(D.C. Metropolitan Police Department)

How Islamist Extremists and White Supremacists Try to Exploit Civil Unrest

Regardless of differences in ideology, Islamist extremists and white supremacists share operational characteristics – particularly when it comes to recruitment and taking advantage of current events in shaping a message that they hope will lure new followers and spur them to take action on behalf of the movement, whether that materializes in physical attacks, battling in the online space or otherwise acting as an influencer to spread that ideology.

Islamist extremist propaganda and white supremacist propaganda reflect similar themes and memes in the ways they recruit and incite, contributing to the internet’s ample open-source library of D.I.Y. extremist training and incitement – from posters to videos, from social media to magazines – that bridges group allegiances and ideologies. At times they mimic each other’s memes, promote ideological dominion, urge copycats to emulate infamous attacks, threaten the social media companies that try to rein in their propaganda, praise and promote attacks that have recently occurred, circulate machismo-saturated training camp videos, and heavily traffic in anti-Semitism.

One key shared characteristic of recruitment is how Islamist extremists and white supremacists both try to appeal to grievances, hoping that potential recruits who might not otherwise join their movements could be pushed over the edge with targeted psychological messaging. Similarly, both groups seize on current events to promote core anti-government and retribution themes, trying to appeal to would-be recruits as if they’re soldiers in a cultural or kinetic war – as one recruitment propaganda poster from the neo-Nazi Feuerkrieg Division put it, “Turn your sadness into rage.” Islamist extremists and white supremacists hope to seize on the energy of current events whether it’s white supremacists using debates over Confederate monuments or Islamist terror groups using Western military operations – and both ideological movements trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to their advantage – to steer some of that fury into their movements to stoke anger and gain new recruits.

Both groups will similarly see today’s unrest as an opportunity to try to insert their messaging, with Islamist extremists disregarding the fact that the protests are based on goals of ending systemic racism and encouraging police reform and white supremacists disregarding – or particularly enraged by – the fact that many whites are protesting alongside people of color. Extremists exploit, and both groups will use whatever messaging contortions are necessary as they try to grow their ranks on the back of civil instability.

Islamist Extremists

On Aug. 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., sparking demonstrations and the chant “hands up, don’t shoot” to protest the killing that culminated in a wrongful death settlement. The summer 2015 issue of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine tried to appeal to protesters in the African-American community in an article vowing to “take practical steps to avoid targeting you in our operations” if people of color would in turn fight the government and try to stop U.S. aid to Israel. In the piece tagged “The Blacks in America,” al-Qaeda featured a photo of Abraham Lincoln next to the headline, “The Rights of Blacks: Their State and Challenges.” The terror group also used Michael Brown’s high school graduation photo in the article, and talked about the in-custody death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and the Charleston church massacre.

Al-Qaeda slammed Fox News for their portrayal “that the crime of the officer was nothing but a general mistake that had nothing to do with racism or religion” in the Brown shooting as the channel “has always been supporting the Anglo-Saxon community, no matter the case.” The terror group added that “such attacks against Afro-Americans will continue to rise,” and slammed then-President Obama for framing incidents in terms of gun violence. “O Afro-Americans, it is a pity that you play a part in this oppression against Muslims. You are the ones who elect those who promise to continue waging war with us in our lands. You are the ones who elect those who promise to protect Israel, who aggressively and unjustly occupy our lands,” the article continued. “This is a historic chance for you to review your actions, and to take a stand against these crimes in the face of these fanatics.”

Al-Qaeda said they sympathized with “the oppression and injustices directed towards you” but insisted they were still justified killing blacks in terror attacks: “We advise you to move out of big cities that represent the economy, politics or military strength of America like New York and Washington.” The article then encouraged revolt starting with demonstrations and the “second approach” of “forming small groups that will be responsible for assassinating, targeting these racist politicians.” The terror group said they would “bring to you military consultation” via the magazine, as “one may refer back to the previous issues to find appropriate military ideas.”

This was perhaps one of the most overt appeals for the attention of those protesting shootings at the hands of police officers, and presenting it as an article in English-language Inspire ensured that it lives in perpetuity on the internet for easy access. Al-Qaeda isn’t the only group to attempt to capitalize on officer-involved shootings, though: the Ferguson events unfolded soon after the declaration of the caliphate, and as ISIS carved out its online operations relying on adherents who to this day push messaging and conduct recruitment on social media they hijacked hashtags being used by activists tweeting about the shooting. “Hey blacks, ISIS will save you,” said one tweet, while another vowed to “send u soldiers that don’t sleep” if protesters vowed allegiance to ISIS; another message that circulated online “From #IS 2 Ferguson” said that “we heard your call, we are ready to respond.” And a nearly hourlong 2016 Al-Shabaab video tried to convince African-Americans to come join their ranks and flee “racial profiling and police brutality” in the United States.

White Supremacists

While the Islamist extremist threat is based on a pattern of groups remotely latching onto incidents of police shootings, the white supremacist threat is also mired in current events. Law enforcement was already on guard for how white supremacists could take advantage of the instability caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and how they could use the virus to foster racism and recruitment. Agencies were warned in a recent Joint Intelligence Bulletin about the potential for violent reactions to conspiracy theories circulating about the pandemic, including the branding of the deadly virus as a government hoax, and noted that militia extremists have discussed online preparing for a potentially violent response. Minority-operated businesses that remain open and other exposed racial or religious minorities “are likely at particular risk,” the bulletin warned, adding that “as the number of Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic grows, the threat posed by [domestic violent extremists] and hate crime actors towards minorities and other targets of their violence will likely increase” and extremists “will likely continue to seek to exploit the pandemic by using violence themselves or encouraging others on social media and messaging applications to use violence.”

Now with the one-two punch of a destabilizing pandemic and civil unrest sparked by the death of a black man at the hands of a white police officer, white supremacists are taking advantage of the crisis to not only woo recruits but to wedge themselves into chaos, often with the goal of contributing to societal collapse. White supremacists and Islamist extremists at times share the belief of accelerationism: that societal collapse will hasten their aims to construct either a white or Islamic civilization out of the ruins.

A Department of Homeland Security memo to law enforcement noted that on May 27, two days after George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer detained him using a knee to the neck, “a white supremacist extremist Telegram channel incited followers to engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo’ – a term used by some violent extremists to refer to the start of a second Civil War – by shooting in a crowd.” Twitter removed an account linked to white nationalist group Identity Evropa or the American Identity Movement, known for its recruitment efforts on college campuses, that was posing as antifascist and Black Lives Matter supporters and encouraging violence: “Tonight we say ‘F— The City’ and we move into residential areas… the white hoods… and we take what’s ours.” The New York Times reported Sunday that in at least 20 cities “members of hate groups or far-right organizations filmed themselves, sometimes heavily armed or waving extremist symbols, at demonstrations.” A Facebook post from Richmond, Va., showed two young white men holding a “boogaloo” flag “behind an African-American woman with a hand-lettered sign reading ‘A knee is the new noose!!’”

Minnesota’s Department of Safety Commissioner John Harrington said Saturday that there were individuals linked to white supremacist groups among those who had been arrested for looting and vandalism the previous night, and said officials were investigating white nationalist groups encouraging followers online to use the protests to stoke chaos. The threat is acute: DHS’ Homeland Security Advisory Committee noted in its latest report that six of the 67 terror attacks in the United States in 2018 were lethal, and “all six of these attacks involved elements of far-right ideologies, primarily white supremacy.” The DHS Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence rolled out in September called white supremacist violent extremism “one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” today.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said that aside from the protesters peacefully expressing their sadness and anger, “there seems to be another group that are using Mr. Floyd’s death as a cover to create havoc.” That havoc may not just consist of burning cars and looted shops, but groups latching onto the protests as a chance to stir chaos, amplify their messaging and hook new followers – an opportunistic tactic with which both white supremacists and Islamist extremists are familiar.

Shared Themes, Tactics in White Supremacist and Islamist Extremist Propaganda

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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