By Sebastian Rotella
During the past two years, U.S. counterterrorism officials held meetings with their European counterparts to discuss an emerging threat: right-wing terror groups becoming increasingly global in their reach.
American neo-Nazis were traveling to train and fight with militias in the Ukraine. There were suspected links between U.S. extremists and the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group that was training foreigners in its St. Petersburg compounds. A gunman accused of killing 23 people at an El Paso Walmart in 2019 had denounced a “Hispanic invasion” and praised a white supremacist who killed 51 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and who had been inspired by violent American and Italian racists.
But the efforts to improve transatlantic cooperation against the threat ran into a recurring obstacle. During talks and communications, senior Trump administration officials steadfastly refused to use the term “right-wing terrorism,” causing disputes and confusion with the Europeans, who routinely use the phrase, current and former European and U.S. officials told ProPublica. Instead, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security referred to “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism,” while the State Department chose “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism.”
“We did have problems with the Europeans,” one national security official said. “They call it right-wing terrorism and they were angry that we didn’t. There was a real aversion to using that term on the U.S. side. The aversion came from political appointees in the Trump administration. We very quickly realized that if people talked about right-wing terrorism, it was a nonstarter with them.”
The U.S. response to the globalization of the far-right threat has been slow, scattered and politicized, U.S. and European counterterrorism veterans and experts say. Whistleblowers and other critics have accused DHS leaders of downplaying the threat of white supremacy and slashing a unit dedicated to fighting domestic extremism. DHS has denied those accusations.
In 2019, a top FBI official told Congress the agency devoted only about 20% of its counterterrorism resources to the domestic threat. Nonetheless, some FBI field offices focus primarily on domestic terrorism.
Former counterterrorism officials said the president’s politics made their job harder. The disagreement over what to call the extremists was part of a larger concern about whether the administration was committed to fighting the threat.
“The rhetoric at the White House, anybody watching the rhetoric of the president, this was discouraging people in government from speaking out,” said Jason Blazakis, who ran a State Department counterterrorism unit from 2008 to 2018. “The president and his minions were focused on other threats.”
Other former officials disagreed. Federal agencies avoided the term “right-wing terrorism” because they didn’t want to give extremists legitimacy by placing them on the political spectrum, or to fuel the United States’ intense polarization, said Christopher K. Harnisch, the former deputy coordinator for countering violent extremism in the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau. Some causes espoused by white supremacists, such as using violence to protect the environment, are not regarded as traditionally right-wing ideology, said Harnisch, who stepped down this week.
“The most important point is that the Europeans and the U.S. were talking about the same people,” he said. “It hasn’t hindered our cooperation at all.”
As for the wider criticism of the Trump administration, Harnisch said: “In our work at the State Department, we never faced one scintilla of opposition from the White House about taking on white supremacy. I can tell you that the White House was entirely supportive.”
The State Department focused mostly on foreign extremist movements, but it examined some of their links to U.S. groups as well.
There was clearly progress on some fronts. The State Department took a historic step in April by designating the Russian Imperial Movement and three of its leaders as terrorists, saying that the group’s trainees included Swedish extremists who carried out bombing attacks on refugees. It was the first such U.S. designation of a far-right terrorist group.
With Trump now out of office, Europeans and Americans expect improved cooperation against right-wing terrorists. Like the Islamist threat, it is becoming clear that the far-right threat is international. In December, a French computer programmer committed suicide after giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to U.S. extremist causes. The recipients included a neo-Nazi news website. Federal agencies are investigating, but it is not yet clear whether anything about the transaction was illegal, officials said.
“It’s like a transatlantic thing now,” said a European counterterror chief, describing American conspiracy theories that surface in the chatter he tracks. “Europe is taking ideology from U.S. groups and vice versa.”
International alliances make extremist groups more dangerous, but also create vulnerabilities that law enforcement could exploit.
Laws in Europe and Canada allow authorities to outlaw domestic extremist groups and conduct aggressive surveillance of suspected members. America's civil liberties laws, which trace to the Constitution's guarantee of free speech spelled out in the First Amendment, are far less expansive. The FBI and other agencies have considerably more authority to investigate U.S. individuals and groups if they develop ties with foreign terror organizations. So far, those legal tools have gone largely unused in relation to right-wing extremism, experts say.
To catch up to the fast-spreading threat at home and abroad, Blazakis said, the U.S. should designate more foreign organizations as terrorist entities, especially ones that allied nations have already outlawed.
A recent case reflects the kind of strategy Blazakis and others have in mind. During the riots in May after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the anti-government movement known as the Boogaloo Bois had armed themselves, according to court papers. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armory to steal heavy weapons, the court papers allege. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them, according to the court papers. In September, prosecutors filed charges of conspiring and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, which can bring a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. One of the defendants pleaded guilty last month. The other still faces charges.
If the U.S. intelligence community starts using its vast resources to gather information on right-wing movements in other countries, it will find more linkages to groups in the United States, Blazakis and other experts predicted. Rather than resorting to a sting, authorities could charge American extremists for engaging in propaganda activity, financing, training or participating in other actions with foreign counterparts.
A crackdown would bring risks, however. After the assault on the Capitol, calls for bringing tougher laws and tactics to bear against suspected domestic extremists revived fears about civil liberties similar to those raised by Muslim and human rights organizations during the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” An excessive response could give the impression that authorities are criminalizing political views, which could worsen radicalization among right-wing groups and individuals for whom suspicion of government is a core tenet.
“You will hit a brick wall of privacy and civil liberties concerns very quickly,” said Seamus Hughes, a former counterterrorism official who is now deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He said the federal response should avoid feeding into “the already existing grievance of government overreach. The goal should be marginalization.”
In recent years, civil liberties groups have warned against responding to the rise in domestic extremism with harsh new laws.
“Some lawmakers are rushing to give law enforcement agencies harmful additional powers and creating new crimes,” wrote Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s national security project, in a statement by the organization about congressional hearings on the issue in 2019. “That approach ignores the way power, racism, and national security laws work in America. It will harm the communities of color that white supremacist violence targets — and undermine the constitutional rights that protect all of us.”
There is also an understandable structural problem. Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have dedicated themselves to the relentless pursuit of al-Qaida, the Islamic State, Iran and other Islamist foes.
Now the counterterrorism apparatus has to shift its aim to a new menace, one that is more opaque and diffuse than Islamist networks, experts said.
It will be like turning around an aircraft carrier, said Blazakis, the former State Department counterterrorism official, who is now a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“The U.S. government is super slow to pivot to new threats,” Blazakis said. “There is a reluctance to shift resources to new targets. And there was a politicization of intelligence during the Trump administration. There was a fear to speak out.”
Despite periodic resistance and generalized disorder in the Trump administration, some agencies advanced on their own, officials said. European counterterror officials say the FBI has become increasingly active in sharing and requesting intelligence about right-wing extremists overseas.
A European counterterror chief described recent conversations with U.S. agents about Americans attending neo-Nazi rallies and concerts in Europe and traveling to join the Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist Ukrainian militia fighting Russian-backed separatists. About 17,000 fighters from 50 countries, including at least 35 Americans, have traveled to the Ukrainian conflict zone, where they join units on both sides, according to one study. The fighting in the Donbass region offers them training, combat experience, international contacts and a sense of themselves as warriors, a theater reminiscent of Syria or Afghanistan for jihadis.
“The far right was not a priority for a long time,” the European counterterror chief said. “Now they are saying it’s a real threat for all our societies. Now they are seeing we have to handle it like Islamic terrorism. Now that we are sharing and we have a bigger picture, we see it’s really international, not domestic.”
The assault on Congress signaled the start of a new era, experts said. The convergence of a mix of extremist groups and activists solidified the idea that the far-right threat has overtaken the Islamist threat in the United States, and that the government has to change policies and shift resources accordingly. Experts predict that the Biden administration will make global right-wing extremism a top counterterrorism priority.
“This is on the rise and has gotten from nowhere on the radar to very intense in a couple of years,” a U.S. national security official said. “It is hard to see how it doesn’t continue. It will be a lot easier for U.S. officials to get concerned where there is a strong U.S. angle.”
A previous spike in domestic terrorism took place in the 1990s, an era of violent clashes between U.S. law enforcement agencies and extremists. In 1992, an FBI sniper gunned down the wife of a white supremacist during an armed standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. The next year, four federal agents died in a raid on heavily armed members of a cult in Waco, Texas; the ensuing standoff at the compound ended in a fire that killed 76 people.Both sieges played a role in the radicalization of the anti-government terrorists who blew up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, including children in a day care center for federal employees. Oklahoma City remains the deadliest terrorist act on U.S. soil aside from the Sept. 11 attacks.
The rise of al-Qaida in 2001 transformed the counterterrorism landscape, spawning new laws and government agencies and a worldwide campaign by intelligence agencies, law enforcement and the military. Despite subsequent plots and occasionally successful attacks involving one or two militants, stronger U.S. defenses and limited radicalization among American Muslims prevented Islamist networks from hitting the United States with the kind of well-trained, remotely directed teams that carried out mass casualty strikes in London in 2005, Mumbai in 2008 and Paris in 2015.
During the past decade, domestic terrorism surged in the United States. Some of the activity was on the political left, such as the gunman who opened fire at a baseball field in Virginia in 2017. The attack critically wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican legislator from Louisiana who was the House Majority whip, as well as a Capitol Police officer guarding him and four others.
But many indicators show that far-right extremism is deadlier. Right-wing attacks and plots accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the country between 1994 and 2020, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Anti-Defamation League reported in 2018 that right-wing terrorists were responsible for more than three times as many deaths as Islamists during the previous decade.
“There have been more arrests and deaths in the United States caused by domestic terrorists than international terrorists in recent years,” said Michael McGarrity, then the counterterrorism chief of the FBI, in congressional testimony in 2019. “Individuals affiliated with racially-motivated violent extremism are responsible for the most lethal and violent activity.”
During the same testimony, McGarrity said the FBI dedicated only about 20% of its counterterrorism resources to the domestic threat. The imbalance, experts say, was partly a lingering result of the global offensive by the Islamic State, whose power peaked in the middle of the decade. Another reason: Laws and rules instituted in the 1970s after FBI spying scandals make it much harder to monitor, investigate and prosecute Americans suspected of domestic extremism.
Critics say the Trump administration was reluctant to take on right-wing extremism. The former president set the tone with his public statements about the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, they say, and with his call last year telling the far-right Proud Boys group to “stand back and stand by.”
Still, various agencies increased their focus on the issue because of a drumbeat of attacks at home — notably the murders of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 — and overseas. The Christchurch massacre of worshippers at mosques in New Zealand in March 2019 caught the attention of American officials. It was a portrait of the globalization of right-wing terrorism.
Brenton Tarrant, the 29-year-old Australian who livestreamed his attack, had traveled extensively in Europe, visiting sites he saw as part of a struggle between Christianity and Islam. In his manifesto, he cited the writings of a French ideologue and of Dylann Roof, an American who killed nine people at a predominantly Black church in South Carolina in 2015. While driving to the mosques, Tarrant played an ode to Serbian nationalist fighters of the Balkan wars on his car radio. And he carried an assault rifle on which he had scrawled the name of an Italian gunman who had shot African immigrants in a rampage the year before.
Christchurch was “part of a wave of violent incidents worldwide, the perpetrators of which were part of similar transnational online communities and took inspiration from one another,” said a report last year by Europol, an agency that coordinates law enforcement across Europe. The report described English as “the lingua franca of a transnational right-wing extremist community.”
With its long tradition of political terrorism on both extremes, Europe has also suffered a spike in right-wing violence. Much of it is a backlash to immigration in general and Muslim communities in particular. Responding to assassinations of politicians and other attacks, Germany and the United Kingdom have outlawed several organizations.
Closer to home, Canada has banned two neo-Nazi groups, Blood and Honour and Combat 18, making it possible to charge people for even possessing their paraphernalia or attending their events. Concerts and sales of video games, T-shirts and other items have become a prime source of international financing for right-wing movements, the European counterterror chief said.
During the past two years, officials at the FBI, DHS, State Department and other agencies tried to capitalize on the deeper expertise of European governments and improve transatlantic cooperation against right-wing extremism. Legal and cultural differences complicated the process, American and European officials said. A lack of order and cohesion in the U.S. national security community was another factor, they said.
“There was so little organization to the U.S. counterterrorism community that everybody decided for themselves what they would do,” a U.S. national security official said. “It was not the type of centrally controlled effort that would happen in other administrations.”
As a result, the U.S. government has sometimes been slow to respond to European requests for legal assistance and information-sharing about far-right extremism, said Eric Rosand, who served as a State Department counterterrorism official during the Obama administration.
“U.S.-European cooperation on addressing white supremacist and other far-right terrorism has been ad hoc and hobbled by a disjointed and inconsistent U.S. government approach,” Rosand said.
The semantic differences about what to call the threat didn't help, according to Rosand and other critics. They say the Trump administration was averse to using the phrase “right-wing terrorism” because some groups on that part of the ideological spectrum supported the president.
“It highlights the disconnect,” Rosand said. “They were saying they didn’t want to suggest the terrorism is linked to politics. They didn’t want to politicize it. But if you don’t call it what it is because of concerns of how it might play with certain political consistencies, that politicizes it.”
Harnisch, the former deputy coordinator at the State Department counterterrorism bureau, rejected the criticism. He said cooperation with Europeans on the issue was “relatively nascent,” but that there had been concrete achievements.
“I think we laid a strong foundation, and I think the Biden administration will build on it,” Harnisch said. “From my perspective, we made significant progress on this threat within the Trump administration.”
This article was produced by ProPublica.