Preparing for April 19th, 2021: Why We Need an International Approach to Domestic Terrorism

February 7, 2021

Watching the Wheels began as a parenting blog but it’s turning into a policy blog. My broader social commentary started with the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and exploded with the ascent of Donald J. Trump. I promise we’ll get back to the kid, but there is a pressing reason I’m spending some extra energy on right wing extremism: April 19.

April 19th is the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children, collapsing a federal office building, and has since been linked to “Patriots’ Day” by the right-wing underground. That underground is now very overground and the chatter in their world is that is that the January 6th Capitol attack was just the warm up. Fasten your seatbelts for April 19, 2021. We could see another wave of right-wing violence as they make their play for Civil War II.

It’s been encouraging to see the Biden Administration pivot to make the threat of domestic terrorism a priority, including ordering a nationwide assessment of the emerging threat, with the National Security Council responding in a way reminiscent of how the intelligence community responded after 9/11. The Biden team’s focus and the fact that capable experts like Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) will take the lead on the Counterterrorism Subcommittee are an encouraging start. There are plenty of challenges ahead, including our lack of a federal definition of “domestic terrorism” and the policing of such actions that also respects our first amendment protections.

But domestic terrorism is also an international issue.

I was having a conversation last week with a representative of a foreign consulate who was looking for ways that her government could navigate the post-January 6th world that the Biden Administration had inherited. (I won’t name her nation, but we’ve had a relationship with them since 1776.) As we spoke, it became clear that there are multiple international intersections in our efforts to confront right-wing extremism. The issues that came up revolved around three themes; intelligence, trade issues, and international relations. There are probably more but this is what came up in our hour-long talk.

White supremacy as a global movement

Over the last thirty years we’ve seen a decidedly internationalist trend in the nationalist responses to globalization. For me, this began in 1990s and charting how racist skinheads in America were looking to Serbian nationalism and the Balkanization of Yugoslavia as a roadmap to a race war in the United States. Notorious white supremacists like David Duke have cultivated large followings (and income flows) from Mother Russia. Any European nation that has struggled with an inflow of migrants has seen a surge in Neo-Nazi violence. In July 2018, I was in the UK to study British CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs and I worked my way into an English Defense League rally in London, under the shadow of Big Ben. Supporters of banned nationalist Tommy Robinson were laying out anti-immigrant tirades to a crowd of angry white men, many in Trump hats. In England. Two weeks ago, Germany handed a right-wing extremist a life sentence after he was found guilty of shooting a pro-immigration politician in the head at point-blank range, killing him. Racist nationalism is an international problem. The fact that mass casualty events in Oslo, Norway, lead to similar attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, which lead to similar attacks in El Paso, Texas is proof.

The specter of a pan-Aryan movement has long been a reality. I discussed it in my search on Odinist prison gangs in the 2000s. An international network of racist pagans shared plans for their racial holy war from behind prison walls. Before that, research on white power rock bands traveling to Europe, revealed the trafficking of Neo-Nazi paraphernalia and ideology across the Atlantic. In 1991, I was interviewing a skinhead in (what had just been East) Berlin, Germany, and told me, in broken English, “We have many friends in your country.”

Last summer, the U.S. Senate introduced S. 4080 – the Countering Global White Supremacist Terrorism Act. It’s a great start (if it ever passes) to assess the nature of the global connections to the domestic white supremacist call for a racial revolution. In the wake of the “dry run” on January 6th, the intelligence part of this effort needs to include four key elements.

  1. Foreign support for domestic extremists. While privacy rules make the work difficult, intrepid journalists have started following the money and unmasking the financial backers of the radical right, like the Mercer family. It is likely that money coming to back the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and other groups hell bent on their “boogaloo” civil war is also coming from sources outside the United States, including Russia. The financial streams must be revealed and interrupted.
  2. Foreign disruption and misinformation. If the 2016 election taught us anything, it’s that a little disinformation dropped into your cousin’s Facebook feed can turn a country upside down. In 2015, few people (including Republicans)  thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming president. In January, 2017 he was sworn in. We know that Russia played a role in that campaign. Foreign interference that repeats tropes like “Black Lives Matter is a communist organization” are a part of our digital realities and serve to push “I’m not racist, but..” Americans into white supremacist worldviews.
  3. Encrypted communications. A lot of racist cross-national communication is right out there in the open, on Parler, Twitter, 4chan, and even Instagram. But white supremacists have long utilized encrypted communications. Whether they are sending messages on Telegram, Tox, through video game networks, or communicating in handmade codes on the deep deep web, the chat includes bomb making techniques, hit lists, and potential coordination on terrorist plots. They’ve looked to ISIS and other international terror groups for both mainstream recruitment techniques (ex. YouTube) as well as for tips on secretive channels of communication. We must work with our international partners to penetrate this information flow.
  4. Pan-Aryan movements. More must be done to understand the international connections of white supremacist terror organizations, like Atomwaffen Division. We’ve tended to think of these groups as “home grown” and disregarded their international connections. The internet has linked racist organizations in South Africa to similar groups in South Carolina. The role that Facebook live-streaming played in the 2019 Christchurch shooting that left 51 dead demonstrated that these so-called nationalists are playing to an international audience.

How trade policy impacts white nationalism

During my discussion with the consulate’s office, the issue of trade policy came up. It wasn’t a topic I was expecting or felt qualified to talk about, but it was clear there were some issues that were relevant. Much of racial nationalism is fueled by globalization. Globalization diminishes national identity (There’s an infinite number of McDonalds and Starbucks in Paris) and increases immigration. This was an obvious driver in Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote, the rise of Trump (“America first!”), as well as racialized nationalist movements in Poland, Germany, and Greece. Trade policies designed to reduce pushes into white supremacist movements and their calls for violence must be mindful of the following two questions:

  1. How does this policy impact agrarian or manufacturing labor segments? The very first of racist skinheads I studied in the late 1980s were racist skinheads because of deindustrialization. Their parents were being laid off of their manufacturing jobs which were being shipped to Mexico and China. And the only analysis they were getting was from the White Aryan Resistance who told them that it was a global Jewish cabal that was destroying their shot at the American dream. My 1990s skinheads added the giant sucking sound of NAFTA as the backdrop of their downward mobility. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that over 600,000 manufacturing jobs moved to Mexico after President Clinton signed NAFTA in 1994. Any trade policy must look at the impact on blue collar labor, whether in the factory or the field. An example of countering the trend, Samsung ovens are now made in Tennessee. The profits still flow to South Korea, but a lot of workers are getting to bank their money thanks to the push to revitalize our industrial labor force. This type of trade policy breaks the back of jingoism.
  2. How does this policy impact labor migration? Environmental policies will impact migration patterns as the planet warms. Refugees leaving drought ravaged lands where farming and access to clean water are stressed will become a fact of life unless international policies tackle climate change. Similarly, trade policies (which now often have an environmental component) can be mindful on the impact of the migration of labor. If a policy is likely to increase the migration into the United States, the benefit to Americans must be made clear. Otherwise, the policy (and the earnest foreign workforce that emerges because of it) becomes a white supremacist weapon for scapegoating, xenophobia, and hate crimes.

To work with America you must understand America

There is also a conversation going on from Philadelphia to the Philippines about what kind of country America is in 2021. Especially after four years of Trump. Our standing on the world stage has plummeted as our national interests were supplanted by Donald’s personal interests. As the Biden diplomatic team repairs the damage done to our international relationships, our global partners need to be mindful of four factors that drive activism in the extreme right.

Because each of these is a complex issue, worthy of pages of analysis, I’ll be incredibly brief.

  1. Understanding the split in the Republican Party. The symbolic division between the party of Representative Lynne Cheney (R-WY) and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) reflects the split between the “Grand Ol’ Party,” with it’s core conservative values, and the nut-job wing that remains loyal to Trump, QAnon and the calls for an uprising to defeat the “communist” Democrats.
  2. Understanding that nationalism is a response to globalization. Over one hundred years ago fervent calls to “(Your country here) first!” set the stage for the “war to end all wars” and paved the way for the rise of fascism. Without the strength of our international treaties (I’m looking at you, UK), we’re back to square one.
  3. Understanding paths to radicalism and access to resources for deradicalization. There’s more than enough scholarship on why people become extremists. Programs in Sweden (Exit) and Britain (Prevent) have pioneered excellent methods to deradicalize extremists. It’s time to share the wisdom. 
  4. Confronting extremism in the military. We are not the only nation whose militaries contain Neo-Nazis who dream of bombing Israel, African and Arab countries, and liberal metropolitan areas. A global strategy to confront this issue should be the first step in an international effort to prevent large scale attacks.

And now the work begins

We talked about a great deal in one hour. I can really squeeze a lot in when I think there’s a ticking time bomb, like April 19th. That day may come and go without event, which I desperately hope will be the case. (April 20th is Hitler’s birthday, so wait to exhale.) America is starting from less than zero because of the hole Donald Trump dug. But, with the help of our friends around the world, we can put our shoulders to the wheel and ensure our common dream to live in a safe and stable nation.

There Is A Way To Interrupt Domestic Extremism

January 23, 2021

Trump is gone. We survived the inauguration, not only unbloodied, but closer to united, which I am crediting to J. Lo. She sang a rousing rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” written by the OG Antifa Woody Guthrie. Besides Bernie’s mittens, the grand ritual was notable for one key sentence from the newly sworn in president. “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” It was a first for an inaugural address and a focus that is desperately needed.

I’ve written much in this blog about the threat of right-wing extremism and the through-line that connects the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The 25,000 National Guardsmen and the collapse of the ludicrous QAnon prophecy helped us to deflate the threat this past week but that doesn’t mean the barbarians are not still at the gate, hoping to cripple our democracy. The election of Barack Obama (and a Democratic congress) in 2008 gave raise to the Tea Party movement. 2021 will see a post-Q antigovernment movement that, with the help of social media, will fuse all the bad actors of the past. It’s already a broad counterculture the ranges from Trump’s “suburban housewife” that still thinks Joe Biden is fronting an underground pedophile ring to the self-styled Timothy McVeigh-wannabe who plots to bring down federal office buildings to strike a blow against the “Zionist Occupation Government.”

So what do we do now?

If President Biden is sincere about confronting political extremism and white supremacy and defeating domestic terrorism, now is the time to create an organized, cohesive interagency plan to get in front of this issue, or we’re going to need a lot more than 25,000 National Guard to protect our institutions of government. As a researcher and organizer working in this field for 30 years, I’ve started sketching out what a countering violent extremism strategy might look like. Similar to the institutional shifts that occurred after 9/11, it recognizes the capacities of existing agencies, including the Department of Education, the FBI, and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service. This initial approach contains four organizing principles; suppression, education, extraction, and vision.

Suppression: Addressing active threats

After the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, the Clinton Administration immediately pivoted to confront the threat of violence from the patriot militia movement. The reality is that, on October 25, 1994, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged Attorney General Janet Reno to alert “all federal law enforcement authorities to the growing danger posed by unauthorized militias that have recently sprung up in at least eighteen states.” While that warning may not have been heeded, after the terrorist attack the following April, Reno made the suppression of domestic terror groups a priority. The FBI broke up several plots, including those leading up to the “doomsday” prophecies connected to Y2K on January 1, 2000.

The events of 9/11 propelled President Bush to move many of those law enforcement resources to the investigation of international terrorist plots, particularly after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The “patriot movement” didn’t go away after 9/11. It retreated to the corners of the internet. In the Obama years it scooped up many Tea Party activists and by the Trump years it was in the streets, heavily armed and promising a revolution, rebranded as the “Boogaloo.” In 1997, I interviewed several militia members in western Montana and one told me, “We’re patient men but this war will happen in our lifetimes.”

The suppression plan of the Biden Administration must include 5 important areas. 1) The interruption of ongoing plots. While we still don’t have a federal definition of “domestic terrorism,” criminal conspiracy statues have been used and must be utilized with increased use of intelligence services and investigative resources. 2) The monitoring of e-chatter of threats, including open source social media posts, the dark web, and encrypted communications. Research from the Rand Corporation has found that this chatter increases before acts of hate-motivated violence occur. 3) Turning extremists into assets. Life After Hate is a group of former extremists who now work in the field of countering violent extremism. The Prevent Program in the UK has utilized former jihadists in the working of interrupting jihadist plots. “Formers” are a vital resource available but under used. 4) Disrupting extremist prison gangs. There is a pipeline  that runs from white gangs inside prison to hate groups outside prison. A national strategy on these security threat groups would cut off a channel of extremist recruitment. 5) Monitoring foreign involvement in in-person and on-line extremism. Foreign actors, particularly from Russia, have been active in both bolstering the American white supremacist movement and spreading disinformation that increases hostility towards the American government.

Education: Confronting the issues that divide us

In this age of disinformation, we must honestly address the sins of the past while reaching out to those who are drawn into the conspiracy theories of radical right because of their lack of understanding of social and demographic changes (and how government itself works). The summer 2020 protests following the George Floyd killing highlighted the work that remains to be done to address institutional, cultural, and personal racism.

If we are going to have a national conversation about race, it needs two very important audiences. The first audience is people of color who need an honest acknowledgment of the generations of trauma that racism has cause. We’ve never really dealt with the impact of slavery on contemporary psyche. It’s not like anti-black racism magically disappeared in 1865 at the close of the Civil War. Similarly, we also haven’t confronted the trauma caused by Japanese internment, the Bracero Program, or separating migrant children from their parents at the border. The second audience must be white people, especially white people who have been economically dislocated by globalization and economic shifts. Lecturing about white privilege is a hard sell to a coal minor who has lost his job in the push for “renewable energy.” We don’t reduce the normalization of white supremacist thinking that pushes white people into thinking “their” country is disappearing if we don’t help white people see the value of inclusion and the futility of extremism.

Education must revolve around four key agendas. 1) Racial reconciliation. As Germany did after WW II and South Africa did after apartheid, we need a healthy dose of truth and reconciliation that links the dark past to the problems of the present. This work is hard but must be done. 2) Diversity, equity, and inclusion training and celebration. The Biden team doesn’t have to give America a long HR diversity training, but there are some valuable skills that can be taught widely, including the understanding of implicit bias. This work can also be a lot of fun as we come together, not to melt into a national pot, but celebrate the diverse ingredients of our national gumbo. 3) Community healing and dialogue. Much of this work must be done locally, recognizing the intersectionality of different communities. “Asian-Americans” are not one monolithic group. 4) Outreach to dislocated populations. Equity requires actively bringing people to the table. We must recognize that many of those marginalized communities are white. They are better served at a table with their non-white neighbors than in a basement plotting attacks on their own government.

Extraction: Dealing with the internal threat

Nearly one in five of the participants in the Capitol attack were members of the U.S. military. There is a long list of police officers who have had ties to white supremacist groups. There is an alleged group of prison guards who work to support racist gangs, like the Aryan Brotherhood. The infiltration of groups sworn to protect us by extremists is the worst kept secret in America. Timothy McVeigh was a Gulf War vet who handed out copies of The Turner Diaries, the racist revolution handbook, to the white members of his platoon.

Addressing this problem is vital to this strategy for two reasons. The first is the utilization of the military for training by right wing extremists. Additionally, having people on the inside (cops, prison guards, National Guard, Air Force officers with access to nuclear weapons, etc.) makes waging a civil war at lot easier. While I was undercover with a group of racist skinheads in Orlando, Florida in 1989, four Stinger missiles disappeared from the armory of a nearby Army base and were recovered from the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho. And if you’ve got a Josh Hawley who can open the doors for you, all the easier.

The second is all about perception. The belief that police and the military reinforce white supremacy didn’t die with Bull Conner and is central to the protests for racial justice. We can’t move forward until we’ve proven this important work is incompatible with organized racism.

So this plank of the strategy must both respect government workers’ first amendment rights while managing extremist infiltrations in three areas; 1) the United States military, 2) municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, and 3) correctional officers in local jails, and state and federal prisons.

Vision: Who are we as a nation?

If the “America Century” began at the end of World War I, the century is ending. Will there be a second American century that is different? Or will it just be a high tech version of Jim Crow and people begging for black lives to matter. For the last four years there has been a massive vacuum of leadership. All we heard was a call to make America 1950 again, a time when millions of Americans were institutionally disenfranchised. We need a clear message about what America is going to look like. The hard fact is that demographic trends don’t lie. The country is becoming less white, less Anglo-Saxon, and less Protestant. Will we sink into an endless battle between WASPs and everyone else? A clear articulation of what the other path looks like is desperately needed. It seems like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are willing to formulate that vision.

We need our national leaders to think about four central agendas in this “re-visioning.” 1) A clear articulation of our values. What does mean to be an American? We are a nation of people of deep empathy, willing to confront our demons and work together on meaningful solutions. If the military reminds us “you are only as strong as your weakest link,” we can do the work to lift all those in our country to “be best” (Sorry, Melania.) 2) Addressing intersections. These issues are complex and overlap with other important issues. For example, global warming is pushing environmental refugees into extremist groups around the globe and is having real impact on the American farming community. 3) Addressing the truth and pain of the past. Donald Trump tried to erase the past with his 1776 Project. We must confront it head on and that will include some sincere acknowledge of harm done. President Reagan’s 1988 apology to Japanese-Americans for the mass internment in the 1940s went a long way to heal the wounding that was done to so many families who had their lives ripped away because of racist war hysteria.  4) Envisioning the path forward. What will a “less white” America look like? Our president can guide to a stable, diverse, beautiful pluralist view of the future that won’t doom us to endless division and extremist violence.

We have the ability to achieve this. We can both prevent domestic terrorism and bring disaffected Americans back into our wonderful, diverse family. The second American century can be spectacular, not just for few, but for all. There is a heavy load to be lifted by the Biden Administration, but it will be made lighter if we all help carry it.