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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

State of Domestic Extremism: The Greatest Threat in a Dramatically Different Terror Landscape

We must respond to today’s threat with the same post-9/11 urgency. It certainly won’t be easy, but it’s the most important work most of us will ever undertake.

On the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we remember the 2,977 people who perished that day in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the U.S. by the Islamist extremist terrorist group al-Qaeda.

This unprecedented tragedy coincided with the start of my two-decade long career with ADL’s Center on Extremism team, and it left an indelible imprint on my memory.

From a global perspective, 9/11 shattered our sense of safety and security and marked the moment when radicalized, political hate became everyone’s problem. Suddenly we were acclimating to more restrictive travel security procedures and screening, as well as confronting this existential threat posed by extremist ideologies.

The extremist hate and intolerance that motivated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks continue to pose a serious threat to the U.S. But over the past 20 years, the threat landscape has changed dramatically. Today, we are faced with disturbingly high levels of domestic threats and violence across the U.S., with frequent displays of hatred, bigotry, conspiracies and civil unrest. Two decades after 9/11, right-wing extremist violence poses by far the greatest threat to everyone in this country.

Today, white supremacists rage against trends like demographic change and globalization. Their ideology is predicated on a desire for a white nation and a worldview that sees immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees as enemies who want to irrevocably change “Western” culture. This anger toward outsiders is often racial in nature, as they rail against non-whites, as well as others of different faiths – essentially anyone who does not conform to their limited definition of “white people.” These extremists consider Jews their ultimate enemies – responsible for a world conspiracy that includes “open borders,” “multiculturalism” and “globalism” as strategies to engineer “white genocide.” This belief motivated the extremists who perpetrated the attacks in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Poway. We cannot afford to minimize or ignore this threat.

In recent years, right-wing extremists, including white supremacists and anti-government extremists, have been animated by COVID-19 restrictions and perceived threats to gun rights. Meanwhile, major party politicians refuse to denounce, and sometimes even embrace, QAnon’s convoluted conspiracy theories about Satanic child-murdering sex cults, instead of relegating the fringe belief to the wastebasket of history.

“Today, we are faced with disturbingly high levels of domestic threats and violence across the U.S., with frequent displays of hatred, bigotry, conspiracies and civil unrest.”

It is against this backdrop of disinformation and division that right-wing militia members call for vigilante justice against what they perceive as a tyrannical government.  The threat of violence is implicit every time armed paramilitary groups, like the Boogaloo Bois, telegraph their violent intentions against law enforcement, or when a Qanon believer points a paintball gun at U.S. Army service members, saying, “This is for America.”

And these calls for violence are at times translated into real world action. Our data confirms these broad concerns: As has been the case for most of the past 30 years, the domestic extremist-related murders of 2020 were overwhelmingly associated with right-wing extremists. All but one of the incidents documented were tied to right-wing domestic extremism; more than half were linked to white supremacists. 2020 was the second year in a row with no murders linked to domestic Islamist extremism. Taking a longer view, of the 429 people killed by domestic extremists in the last decade, 75 percent were murdered by right-wing extremists – 77 percent of whom were white supremacists. This is irrefutable proof that white supremacists pose the deadliest extremist threat to Americans.

Other reports echo these concerns : The latest FBI hate crimes data shows the highest rates in 12 years. ADL’s Audit of Antisemitic Incidents has tracked historically high levels in the past several years as well.

Our country is grappling with myriad issues, and protests against health measures, mask restrictions, vaccination mandates or refugee policies, coupled with increased political violence, including the January 6, 2021, insurrection, may represent a grim preview of the months ahead: a violent crescendo of heightened emotions and a profound political divide. As we face down this tipping point, it’s incumbent on all of us to find that elusive common ground, even as we work tirelessly toward building a more inclusive and just democracy. Just as we responded to the September 11 attacks as a nation – applauding the bravery of the first responders who ran into the buildings, toward danger, bolstering the communities that rose up to offer support and love and displaying enormous resilience and strength in the aftermath of such devastating loss – so must we respond to today’s threat. It certainly won’t be easy, but it’s the most important work most of us will ever undertake.

Joanna Mendelson
Joanna Mendelson has been part of ADL for over two decades, serving on their national team, as Associate Director for the Center on Extremism, which combats extremism, terrorism and all forms of hate in the real world and online. To date, she has trained more than 12,000 federal, state and local law enforcement officers, judges and public officials nationwide on extremism and domestic terrorism related issues. She is a certified subject matter expert and has provided testimony in numerous criminal cases involving extremism. In partnership with her COE colleagues and law enforcement partners, she has helped thwart potential extremist attacks against Jews and other vulnerable communities. Additionally, Ms. Mendelson authored, then testified and successfully lobbied in favor of legislation addressing paper terrorism tactics used by sovereign citizens. She frequently represents ADL on national and international media outlets, including CNN, the BBC and CBS. Follow her on Twitter at @jo_mendelson

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