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At what point do we call this a right-wing terrorist campaign?

October 29, 2018

America is reeling from the horrific attack on a synagogue in Pennsylvania, in which an anti-Semitic man killed 11 people. And we were already reeling from a series of attempted mail bomb attacks by a right-wing man targeting important liberal figures. Meanwhile, another right-wing attack this week in Kentucky was nearly overlooked. Those on the right tend to view these as horrible but isolated events. Those on the left point, rightly, to the vicious rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies, as well as the country’s lax gun laws. But I wonder if we should go further: is America facing a right-wing terrorist campaign?

What would this mean? Here is a passage from Bruce Hoffman’s influential Inside Terrorism on the definition of terrorism:  “We may therefore now attempt to define terrorism as the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” Likewise, Audrey Cronin, in her important book How Terrorism Ends, defined terrorist campaigns as involving “three strategic actors—the group, the government and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist ‘triad.’”

Let’s look at what we’ve encountered. The synagogue shooter shouted anti-Semitic slurs and had a history of anti-Semitic beliefs and conspiracy theorizing. He was particularly upset by claims the migrant caravan from Central America was organized by Jewish people. The failed mail bomber was a fervent Trump supporter who engaged in right-wing conspiracy theories. And the Kentucky shooter explicitly targeted black people—he even tried to enter a historically black church.

There were no organized groups behind these attacks, but they fall under the category of “lone wolf” terrorism. None of them had an explicit political statement. But they were motivated by political issues they desired to affect and hoped to reach a broader audience than their immediate targets. I think we could definitely call all three of these terrorist attacks in the service of right-wing extremist beliefs.

We don’t have to look far to find other such right-wing terrorists. They include the man who killed Heather Heyer while she was protesting the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia. There’s also the man who attacked a black congregation in South Carolina in 2015. And all the way back in 2009, a man attacked the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. These were all political acts of violence intended to intimidate a broader audience.

These suggest a right-wing terrorist campaign. There is no single organization behind them. But there are a common set of ideas tied to a broader political struggle. Many seemed motivated by right-wing conspiracy theories. The murderer of Heather Heyer was literally participating in an organized right-wing extremist movement.

These attacks are a case of loosely-connected individuals drawing from a common set of symbols in order to intimidate certain audiences—religious and ethnic minorities and politically-liberal people—inspire like-minded audiences and call on the government to act. Granted, the specific policies they hope to accomplish are unclear and there are no tangible connections between many of these attackers. But they are part of the same ideological milieu, trying to accomplish the same thing.

Let’s compare this to ISIL’s attacks in Western Europe and North America. There is an organized movement behind the attacks, but the attacks we’ve seen have rarely been ISIL operatives infiltrating our countries. Instead, it’s individuals either loosely affiliated with or inspired by the group committing attacks with vague political goals. The 2016 Florida nightclub shooter was inspired by US air strikes against ISIL and declared loyalty to the group shortly before his attack. The San Bernardino shooters also declared loyalty to ISIL, but their motivation was less clear. Both of these incidents were (rightly) treated as terrorism, even though they were really lone wolfs inspired by an extremist ideology.

There are also similarities to left-wing terrorist campaigns in America. When I was an analyst with the Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence office—I was a contractor working on site—we spent a lot of time investigating attacks and threats by the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front (ALF and ELF). These left-wing movements claimed a variety of attacks on businesses and individuals that they deem cruel to animals or the environment. The movements themselves are pretty nebulous, however, with attacks conducted by small cells who pledge allegiance to the movement with little additional guidance or interaction. Nevertheless, the government considers these attacks part of a terrorist campaign.

So there is precedent for considering loosely-connected attacks inspired by a common ideology a terrorist campaign. We do it for Islamist and left-wing terrorism, why not right-wing? The lack of an overarching—if titular—organization means the FBI probably won’t treat it as such due to statutory limitations. And it may also lead some terrorism scholars to avoid calling it a campaign. But forms of terrorism change, and it’s worth thinking about whether our definitions need to as well.

What, in practice, would it mean to consider these attacks part of a right-wing terrorist campaign? Well, a good first step would be the government taking them more seriously. Law enforcement agencies clearly take the attacks seriously—witness the quick capture of the mail bomber and the Pittsburgh police who put themselves in harm’s way to stop the synagogue attacker. But the federal government needs to treat this string of attacks as a significant threat to American security, on the same level as ISIL.

I was at DHS intelligence when its right-wing extremism unit was disbanded. They released a report on the risk of rising right-wing extremism, which angered many conservative lawmakers, leading the agency to stop tracking this issue; this was under the Obama Administration. Right-wing extremists are responsible for the majority of deaths in America from terrorism; it’s time to respond to these attacks as we would any semi-coordinated campaign aimed at undermining our way of life.

[Updated for typos]

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.