The white supremacist threat to the homeland “bears a striking resemblance to what we saw with jihadism,” from tactics, networking and social media communications to even training overseas, Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and head of The Soufan Group, told the House Homeland Security Committee.
Peter Bergen, vice president of Global Studies and Fellows at New America, told lawmakers at last week’s hearing on global terror threats that the “white right-wing threat — the fact is that that is as important a threat to the United States today as a jihadi threat.”
Soufan said that white supremacists “from around the world are increasingly forming global networks much as jihadis did in the years leading to 9/11.”
“Supremacists make propaganda warning of an alleged great replacement of whites in the same way jihadis talk about supposed war against Islam,” he said. “White supremacists support violence as an appropriate way to defend the purity of the race just as jihadis use violence to protect the purity of the religion. Both the groups recruit followers and reinforce their messages through social media. While jihadis make online videos supremacists post online manifestos.”
“Where jihadis travel to fight in places like Syria and Afghanistan, white supremacists now have their own theater in which they learn combat: Eastern Ukraine. Recent research showed that around 17,000 foreigners from 50 countries including the United States have gone to fight in that conflict.”
Soufan noted that “in describing their mission, some white supremacists have used the term ‘white jihad,'” and one neo-Nazi group goes by the name The Base — which is what al-Qaeda means in Arabic.
“These similarities should inform our strategy. Terrorism, after all, is terrorism regardless of race, faith, ideology or creed,” he added. “Our current framework allows for the designation of transnational groups as foreign terrorist entities. This gives the U.S. authorities three main advantages: First, they can monitor communications between people connected to the designated groups, even among U.S. citizens operating on U.S. soil. Second, it can share intelligence on the designated groups with our allies. Third, they can bring charges for providing material support to the designated groups, charges that carry severe penalties. These are important tools. Allies such as the UK and Canada already designated violent supremacist entities as terrorist organizations, but so far no white supremacy groups have been designated by the U.S. despite the threat they pose.”
“We need to recognize the international nature of this threat and start treating white supremacist terrorists the way we treat other global terrorists. Only then can we give our law enforcements the tools they need to meet the challenge.”
Soufan warned that “we grossly underestimated the rising threat of jihadi terrorism” in the years before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, and “that inattention cost us dearly on September 11, 2001.”
“I cannot say what form the jihadi supremacist equivalent of 9/11 might take, but we should not wait to find out before we act,” he stressed.
Brian Levin, a criminologist and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, testified that “while white supremacists and ultra-nationalists will maintain their position at the top of the threat matrix, the risk is also diversifying.”
“Splintered free-speech platforms where hate speech is more prolific have enabled organizationally unaffiliated extremists and loners with a tool to congregate, radicalize, and broadcast not only bigotry but disturbingly lone acts of mass violence that reference prior attacks,” he said. “Let me note this was before El Paso.”
Levin said that by his center’s data, “white supremacist, far-right extremists… have killed at least 26 people so far this year — we had 16 service members killed in Afghanistan so far this year.”
“More people were murdered domestically so far in 2019 by just a handful of white supremacists than all of those killed in the whole of calendar year 2018 in every extremist homicide event. And this is coming at a time where, disturbingly, mass shootings overall including those with mixed or no discernible ideological motives were also rising,” he said, adding there “is a pattern of spikes in both vile Internet chatter and actual terrorist incidents as well as hate crime… the month of Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally, and the associated political controversy around it, was tied for the second-worst month, according to the FBI, for hate crime for this whole decade.”
“We have to have a coordinated approach, and that includes data,” Levin advocated. “It also includes looking at the weapons of war, which are being used now increasingly by terrorists of all stripes but in particular white supremacists and the far-right. We have to have a coordinated national approach to this.”
Senior Fellow Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told the committee that his research focuses mostly on ISIS and al-Qaeda — “if you were telling me 18 years after 9/11 I would still be talking about al-Qaeda I would probably be surprised at the time,” he noted, stressing that ISIS is also “very much alive” — but he echoed “the alarm over the rise of far-right terrorism and extremism — I think it is an obvious growing threat.”
Joscelyn said that “individuals responsible for attacks everywhere from New Zealand to El Paso were sort of feeding off of each other and trying to one-up each other and trying to kill more people in the name of their twisted ideology.”
“That, to me, makes it a global threat right off of the get-go — just being able to see the ideas transit all of the way from New Zealand all of the way to El Paso and to various other areas,” he said. “I will say this, too: while there’s a lot of points to argue or to sort of go into about the comparisons between jihadism and far-right terrorism, one point of similarity that I think comes across is after the New Zealand terrorist attack I was very struck by the fact how many jihadis were sharing video of the massacre in the mosque in New Zealand.”
“In fact, I got the video from al-Qaeda channels,” Joscelyn continued. “They were sharing it and commenting on it. And you could see this twisted sort of feedback loop, the cycle of violence between the two feeding off of each other as they are talking about this.” An Al-Shabaab spokesman “used the New Zealand terrorist attack to argue, yeah, basically that terrorist was right, Muslims don’t belong in the West — you need to come fight for us against the West, come back to your homelands.”
Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) called it “unacceptable that the secretary of Homeland Security, FBI director and acting director of National Counterterrorism Center refused the bipartisan invitation to testify at this hearing.”
“This committee has a longstanding practice of holding an annual hearing to examine threats to the homeland,” Thompson added.
“I share the chairman’s frustration that DHS, FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center could not be here today,” said Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). “Our committee has a longstanding tradition of hearing from these witnesses each fall. Like Chairman Thompson, I expect them to appear before this committee as soon as possible.”