The domestic terrorist attacks earlier this month in Charlottesville, VA which killed at least one and left over 19 critically injured, where a group of “Unite the Right” protesters rallied, fusing together white nationalists and a network of other right-wing groups have again placed to the forefront an uptick of racially focused domestic terrorist attacks in the United States.
Let’s look at some of the most recent examples. This year on May 26 in Oregon, Jeremy Joseph Christian, known to police for his hate speech and extremist white nationalist rhetoric, killed two innocent bystanders, Ricky John Best and Myrddin Namkai Meche who came to the rescue of two Muslim women being harassed by Christian. On May 20th in College Park, MD, Sean Urbanski, who was a member of a racist Facebook group called Alt-Reich: Nation stabbed Richard Collins III, a 23-year-old newly commissioned Army officer who was days away from graduating with a degree in Business Administration. And in June 2015, in my hometown of Charleston, SC, Dylan Roof walked into the historically black Church of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal and fatally shot nine people.
What all these domestic terrorists have in common is an ideological motivation behind their cause. While attacks carried out by Islamist extremists, whom the public are familiar with because of mass media coverage and prolific groups like the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida, likely will gain more headlines, the growing threat of domestic terrorism deserves more attention and is certainly on the rise.
Based on academic and social science research, terrorist groups largely lack the financial resources, expertise and physical ability to defeat state actors, but their ability to promote their agenda through violence that shapes perceptions of political and social issues often wins over new recruits. In this case, domestic terrorist groups, mostly in the form of radical nationalists as we have seen this weekend, use their shared grievances to rally around one another.
According to the public policy think tank, New America Foundation, domestic incidents of extremist violence show that outside the tragic events of the Orlando nightclub attacks, between 2002-2016, far-right affiliated groups conducted 18 attacks that killed 48 people in the US, while terrorists motivated by al-Qa’ida or the Islamic State killed 45 people in nine attacks.
As a former US Government counter-terrorism analyst for over a decade, I worked on difficult and sensitive issues on national security matters trying to understand the root causes of radicalization and violent extremism both domestically in the United States, dealing with the likes of those we have seen over the last week, as well as the overseas threat. What I have seen in my experience is that there continues to be a symbiotic relationship between Islamists and far-right domestic terrorists. Ideological separatists, regardless of their strict and narrow interpretation of religion, cultural and social worldview, share a common understanding of life in feeling a threat against their communities and wanting to re-establish a bygone past that either temporarily existed or never existed in history.
In order to defeat this threat, Americans, including ordinary citizens and policymakers in Washington alike, must fully and openly address this dark and difficult past dealing with race and social inequities that is now resurfacing by radicalizing marginalized white Americans using race, religion and historical motifs as a rallying tool.
The work my organization deals with on a daily basis in countering extremist rhetoric isn’t just relegated to Islamists, but also to vulnerable radical domestic terrorist recruits who share a common perspective: to invoke fear, hate and terror. Building coalitions with government, civil society, faith based and ordinary citizens will aide us all in finding long-term solutions to an ever-growing problem that is now at epidemic proportions and right in our backyard.
Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, Executive Director, North America, Quilliam International, the world’s first counter extremist organization established over a decade ago with offices in both London and DC.