The news from Christchurch, New Zealand, follows a tragic but familiar storyline. An armed extremist enters a public space with the sole intent of killing and injuring large numbers of civilians. He may use a vehicle, an edged weapon, or explosives – but he is far more likely to use firearms to indiscriminately kill innocent bystanders.
All too often, the spaces targeted are houses of worship. 2012, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. 2015, a Christian church in South Carolina. 2018, a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. 2019, a Muslim mosque in Christchurch. All targeted by racist, xenophobic, white supremacist extremists. (Note that I omit the names of such perpetrators unless absolutely necessary, in order to limit the recognition they so desperately crave.)
Following the most recent attack in New Zealand, much has been made of the attacker not being on any terror watch list. The extremist who committed the recent atrocities in New Zealand is believed to have traveled to meet like-minded individuals in Europe and elsewhere, and is known to have communicated with them via various online channels. So why wasn’t he known to antiterrorism agencies? Because we do not address white supremacist terrorists with the same level of intensity with which we address Islamist terrorists.
This must change.
A largely effective transnational model has been established utilizing the proven tools of antiterrorism and counterterrorism. Antiterrorism may be generally thought of as efforts taken to discourage, deter, and mitigate acts of terror – including threat analysis, target hardening, and planning and training programs. Counterterrorism may be defined as active or kinetic actions – including tactical law enforcement or warrant/fugitive units. Due largely to our collective experience against Islamist extremist groups, there are already established protocols for operating in these arenas:
Map the movements of suspected extremists
Networks reveal themselves through movement in the physical and electronic worlds. The Christchurch perpetrator was known to have associated with other like-minded extremists in-person and online. Both of these traits represent classic opportunities for law enforcement or intelligence agencies to “pick up the scent” of an extremist group.
Prepare for cells and lone wolves
Not all violent actors are a part of large or organized networks. Public-safety agencies and private-sector security professionals must therefore prepare and train for acts of violence with little or no advanced warning. The vast majority of recent racist extremist attacks have had minute numbers of perpetrators – usually only one attacker. These individuals are often radicalized online, rather than in large, face-to-face settings. Much like the similar threat of Islamic extremism, these traits will limit the opportunities for intelligence and law enforcement to identify and interdict prior to the attack phase.
Counter online propaganda
The so-called Islamic State was renowned for its online sales pitch to young and impressionable potential followers. Its message specifically targeted the confused, the disenfranchised, the ostracized. Racist extremists have used a very similar model to further radicalize potential followers. Even though white supremacist efforts have been uneven and fitful in the past, we must presume they will improve with time. Having a clear, unified, and consistent message countering their hate-filled narrative of ignorance will be vital to long-term success.
Erode extremist financial and political support
Like other extremist ideologies, white supremacist terrorists cannot succeed without funding to finance their activities, and political cover to minimize governmental interference. Identifying and choking off sources of income has been crucial to substantial success against a range of Islamist groups, restricting their capabilities to recruit and operate. Politicians from America to Europe to Australia have recently made openly racist statements, overtly supporting white supremacy, and should be voted from office at the first possible opportunity (alongside any equally vile political figure supporting Islamic extremism).
Sometimes it is necessary to put on the body armor and load the rounds. When any imminent threat associated with racist violence is identified, it is time to call in the tactical units to serve warrants and make arrests. All of the antiterrorism measures in the world won’t stop every radical extremist from advancing an intent to harm, and sometimes counterterrorism action is required. Specialized local, state, and federal law enforcement units must be willing and able to perform such tasks. Just as importantly, they must collaborate with their counterparts in the military and in other nations.
Be adaptive and flexible
Finally, none of these methodologies will be foolproof and without risk. Presuming that any threat will remain static and unchanging is a guarantee for failure. Antiterrorism and counterterrorism professionals must learn from one another, and be prepared to constantly improve strategies and tactics. Such adaptation will be required to maintain an advantage over any and all extremist organizations.
This concept of addressing racist and xenophobic extremists in much the same way as we address Islamic extremists is not entirely original, of course. In recent days, many other practitioners and academics – including Ali Soufan, former counterterrorism official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of George Washington University – have stated very similar conclusions. We can, and must, be capable of combating violent extremism on multiple fronts.
Make no mistake. Racist hate groups intend direct physical harm to innocent civilians by coercing or killing those who think differently from them, thus meeting every definition of the term terrorism. We know how to counter this threat because we’ve done it before. White supremacist extremists represent a clear and present danger, and can be countered simultaneously to the Islamist extremist threat using many of the same tactics, techniques, and procedures. It’s time for the gloves to come off.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected] Our editorial guidelines can be found here.