Will there be a bin Laden of right-wing extremism?

20 May 2022, 0947 EDT

By now it’s clear that the attack on a Buffalo, NY supermarket was a case of right-wing terrorism. An individual targeted the store because many of its customers were black, and hoped to use the attack to make a broader political statement. Unfortunately, such attacks are growing in intensity, and these right-wing terrorists seem to be learning from each other. The next stage for this movement will depend on which historical model it follows: that of the 1800s anarchists or al-Qaeda.

The growing threat from right-wing extremism

The tragedy in Buffalo is only the latest in a wave of right-wing terrorist attacks. Right-wing terrorism has been around for a long time, receding and reappearing as political winds shift. As Arie Perliger has shown in his research on right-wing extremism, such attacks tend to correspond to election periods or contentious court cases. In the past these waves have led to significant attacks, like the 1984 murder of liberal radio show host Alan Berg or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The past several years have seen favorable conditions emerge for this ideology, between sympathetic leaders like Donald Trump, the mainstreaming of certain elements of its ideology in the Republican Party, and growing political polarization.

It was possible that violent Islamists could have gone the way of the 1800s anarchists, if not for Osama bin Laden.

Accordingly, right-wing extremists have launched several recent high profile attacks. In 2012, a white supremacist attacked a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six. In 2018, a right-wing extremist attacked a synagogue in Pennsylvania, killing 11. In 2015, a white supremacist attacked a black church in South Carolina, killing nine. There have been many more examples.

This is concerning on its own, but there are also signs of communication and coordination among violent right-wing extremists. The Buffalo terrorist referenced earlier attacks and rhetoric. There are reports of right-wing extremists organizing to dominate politics in Idaho. A right-wing attack on a mosque in New Zealand seemed inspired by US political debates. Right-wing extremisms tropes and discussions are easy to find for those interested.

Among the many questions we need to grapple with in the wake of the Buffalo attack is the future shape this threat will take. Will it continue to take the form of sporadic—but deadly—lone wolf attacks, or will we see a terrorist campaign emerge, coordinated by a central leadership? Looking at historical examples can provide some clues.

Two historical models

In the 1800s, another transnational ideology spread in response to social and political changes. Anarchism pushed back on capitalism and state power, and its adherents believed the necessity of the cause justified extreme steps. Anarchist operatives and cells conducted several attacks. An anarchist attacked the Café Terminus in 1894. Another assassinated Italy’s King Umberto in 1900, while an anarchist assassinated US President McKinley the following year.

The movement never cohered into a major threat to state power, however. Unsurprisingly for an ideology suspicious of centralized control, no single leader or organization coordinated anarchist activities across Europe. Eventually, state police powers caught up to the anarchists and the movement dissolved.

A contrasting transnational movement can be seen about a century later. Starting in the 60s, political Islam spread throughout the Middle East and beyond as an alternative to leftist ideologies. Many of these movements were non-violent, but violent offshoots emerged. These included the group that killed Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, the mujahideen who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Islamist militants supported by Pakistan in Kashmir.

If we start to see explicit coordination among right-wing groups in the lead-up to attacks, this could suggest the beginning of a more coherent movement.

These groups proliferated into the 1990s. Gemaah Islamiyah launched a terrorist campaign against Egypt. Jemaah Islamiya began threatening Indonesia. And an extremist cell bombed the US World Trade Center.

It was possible these violent Islamists would go the way of the earlier anarchists, if not for Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, a veteran of the Afghanistan insurgency, had the funding and charisma to organize isolated extremist cells and disconnected organizations into a worldwide terrorist movement. By the time he issued his declaration of war against America, al-Qaeda was well on its way to launching a series of massive, coordinated attacks against America and other states.

Which model will right-wing extremism follow?

I don’t think it’s alarmist to say we’re at a tipping point with right-wing terrorism. It is very possible that these attacks will continue, intensify, and mutate into a movement capable of more destructive and sustained violence. In some ways, this is a repeat of the 1990s, in which the United States had an opportunity to prevent the rise of al-Qaeda.

Some of right-wing extremism’s future is out of our control. The extent to which right-wing groups start competing, or ideological divisions undermine cohesion, is endogenous to the movement.

Likewise, some of this has to do with broader political developments. If Republican politicians confront right-wing conspiracy theories, and Republican voters begin rejecting fringe candidates, extremists’ broader impact could be muted.

But lessons drawn specifically from the history of terrorism and counterterrorism are also relevant.

If we start to see explicit coordination among right-wing groups in the lead-up to attacks, this would suggest the beginning of a more coherent movement. Indeed, based on the groups involved in the 1/6 attack on the Capitol, this may already be happening.

More ominously, a central figure that emerges as a spokesperson for right-wing terrorism, with the resources to actually organize disparate groups, would be a major cause for concern. There are several potential candidates now, but an equivalent of Osama bin Laden seems thankfully absent. If one were to emerge, the system would—or should be—blinking red.