June 19, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: American Terrorism

• The domestic terror attack on June 17 in Charleston, South Carolina is a tragic reminder that not every terrorist carries a black flag, though they all carry the ideology of hate

• Unlike hierarchical organized groups such as the Islamic State, violent racist extremists in the U.S. move about a much looser network after decades of infiltration by law enforcement; ideology binds individual actors and small groups to a common hateful cause

• Similar in intent if not scale to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, ultra-racist extremists use social media and violent music to spread their ideology of hate, division, and exclusion

• As with jihadist groups, ultra-racist groups invest heavily in mythical origin stories and believe in the corruptive power of ethnic and religious diversity.


The past year has seen an understandable amount of attention devoted to the threat of the Islamic State and other jihadist terrorist groups, as well as the threat posed by foreign fighters or lone wolves inspired by the black flag of bin Ladinism. The racially-motivated mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina—one of the worst U.S. domestic terror attacks in years—serves as a terrible reminder that not all terrorists carry a black flag. There are significant differences between groups such as the Islamic State and the much more loosely organized violent racist groups throughout the United States (and western Europe, for that matter). They differ wildly in their specific grievances, targets, methods, and structure. But they all share the same fundamental ideology of hatred and an obsession with a return to a mythologized past.

The terrorist who attacked the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston reportedly left several survivors so they could tell authorities his stated reason for the murders: racism. He targeted that specific church likely because of its historic association with African Americans’ struggle for equality. Dylann Roof rejected an entire population due to his ideology, and sought out to attack both a symbol and a people. This is the exact same reasoning that the Islamic State targets Shi’a, Yazidis, Christians, and other Sunnis. The hatred behind the Charleston attack is the same hatred behind the Paris attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the massacres of school children in Pakistan and Nigeria.

Though not at the same scale as the Islamic State, violent racist networks and individuals use social media to spread their ideology. Twitter is awash with racist threads that skirt the prohibition on explicitly calling for violence while getting the message across all the same. Like the Islamic State, white supremacists use violent imagery and, in particular, racially violent music, to gain and motivate supporters. One website in particular, StormFront, has attracted a large following, some of whom have acted on their ideology and killed. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2014 reported that nine members or commenters on the website went on to commit racially-motivated murders, killing nearly 100 victims. This large number includes the 77 people killed by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011, as he was a frequent commenter on the site for three years before he committed his acts of terror. Those who kill to return to a fantasy land of racial purity and those who kill to return to a fantasy land of religious purity are two sides of the same coin, even if they would never acknowledge it.

Terrorism in the name of religion drives headlines and national security policies, and with the unprecedented spike in extremist violence at the hands of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda across the Middle East, several regions of Africa, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is somewhat understandable. Yet terrorism in the name of racial or ethnic identity has a far longer history in the United States than does the spectre of jihadist terrorism, and is far more common. This single racist terror attack in Charleston killed more Americans than the Islamic State has since it declared itself a caliphate last summer. According to the New America International Security Program, jihadist terror attacks have killed 26 people inside the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks. In that same timeframe, taking into account the victims in Charleston, racist or anti-government attacks have killed 48 people.

The police and government response to the attack in Charleston was an effective one, in that the situation was handled like an urgent but manageable law enforcement situation. Such a measured but thorough response is the exact opposite of what has happened in places from Sydney to Paris, in which large sections of major cities were shut down because the response became a national security issue first and a law enforcement issue second. Such overreactions are at the heart of 'the new terror spectacular’ in which groups like the Islamic State—or individuals they inspire—conduct small-scale attacks that generate large-scale reactions. The roots of terrorism require a multi-layered approach, with proportionate law enforcement action a key part of denying the attackers the visual and emotional impact they crave.

In the years after 9/11, much to the frustration of the United States, many Arab and Muslim countries were slow to acknowledge that they indeed had a terrorism problem, instead diminishing the scope and scale of the problem by labeling the attackers as mentally disturbed or mere criminals. When it comes to U.S. domestic terrorism, the same semantic game still applies, with focus placed on the individual attackers and not the ideology and networks that spawn them. When specific populations are violently targeted overseas, the U.S. and others denounce such attacks as terrorism, while the violent targeting of specific populations domestically is relegated to hate crime. The increased attention devoted to countering violent extremism programs that attempt to protect vulnerable youth and communities from the lure of jihadist terrorism likely needs to broaden its focus to the equal, if not greater, threat of racial and ethnic domestic terrorism.


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