March 29, 2021

IntelBrief: The Counterterrorism Challenge of “Salad Bar” Ideologies

Police officers with New York City's Counterterrorism Task Force wear face masks while guarding the World Trade Center's transportation hub (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The terrorist threat to the United States is extremely diverse in 2021, with many ideologies that motivate violence defying simple categorization. 
  • There are important connectors that facilitate ideological convergence, including anomie, nihilism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and accelerationism.
  • There is a growing list of individuals who reflect this “salad bar” of ideologies, combining Salafi-jihadism and white supremacy extremism.
  • Extremists with a potpourri of grievances, combined with decentralized and diffuse movements, present a difficult security challenge.

In remarks before the Senate Homeland Security Committee in September 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the tendency of some terrorists to be motivated by what he referred to as “a mishmash” or “salad bar” of ideologies, the most prominent feature of which is an attraction to violence. The recently released Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) report on the threat posed by domestic violent extremism (DVE) in 2021 seemed to reference the salad bar analogy when it described “a diverse set of violent extremist ideologies,” adhered to by lone actors and/or small cells of domestic violent extremists (DVEs) as among the most likely to carry out violent attacks in the United States.

The “salad bar” label describes individuals or groups that adhere to ideologies that overlap, converge - or even in some cases contradict - but nonetheless inform the belief system of extremists. The lines between left-wing and right-wing extremism blend together, as the ideological spectrum becomes compressed. One trend to monitor closely is the growth of eco-fascism, a phenomenon some have labeled “white supremacists going green,” because the ideology harnesses classic far-right causes including anti-immigration toward a typically far-left objective—protecting the environment. However, as Cynthia Miller-Idriss and others have pointed out, the twist is that eco-fascists are interested in preserving the environment, but doing so for the sake of the white race and the white race only. Both the Christchurch and El Paso terrorists included elements of eco-fascism in their manifestos, respectively. These are individuals who seem to be “trying on” various aspects of an identity, “shopping around” until they find something that “fits.” The result can be an eclectic patchwork of beliefs.

The lack of rigidity translates to what Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has called “fringe fluidity” and what Bruce Hoffman has dubbed “ideological convergence.” The result is a seeming ease with which individuals can move laterally across belief systems. But there are also important connectors that facilitate this movement—anomie, nihilism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and accelerationism. Before he converted to Salafism, Devon Arthurs was a neo-Nazi and member of the violent white supremacist organization Atomwaffen Division. Arthurs murdered his neo-Nazi roommates for mocking his conversion, then held several people hostage at gunpoint, telling police officers he was angered by U.S. military attacks in Muslim countries. Andrew Anglin was once a committed vegan and self-described anti-racist who championed a number of far-left causes, including animal rights. His ideological journey led him to the other end of the spectrum, where he went on to become the founder of The Daily Stormer, perhaps the most prominent neo-Nazi website on the Internet. In addition to promoting his racist views, Anglin is also virulently homophobic and rails against feminism and women’s rights activists. Even Adam Gadahn, the American al-Qaeda spokesman who was at one point one of the most wanted terrorists in the world, grew up in California as an awkward teenager who dabbled in Evangelical Christianity before becoming obsessed with death metal, and then ultimately radical Islam.

One of the most well-known cases is that of Nicholas Young, a northern Virginia transit police officer who was a fervent supporter of the Islamic State, as well as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Young was convicted of attempting to provide material support to ISIS and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Ethan Melzer, an Army private, was arrested and charged with conspiring to release classified information to a neo-Nazi group called Order of Nine Angles (O9A). The charges against Melzer, released in an indictment, allege that the self-described ‘traitor against the United States’ provided O9A, a group motivated by Satanic and white supremacist views, with specific data about his unit that would enable his fellow soldiers to be ambushed. Members of O9A have expressed admiration for jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and their longtime leader, Osama bin Laden. And while not necessarily indicative of ideological convergence, it should be noted that many of the most notorious European foreign fighters who joined ISIS and would later go on to commit high-profile attacks on European soil, were at one point more aptly described as low-level criminals, drug dealers, and violent thieves, not committed terrorists.

The Boogaloo Bois, a movement that evolved from meme culture, is emblematic of the difficulty of neatly labeling the current crop of DVEs in the United States. Primarily anti-government and anti-law enforcement, with a predominantly far-right posture, elements of the Boogaloo movement have also attempted to position themselves as anti-racist. Complicating the categorization of the Boogaloo further, two of its members were arrested last year for attempting to provide material support to Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Beyond the challenge of establishing typologies that adhere to a specific set of criteria, we have witnessed that individuals, groups, and movements espousing, for example, a white supremacist extremist ideology, are also enamored with elements of Salafi-jihadism.

Few would dispute that there exist crucial differences between jihadis and white supremacy extremists. But there are also important similarities and particular ways these groups feed off of each other, including: the utility and cycle of violence; use of the internet; propaganda; recruitment; financing; and the transnational nature of the networks. Neo-Nazis seek tactical expertise by scouring jihadist magazines and web forums for tips on how to build bombs and select targets. White supremacists have used the term “white jihad” to describe their activities and have even glorified bin Laden in their propaganda.

The ideological amalgamation makes counterterrorism more difficult. Extremists with a potpourri of grievances, combined with movements that are continuously in flux and frequently splintering, present a difficult challenge. The Global War on Terrorism, for all of its faults, brought to bear the military might of the world’s most powerful nation and focused it on disrupting and dismantling organizations and groups—al-Qaeda and ISIS—motivated by a specific ideology, Salafi-jihadism. The onus is now on law enforcement and the intelligence community to adjust to a complex operating environment where individuals and movements are just as threatening as groups and organizations. And these individuals and movements are motivated by a set of grievances and ideologies that may seem unfamiliar and even absurd, especially when one considers the threat posed by conspiracies like QAnon, or young men willing to kill because they are unable to find romantic partners. The challenge will be for policymakers, practitioners, and counterterrorism analysts to step outside of their analytic comfort zones and question longstanding assumptions that may be flawed or altogether outdated, and consider if, and how, the counterterrorism frameworks that have been established over the past two decades are fit for purpose in this environment.