“I just needed some kind of outlet for my hate. I felt like I was part of a cause. You know, it gave me something to belong to. Here I am, a soldier for my race. I don’t have anything else.” – Sean Gillespie, former white supremacist
This month, the White House released a National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, a step welcomed by scores of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism professionals who have long been pointing out the rising tide of domestic terrorism in the United States. As researchers studying terrorism and violent extremism (the first author for over two decades), we appreciate the new strategy and its goal of addressing the “underlying dynamics” of the long-term threat of violence in the United States, particularly the threat coming from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, particularly white supremacists, and militia-based extremists. The national strategy lays out four pillars, each of which are supported by our own research based on in-depth psychological interviews with 36 current and former white supremacists and hate group members, as well as our past experiences in-depth interviewing over 700 terrorists and work in preventing and countering militant jihadist extremism.
The first pillar of the strategy is to understand and share domestic terrorism-related information. This is particularly important in these days of dis-, mal-, and misinformation and hate-filled conspiracy theories that frankly were often fomented by the previous White House. Fact-based and trustworthy information about the threat is crucial and is what both our society and our police need to prevent and counter violent extremism. Unfortunately, denial, and even subtle encouragement, of the growing white supremacism problem in the U.S. was also a hallmark of the previous president. As a result, police in many jurisdictions, including the Capitol Hill police, have long felt uninformed and were in the latter case tragically unprepared to deal with incidents from such groups. As researchers, we thus view this pillar as paramount, particularly in terms of information sharing and preparing police as well as all sectors of our society, including public health, education, parents, etc., to deal with the threat.
To address, prevent, and stop domestic violent extremism and terrorism in its tracks, understanding the narratives and groups that are most effectively inciting violence, where they recruit — online or in person — and how they motivate youth in particular into violent acts is key. So, too, is understanding the basics of these violent extremist ideologies and how they are transmitted.
However, it is also paramount to say that we have found that hate and ideology itself do not appear to be the primary motivating factors for those who join white supremacist groups. Relationships and identity, belonging, and being imbued with a sense of significance, dignity, and purpose were far more important in joining. Thus, the more existential needs, and how they contribute to an individual’s decision to join a domestic violent extremist group or carry out an act of domestic terrorism, are critical to understand and to address, and these must be shared with stakeholders across the spectrum, from teachers to social workers to police officers to ensure that those needs are not exploited and transformed into hateful ideologies.
In that regard, we would underline this crucial fact: Our domestic violent extremism problem is not only a security issue but is also a public health issue and requires a whole-of-government approach. Repeatedly in our interviews, we were struck by the deep psycho-social vulnerability of those who are recruited into white supremacism. Those in our sample experienced an alarmingly high rate of childhood disruptors and traumas, such as abuse, neglect, and having a parent who is incarcerated, missing, violent, mentally ill, or suffering with substance abuse, which created deep vulnerabilities to recruitment to violent extremism. Addressing these can have a meaningful effect on the adjustment of youth who might otherwise be susceptible to violent extremist recruiters who take an interest in them and promise abused and neglected youth a purpose, an identity, and a future. These are public health issues that feed into security, but primarily need public health approaches for prevention.
The second pillar of the strategy is to prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence. We appreciate the strategy’s recognition that the United States government needs to do “better at protecting rights and freedoms while still pursuing the goal of preventing individuals from harming their fellow Americans through terrorism or other criminal activity.” Indeed, past efforts in the War on Terror all too often securitized entire communities, making them feel alienated and marginalized. Future efforts must not repeat these same mistakes. Rather, identifying the needs exploited and tactics used by domestic violent extremist recruiters will allow for a more nuanced and targeted approach. In our research, we have found two primary pools from which these recruiters pull. First, the recruiters target vulnerable young people, sometimes actual adolescents, others early adults, who feel alone and without an identity. Often, as mentioned above, these young people come from highly dysfunctional households without strong guidance, making them particularly susceptible to father or big brother figures who promise them a chance to do something meaningful with their lives – and point out a specific group of people to blame for their difficulty or inability to attain their goals, whether they are personal, academic, or financial. The second group of recruitment targets whom we identified in our research was active and retired law enforcement and military personnel. As is clear from the shocking number of people at Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 with military or policing background (at least 52 have already been arrested), these groups continue to be successful in this arena. People with law enforcement and military backgrounds have a lot to offer domestic violent extremist groups. Operationally, they come with a sense of structure and discipline, as well as weapons training and tactical experience. Moreover, boasting current and former law enforcement and military personnel as part of their membership lends these groups an air of legitimacy and patriotism, thus allowing these groups to allay potential recruits’ concerns that they are anti-government or anti-American. Both our military and our police forces need to take a hard look inside for who they have weapons trained who may be falling prey to violent extremism and what they do to address it. Addressing violent extremism in their ranks should not be limited to simple dismissal and sending a weaponized individual with violent ideological beliefs back out into society with no intervention carried out, thus putting more people at risk.
In the age of disinformation, we will also need online efforts. Preventing domestic violent extremist recruitment and mobilization will require on-the-ground efforts focused on the most at-risk individuals, but it will also require, as the strategy highlights, digital programming, including campaigns on social media that aim to disrupt and refute domestic violent extremists’ claims. Although takedown policies have driven some more committed people onto encrypted platforms, domestic violent extremists, just as ISIS has also done, will continue to radicalize and recruit more surreptitiously on more popular platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. In that regard, we have found through our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project that it is possible to cause individuals to begin to question the conspiracy theories, disinformation and hateful narratives that terrorist groups have sold them online by watching the personal stories of actual ISIS insiders – defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres – who speak honestly and emotionally about what drew them to the group and the horrors that they found once they joined. We have recently replicated the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project in our new Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project, using former white supremacists speaking against their groups and have found that Facebook viewers who are targeted as being vulnerable are already watching and engaging with these counter narrative videos much as they did with the Breaking the ISIS Brand campaigns.
The third pillar of the strategy is to disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity. This will require law enforcement interventions with those at-risk or who are involved in these groups meaning law enforcement needs to be well trained and equipped to recognize and understand where individuals are on the radicalization trajectory and how law enforcement efforts can interrupt terrorism and violent extremism recruitment early on by helping to redirect those going into it. They will need to use not only force, but also gentle efforts to show those going in how these groups will ultimately fail to meet their needs. Likewise, law enforcement also needs to look within its own ranks to ferret out those supporting violent extremist groups and ideologies and to make sure their own practices in demonstrations, protests, and other public events are not giving fuel to even more extremism.
Finally, the fourth pillar of the strategy is to confront long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.
The fourth pillar also mentions that fighting domestic terrorism “means tackling racism in America.” It is well known that not all racism involves violent crime or even hate speech. We found that some of our American interviewees described childhoods in which they were taught that they, as white people, were better and smarter than others, but they did not recognize that as racism, as they were “taught never to hate.” Once they joined their groups, adopting more overtly hateful ideologies was a smooth transition. Similarly, white supremacist groups often present their ideologies and conspiracies as facts and as patriotic, again allowing their members to maintain that they are not emotionally hateful, but rather acting practically and nobly in defense of themselves, their people and their national heritage. Given these findings, we are heartened to see that the strategy acknowledges that the U.S. government is prioritizing addressing the challenges of racism and bigotry in America on a broader scale than simply in the context of violent extremism.
We commend the U.S. government for this insightful National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism and look forward to working together, with researchers, with practitioners, with law enforcement, with the military, and with the government, to preventing and countering domestic violent extremism at all levels and at all stages.
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