienated, marginalized or lack a sense of community.”

The result?  Etehad cites a study that finds “if an individual hits a dead end and continues to feel unsatisfied, he or she might begin to feel angry, frustrated and eager to point fingers at a target, such as a government or religious and ethnic groups.”  Similarly, in a 2017 NPR program in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, a reformed white supremacist explained:

“I think ultimately people become extremists not necessarily because of the ideology.  I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent.  I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.

If underneath that fundamental search is something that’s broken — I call them potholes — is there abuse or trauma or mental illness or addiction?  In my case, many years ago, it was abandonment.  I felt abandoned, and that led me to this community.  But what happens is, because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers.”

Tackling the causes animating the sense of alienation and marginalization of the two threats – foreign jihadists and American white supremacists – has to take into account the very different historical and cultural contexts from which the separate groups arise.

To oversimplify the “solution” into treating these two entities as if they were undifferentiated branches of “international terrorism” is to dangerously underestimate the complexity of the roots of the problem.  Geltzer focuses on the symptoms, but – as horrific as they are – if there is one thing we’ve learned from fighting overseas terrorists since 9/11, it’s that you can’t cure the disease without coming to grips with its underlying cause.

A “huge imbalance” of resources?

A M777A2 Howitzer being fired against ISIS in 2018 is one of the tools used to fight international terrorists. (U.S. Army photo)

Geltzer further complains there is a “huge imbalance” between the resources allocated to fight international terrorism and “the comparatively meager investments made to fight domestic terrorism.”  Actually, this can be explained not just by the vastly greater number of victims caused by Islamist terrorism around the globe, but also by the far larger number of jihadist fighters in the world today relative to domestic terrorists.  According to a November 20, 2018 New York Times report (citing a CSIS study) there are “as many as 230,000 Salafi jihadist fighters in nearly 70 countries.”

There do not seem to be any reliable figures on the number of white supremacists.  It is true, however, that the number of white supremacist groups is rising.  The New York Times reported last February that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told them that the “number of white nationalist groups jumped by almost 50 percent, to 148 in 2018 from 100.”

Interestingly, the SPLC also said that as “the number of white supremacist groups rose, so did the number of radical black nationalist groups that espoused anti-white, anti-Semitic or anti-gay and anti-transgender views.”  Such groups rose to 264 in 2018 from 233 in 2017” – now outnumbering those of white supremacists by some 116 organizations.  But the number of groups doesn’t necessarily translate to greater numbers of individuals, as organizations can splinter and sub-divide into smaller entities without necessarily drawing more members overall.

The FBI has reported a 17% rise in “hate crimes” but that is also not necessarily a reliable measure of the strength, per se, of white supremacists.  The FBI definition captures crimes motivated by bigotry of many kinds; that is, criminal offenses “against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”

Consequently, an analyst reports that experts “caution that the FBI’s hate crime statistics are an imperfect way to track the rise of white nationalism,” adding that “[n]ot all of the hate crimes overall were committed by white nationalists (some of the documented incidents, for example, were anti-white).”  (Parenthesis in original.)  Just last week professor Robert Cherry, writing in the National Review, says that the spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York city has “nothing to do with white supremacy” and notes that nearly equal numbers of whites and blacks have been arrested for these offenses.

Still, counterterrorism expert and former Obama administration official John D. Cohen was quoted in a recent article as saying:

Mr. Cohen

“There is pretty broad agreement among law enforcement in the U.S. and the European Union that violence as a result of far-right groups, particularly white supremacists, is on the rise,” said Cohen, who is currently a professor at Rutgers-Newark. “It’s a growing problem. We are seeing more hate crimes and targeted attacks by people who identify with that ideology.”

Can’t we agree with that assessment (as I do), but still disagree with an approach that seeks to equate that “growing problem” with the demonstrated capability of foreign terrorist groups to inflict violence on a very large scale?  Given the hard data about the known lethality of jihadist groups overseas, it should not be surprising that far more resources are devoted to combating the much greater threat of international terrorism.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grow our resources markedly to thwart domestic terrorism of every kind, but rather it’s to recognize that there are logical reasons for the current allocations.  Put differently, there isn’t necessarily a resource “imbalance,” but rather a need for additional resources.

Furthermore, are we really ready to give up on law enforcement methodologies in favor of a militarized, national security approach to domestic terrorism?

The differences between white supremacist threats and international terrorist organizations 

Ms. Etehad

Let’s also recognize, as Ms. Etehad concedes in her Los Angeles Times article, that there “are obviously significant differences between white supremacists and Islamic State recruits.”  She says one “is organizational: Islamic State has a leader members can rally around- — Abu Bakr Baghdadi- — and at one point established a government that administered large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, albeit for a short time.”

White supremacists don’t have anything approaching the organizational structure of al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and other international terrorist organizations.  In fact, because of law enforcement’s “infiltration into white supremacist groups in the 1970s and ’80s,” Etehad reports the groups are intentionally fragmented and decentralized.

This creates a rather different kind of threat than that posed by international terrorists, some of whom can coalesce into war-fighting formations able to confront and even defeat conventional military units of some nation-states.

Hi-tech airpower was a key tool against ISIS.

In fact, it took the combined efforts of an 81-menber coalition empowered by advanced U.S. weaponry to destroy the ISIS caliphate.  Although they may sometimes costume themselves in military attire, white supremacists have no authentic combat capabilities.

In any event, do we really want to use the “tools” the military employed to battle international terrorists overseas here at home?

Geltzer appears to premise his desire to designate white supremacists as international terrorists on his assumption that there is a “transnational nature [of] this threat.”  Similarity of white supremacist attacks in this country to instances that occur elsewhere in the world do not necessarily establish a relationship that would warrant a “transnational” characterization.

It’s important to understand that Al Qa’ida, ISIS, and other international terrorist organizations have actual affiliates that already exist in multiple countries, as white supremacists do not.  Indeed, the facts seem to be counter to Geltzer’s suppositions: the Wall Street Journal reported in August it is the lack of linkages, transnational or otherwise, that makes countering white supremacist violence so daunting:

“We are most concerned about lone offenders, primarily using firearms, as these lone offenders represent the dominant trend for lethal domestic terrorists,” Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official, recently told lawmakers.  “Frequently, these individuals act without a clear group affiliation or guidance, making them challenging to identify, investigate and disrupt.”

It is, of course, important to determine if there are any connections between white supremacists around the globe, and to consider ways to disrupt such relationships if they are found to exist, but it should not be done at the expense of countering the existing jihadist threat that we know is, without question, organized and immensely deadly.

Geltzer also seems to be extrapolating his assessment of the threat posed by white supremacists from the several incidents of mass shootings, some (but not all) of which involve shooters who “espoused white-nationalist beliefs.”  Is he getting caught up common fears – as many are – about mass shootings that don’t necessarily match the facts?  Journalist Dylan Matthews, writing in Vox earlier this month, says:

“I think the fear of mass shootings risks becoming a public panic out of proportion to the actual danger being faced.  We have an epidemic of gun deaths in America.  Mass shootings are a problem, but the fact remains that they account for only a very small share of gun deaths annually.  And as horrific as each mass shooting is, it’s still a fairly rare event in American life — as rare as lightning strikes.” (Emphasis added.)

Possible synergies in approaches

Even though white supremacist violence is actually not common, and there is little evidence it’s the product of a coordinated global campaign, there is still much to be concerned about.  For example, Etehad says white supremacists are increasingly relying on social media to spread their evil message.  Disturbingly, she further asserts that the “Islamic State has been following in the footsteps of white nationalist groups when it comes to using social media and online forums to disseminate information.”

This may be an area where synergies can be found between law enforcement dealing with domestic terrorists, and the national security establishment fighting sophisticated and well-armed international terrorists.  Social media is creating issues far beyond terrorism, so a unity of effort could be quite productive.

Nevertheless, we can’t forget that disseminating information is not, however, the only thing the Islamic State and other terrorists like them can do.  They plant IEDs, launch rockets, and plot ambushes on a regular basis – killing and maiming scores in the process.

In short, the international terrorist threat posed by ISIS, Al Qaeda and other jihadists who have organized into combat formations able to wage war against nation-states is such that it requires a far more militarized – and much more costly – approach than that needed to counter the domestic terrorist threat posed by white supremacists who lack virtually any serious warfighting capabilities.

Once again, none of this is to suggest that we don’t need to do more to fight terrorism at home.  It could very well make sense, as Geltzer indicates, to develop more laws criminalizing domestic terrorism.  In addition, better focus of America’s law enforcement assets (and the $100 billion spent on domestic policing already) on domestic terrorism also appears to be in order.  And the military needs to aggressively deal with reports of white supremacists within its ranks.

The risks in overstating the threat 

Yet this question remains: could insisting that white supremacist terrorism presents as much or more of a threat than international terrorism serve, paradoxically, the cause of white supremacists?  

Let’s ask ourselves this: isn’t the aim of terrorism to create fear among the people?  Is it really implausible to think that white supremacists might actually want to be as feared as the Islamic State, whose terrorist “caliphate”, as the New York Times tells us, “was once the size of Britain and controlled the lives of up to 12 million people”?  Even more importantly, the Times says, it still has “mobilized as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria.”  Do we really want white supremacists to believe they have parity with the power the Islamic State still wields?

Overstating the risk associated with any threat is counterproductive to finding genuine solutions.  David Ropeik, an expert on risk assessment, made that point in a Washington Post op-ed last year.  He observed that, despite the terrible school shootings of recent years, the “statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000.”

Although Ropeik recognized the psychological impact that the fear of harm to children occasions, he nevertheless warned that we “sometimes seek protection from our fears in ways that put us in greater peril.”  He said: 

Mr. Ropeik

“We should look at the facts and try to keep the risk in perspective.  We should worry about statistically bigger threats.  We should more rationally weigh the costs and benefits of the ways we try to make schools safer.  We should reduce our exposure to dramatic and upsetting news coverage of such events and avoid what might be called “awareness poisoning” by not watching or reading every story for days on end and posting it all on social media.”

Ending the peril of white supremacist terrorism will not be accomplished by failing to “look at the facts and try[ing] to keep the risk in perspective.”  We should not suggest to already fearful Americans that white supremacist groups have the size and power of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda or other foreign terrorist groups.

Among other things, doing so might make the groups all the more attractive in the eyes of the alienated and marginalized. Some people crave status, even of the infamous kind.

Concluding thoughts

A better approach is to embrace every opportunity to denigrate and diminish white supremacist thinking, and at the same time vigorously address the underlying causes that fuel it.

If we match such efforts with re-focused and properly-resourced law enforcement and prosecutorial programs, we stand a real chance of suppressing the dangerous potential of white supremacists without unintentionally giving them an inflated status that could end up inadvertently boosting their cause.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!

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