White nationalists protest at the Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right Rally on Aug. 12, 2017. (Rodney Dunning/Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/legalcode)

PERSPECTIVE: Why Are We Ignoring the Right-Wing Extremism Threat?

In our politically sensitive environment, this topic is charged with tribal political energy. Please take a moment to read and consider this from the perspective of someone without a political “tribal” affiliation and a pragmatic practioner of CT (counterterrorism) and CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) for the past decade and a half. As a nation, we must find our way back to talking about difficult and dangerous problems in a manner that allows us to solve problems and, in a way, which reflects the highest values of our republic.

The following problem is as simple to state accurately as it is difficult to address: RWE, right wing extremism, is now our most serious extremist threat at home. We must not only find a way to address RWE specifically but, concurrently, all extremist threats in proportion to their severity.

The sole intent of this article is to raise awareness on this threat in order to drive solution-based discussions. I have no illusions that this piece will be equally well-received across the various communities that make up U.S. society. It most certainly will not. That’s OK though as long as decision-makers, practioners and everyday citizens absorb enough of what follows to talk earnestly about solutions that lead to solutions. Every citizen will continue to be at risk until we do.

Introduction

The recent tragic events in New Zealand, Pittsburgh and beyond have brought to the forefront the danger of applying the resources of the state against one but not all forms of extremist activity. A group of extremists – right-wing extremism (RWE) – have for a long while been resurgent in the West but, post 9-11, have gone largely unattended. While it was necessary to prominently focus on the likes of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc., and still is, we have turned a blind eye toward other movements which, by the numbers, have caused more death, particularly to military and law enforcement, in the homeland than the others of these combined. This is the equivalent of taking your young children to the doctor for vaccines but insisting on only getting one of the many required to ensure they remain healthy. Those children are then at risk and so are others with whom they come into contact. Now that this issue has been once again and so painfully thrust upon us, it’s long past due to make the required policy changes that focus our resources proportionately on all extremist threats, not just the ones that suit popular beliefs and biases.

Many within the professional CT and CVE communities have long raised this issue but for a variety of reasons their voices have not been heard. There is ample blame to go around, but for the purpose of this article I will try to focus more on the topic and offer links to sources that should provide enough background to pique interest. Most of this will revolve around the U.S. but, as we’ll see shortly, some discussion of the West in general will be necessarily included.

The bottom line to this discussion is that it is inherently more dangerous to the homeland to focus exclusively on one form of extremist activity rather than proportionately in regard to the severity of the threats posed by each type. We can and must do better for the sake of all our citizens.

Context

In the past few years, several of our most respected extremism and terrorism experts have warned of a growing and potent trend of right-wing movements as well as populist movements around the world. Many movements and groups share traits, not least of which is xenophobia that has an intolerant exclusive worldview at the core. It is important to also understand that radicalization occurs the same way in RWE as it does in the ranks of AQ or ISIS. There is always a scapegoat populace or populaces involved in these views. Intolerant is one thing, but when the ideological rhetoric that sustains these variety of movements is activated, they cross the line into extremism. More often than not, a portion of those whose identities are triggered by such rhetoric will cross the final line into violent extremism. There are many and complicated reasons such as grievance (real or perceived), who extremists identify with, trauma, psychological factors, etc., for this, but that’s a topic for a different article or, actually, several more.

Right-wing movements now so openly common in Western societies, while not holding one exclusive ideology, often share parts of their ideologies as well as share the same adversaries. Here in the states, examples would be anti-government groups, white supremacists, ultra-nationalists and so on. All or most target vulnerable scapegoated populaces, the government, opposing political entities and so on. They are not by definition a linked network but their beliefs often do show up in similar media, events and activities. Their hatred of a diverse, structured society based on any interpretation of our founding documents other than their own (often bizarrely misinterpreted) is increasingly rabid and the line between expressed hatred and taking action based on that hatred is crossed with ever-increasing regularity.

The violence now associated with this mixed bag of right-wing extremists has become impossible to dismiss as they very nearly account for more extremist groups than all other types combined, including Islamist. Hate crimes are sharply up. Openly hostile rhetoric is sharply up. And yet, law enforcement and media coverage still runs almost exclusively toward news of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, etc.

In the past two years DHS has removed the name of every single extremist threat from their open source “Preventing Terrorism” page, other than Islamic. If you search their archives, it is difficult to find more than a handful of references dating from the current administration. The FBI’s open-source pages are much the same and yet the trend of right-wing extremist violence and hate crime continues to be ascendant. If you would look at the FBI’s open-source terrorism page you would hardly know that they investigate anything but Islamic extremism. I know there are countless extraordinary professionals at both DHS and the FBI that do amazing work equitably, but part of getting this problem right is making sure the public knows about it. Both are failing in this respect. Local law enforcement is a mixed bag with some doing exceptional work and most looking more like DHS and the FBI.

In Europe, especially among NATO nations, much the same occurs but with one exceptional difference. Much of the hard-right activity in Europe is supported, promoted and amplified by Russia as an attempt to divide and dilute western society seen by them as a threat to Mother Russia. With U.S. and European allies being so closely linked, this activity by Russia also permeates U.S. society, not to mention their intentional and now well-publicized efforts to promote extreme elements of U.S. society during our past two elections and beyond.

Let’s add to this that other forms of extremist activity still persist and are threats. ISIS and AQ-inspired extremism is still much in play; despite ISIS losing its physical domination in Syria, the terror group has lost little of its ability to inspire terrorism around the world by way of their violent ideology. This brings us to a point that is often lost in terrorism discussions and public analysis.

When violent extremist ideologies, especially those that are diametrically opposed, occupy the same physical and/or cognitive space, they all become more dangerous than if they alone dominated that same space. For those who are struggling with this concept, let’s consider Mexican drug cartel violence. If one cartel dominates a turf or markets, there is always a threat to local citizens from that particular cartel. If two or more cartels vie for the same turf or market share, the violence is exponentially greater. If law enforcement focuses exclusively on one of the competing gangs, the others become emboldened and aggressive either in competition or as a means to solidify their dominance. This is precisely the case with ignoring right-wing extremists in the U.S. or elsewhere or as pertains to other types of extremists around the world. There are other, more complex psychological factors as well regarding the relationship between ideologically inspired violence, but for the sake of this discussion what’s important is to recognize that matters get worse, not better.

Recommendations

(A short list and, yes, everyone has a role to play)

  • Although the first recommendation seems all too apparent, it must be said (or read) “out loud.” As a nation, we must learn to discuss problems, issues, challenges and threats from an evidence-based approach, ever cognizant of the influence of tribal, political narratives on our thinking. Critical analysis is by default, common sense filtered through knowledge, not political ideology.
  • As this topic falls primarily under the purview of DHS, the FBI and local law enforcement, we must return publicly available information regarding all forms of terrorism to their open-source websites sooner than later. A well-informed public is a more resilient public.
  • Fund CVE work equitably across the full spectrum of extremist threats. Current data shows that Islamic-inspired extremism receives 85 percent of federal DHS funding for CVE work. This is grossly out of ratio to other threats.
  • Either DHS or a specialized agency/entity must be charged with addressing CVE efforts across the spectrum of U.S. terror threats and include outreach to transnational similar efforts. Intelligence sharing between related entities working on these efforts must be achieved with the proper oversight.
    1. Under the past administration, DHS headed a task force for this purpose but there is scant evidence that, if it still exists, it is active.
    2. Such an entity must also be charged with outreach at home along with education, the ability to inform the public and cooperate with all levels of law enforcement.
  • Develop and integrate programs focused on resilience at all levels of governance to include public education. Programs that address the multi-discipline arenas of CVE are critical, especially in diverse areas where there is an upward trend in ideological-inspired violence. Unify these disparate programs with a narrative strategy and funding to allow different programs to benefit from others.
  • Apply the same scrutiny of social media regarding recruitment, radicalization and incitement against all forms of extremism equitably. Again, we focus hard on jihadi behavior but do little regarding others. Twitter in particular is a threat with a 600 percent increase in white supremacist users between 2012-2016.
    1. As it applies to social media, it also applies to other media. Before we can engage and mitigate the impact of any type of organized extremist activity, we must realize that they are organized and we’re engaged substantially in an information war or, as I prefer, “narrative warfare.”
  • We must include training and resources to law enforcement and intelligence communities to deal with the cognitive warfare. Whether it’s AQ in the Middle East or Nazis around the corner, 80 percent or more of our fight is between our collective ears.
  • Although the U.S. government has no direct control over media other than public affairs, it does have a great deal of indirect influence within credible media communities. It is recommended that a public affairs campaign be organized and executed around narrative principles to inform and sustain a well-educated public on matters regarding all extremist activity. The old adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” must be applied to all extremist activity, not merely ISIS or similar. We must remember that it took decades to minimize the KKK, a couple of decades to inform the public well about Islamic extremism, and there is no reason to believe less of an effort will suffice for RWE. Media has the ability to shape public opinion, and public opinion matters a great deal to policy.
  • Finally, law enforcement must be prioritized to take on all extremist activity proportionately. This not only means “treating the symptoms” through arrests/prosecution, etc., but it also must include training about radicalization, mitigating recruitment, etc. Law enforcement does excellent work but their focus priorities come primarily from leadership. This, simply put, is a leadership issue.

Conclusion

There is a convincing case to be made that ignoring RWE as a threat has produced a threat to the homeland which, by the numbers, exceeds that of other extremist groups. To be clear, I am not arguing for focusing exclusively on one or the other but placing a full spectrum of focus in accordance proportionately with the threats imposed by each. As of 2017, there were more than 2,100 known extremist groups listed by peer-reviewed terrorism experts. While it’s impossible to focus exclusively on each, we can and should be focused on groups of similar threats such as RWE, LWE (left-wing extremists), Islamist, environmental, etc. This is simply common sense.

As mentioned above, by failing to equally apply our focus in both law enforcement and CVE programs, the threats from each are exponentially higher than if they operated alone in our nation. In layman’s terms, opposing ideologies in particular “play off one another” in order to expand the “market share” and to make their point through intimidation and violence. By example, the case of Islamist vs. RWE demonstrates that the incidence of extremist ideology has only expanded and become more threatening by our singular focus on the Islamist version of extremism.

The threat from RWE also has become more severe because it marries effectively with similar ideologies in Europe and, generally, extreme forms of populism globally. Unchecked, the currently ascendant trends of RWE violence will continue to climb.

It is long past due that government, federal and below focus across the spectrum of extremist activity and apply resources relative to the threat, not based on bias and beliefs. Media has their role as do our elected leaders, educational institutions, houses of worship and down to each citizen. Responsibility for safety falls on all of our shoulders. To accomplish what is needed, we need to talk about it, regardless of the political sensitivities. If we don’t, we must accept our share of the blame whether it’s small for individual citizens or large if it’s a national security entity or elected leader charged with this task.

The illustrious Thomas Jefferson penned our Declaration of Independence with these immortal words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Extremism, of any ilk, unabated not only threatens our safety but the very values upon which our republic was founded.

 

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 HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

Mr. Paul Cobaugh retired from the US Army as a Warrant Officer after a distinguished career in the US Special Operations CT community, primarily focused on mitigating adversarial influence and advancing US objectives by way of influence. Throughout his career he has focused on the centrality of influence in modern conflict whether it be from extremist organisations or state actors employing influence against the US and our Allies. Post military career he was offered and accepted the position of Vice President at Narrative Strategies, a US based Think-Do Tank which specializes in the non-kinetic aspects of conflict. He has also co-authored, Soft Power on Hard Problems, Hamilton Publishing, 2017 and Introduction to Narrative Warfare: A Primer and Study Guide, Amazon, 2018

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