24 Mar 2021

Prospects for far-right extremism in the US following the Capitol attack

Claudia Wallner

Embedded in broader global trends, far-right terrorism has been on the rise in the United States for the last decade. Meanwhile, far-right extremism has found its way into the mainstream through right-wing populism and transnational online networks filled with conspiracy theories and narratives of the “decline of the white race.” On a global level, the number of far-right attacks reportedly more than tripled between 2015 and 2020. [1]

Meanwhile, reports by the Anti-Defamation League [2] and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) [3] suggest that crime linked to far-right extremists now make up the vast majority of terrorism incidents in the United States. This finding has also been reiterated in an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-funded Joint Regional Intelligence Center in 2021. [4]

The frequency of violent far-right incidents has undoubtedly picked up in recent years, with prominent examples including attacks on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a supermarket in El Paso, and attacks against (counter-) protesters in Charlottesville and Kenosha. Although this trend predates the Trump administration, the messages that emanated from the White House and Republican leadership during Trump’s presidency have emboldened far-right groups and catalyzed the process of far-right radicalization in the country.[5]

This global pandemic further exacerbated this trend, and the far-right skillfully exploited it online and offline to further their objectives. Similarly, the far-right used their fervent opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement to promote their narratives and provoke hate, division, and societal polarization, including a series of vehicle ramming attacks directed against protesters.[6]

In this explosive environment, the United States Capitol attack on January 6, was hardly a surprise. Far from unexpected, the event was the culmination of years of normalization of far-right extremist narratives, conspiracy theories, and violence, sparked by the outcome of the 2020 election and encouraged by then President Trump. While the Capitol’s storming was not the first shocking incident involving the far-right in the United States, it fundamentally changed the dynamics of far-right extremism and terrorism.

After years of shrugging off concerns around the far-right, [7] the realization that far-right extremism presents a formidable threat to the United States finally settled in with law enforcement and political leadership on January 6. While the Capitol attack might not represent the ‘9/11 moment’ some have prematurely termed it to be, [8] the resulting shift in the discussion and focus has implications for policy and programming as well as for far-right groups and how they operate and organize.

Changing narrative around far-right extremism

Part of the reason the attack of January 6 turned out to be such a watershed moment for the United States was the failure of security services to anticipate, acknowledge, or respond to the threat, which had manifested itself in plain sight. In the weeks leading up to the Capitol storming, an array of far-right actors, ranging from anti-government movements and militias to groups such as the Proud Boys, openly discussed and prepared for the attack on public discussion boards and group chats across the internet. [9]

Nevertheless, given the focus of authorities across the country on Islamist extremism following 9/11, the concrete threat of an attack motivated by far-right extremism was not anticipated or planned for by security services, including the Capitol Police.[10] The failure to respond in a proportionate and timely manner allowed the mob to enter the Capitol building, which shocked authorities and the public alike and finally led authorities to realize the situation’s gravity. Hundreds of people have since been charged in relation to the Capitol riot [11] and, despite limitations of domestic terrorism legislation, the FBI has opened an additional 600 domestic terrorism probes since January, leading to a total of around 2,000 open probes, according to FBI Director Christopher Wray. [12]

Since the January 6 events, the law enforcement response to anticipated events has also changed considerably. This included the protection of President Biden’s inauguration by 26,000 national guard members to prevent anticipated far-right attacks and the cancellation of meetings in the House of Representatives in early March due to warnings from intelligence sources that far-right extremists online were planning for another violent attack. [13]

This change in responses was also reinforced by the incoming administration’s firm stance on white supremacy and domestic terrorism, a focal point of President Biden’s inauguration speech and the administration’s early priority. The choice of Merrick Garland as Attorney General, who led the Justice Department’s response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, [14] and the plans to expand DHS grants for the study and prevention of violent domestic extremism, [15] are signs that far-right extremism is a key priority of this administration. This represents a seismic shift from the previous administration’s prioritization of threats.

Given the important role social media played in the planning and executing the Capitol storming, social media companies had to step up their de-platforming and content moderation efforts. Many of them were already taking action against far-right extremist actors on their platforms before January 6. This prominently included removing Donald Trump’s profiles on most mainstream outlets and the de-platforming of many of the far-right groups and actors that participated in violence or supported it online.

As some of these individuals moved to other platforms, some of them, including Parler and Gab, were removed from several web-hosting services. De-platforming and content moderation efforts are imperfect strategies to reduce the reach and networking capacities of far-right groups and actors given their ability to find creative ways around censorship, either by migrating to other platforms or by avoiding certain terms and symbols to bypass detection. However, they are essential tools in the fight against far-right extremism. [16]

Implications for far-right groups and movements

While the magnitude of the January 6 attack elicited a strong response by the Biden administration, US law enforcement, and leading tech platforms, it also impacted far-right extremist actors and groups themselves.

Arguably, the storming of the Capitol galvanized the far-right and provided a case study of ‘successful’ cooperation between a multitude of far-right groups and individuals without any group affiliations. A George Washington University extremism study looked into the backgrounds of more than 250 individuals with federal charges in relation to the attack and found that participants ranged widely in ideology and demographic and operational backgrounds. [17]

Out of the 250 individuals included in this study, around 13 percent were part of organized far-right groups and networks, such as the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, or the Boogaloo movement. Another 32 percent participated in groups with friends or family members, and 55 percent took part without any previous connections to other participants.

This disparate mix, with some overlap in ideological views and shared frustrations regarding the outcome of the 2020 election, proved to be an explosive combination. They had significant ideological differences and specific aims of their actions relating to the disruption of the political process and the use of violence. There is a risk that the cooperation between outright white supremacists or neo-Nazis and ‘ordinary’ citizens with no previous links to extremist or militant groups and no involvement in the planning and organization of violent clashes could provide a dangerous template for future violence.

The involvement of individuals that cannot be clearly linked to far-right groups adds an element of unpredictability to this scenario. This is particularly the case considering the vast pool of individuals who sympathize with one or more of the many groups, movements, conspiracy theories, and ideologies represented at the Capitol attack. This makes future attacks and violence difficult to predict and prevent, particularly as sympathies for such ideologies are largely covered by First Amendment protections, which prevents significant action against individuals with no prior involvement in extremist violence.

There is also a possibility of January 6 highlighting internal differences around the goals of specific groups and the means they are willing to take to achieve these goals. In combination with the subsequent crackdown on the far-right by law enforcement and tech platforms, this is likely to fragment groups into small factions with blurred affiliations. As was the case following the far-right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, the simultaneous splintering of some groups and the consolidation of others can be expected in the coming weeks and months. In the weeks since the attack, the fracturing of groups and movements, including the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Groyper Army, and the Boogaloo movement, into splinter groups already started. [18]

The splintering and regrouping of the far-right landscape present challenges for law enforcement in tracking extremists and determining the groups’ likelihood to engage in violence to achieve their goals. These challenges are further exacerbated as groups move into more niche online spaces and become more cautious in using communications tools to evade disruption and detection efforts.

This, in turn, could lead to an increased potential for attacks perpetrated by lone actors with hazy group affiliations, generally more difficult for law enforcement to detect and disrupt than attacks planned by organized groups and networks. While the number of individuals who are inclined to commit violent extremist attacks inspired by the broad spectrum of far-right ideologies is impossible to determine, the increasing number of far-right terror incidents on US soil in the last decade and the polarized political landscape indicate an increased likelihood of such attacks.

Implications for policy and programming

Biden administration’s acknowledgment of the gravity of the threat that far-right extremism presents to the United States is an important first step to tackling the issue. However, to effectively respond to the constantly changing landscape of far-right extremist groups and movements, comprehensive policy and countering violent extremism (CVE) programming will be required.

Firstly, before an effective response can be formulated, definitional ambiguities around the concept of far-right extremism should be tackled. The terms ‘domestic terrorism’ and, more recently, ‘racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism (REMVE)’ that have guided US conceptualizations of the far-right fail to acknowledge both the transnational nature of far-right ideologies and movements and the increasing mainstreaming of far-right ideologies in society. [19] Open discussions around these uncomfortable truths and the consideration of approaches to conceptualizing far-right extremism by other countries dealing with similar threats would provide an important basis for discussions around potential responses.

Secondly, while existing political hurdles make wide-ranging changes in the national security infrastructure unlikely, a lot can arguably be done within existing structures. This includes promoting the accurate recording of incidents related to the far-right and improving information-sharing between law enforcement and intelligence agencies on violent far-right extremism. [20] Importantly, it also includes a careful examination of cases of far-right extremism within current and former personnel in US security services.

While the FBI was already warning about white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement in 2006, [21] recent reports found that around 13 percent of those arrested following the Capitol attack had military backgrounds. [22] Taking a closer look at the prevalence of far-right extremism in the US security services ranks will not require sweeping legislation changes. Moreover, it will simultaneously contribute to tackling the overall threat and improving the security services’ capacity to respond to far-right extremism.

Lastly, given the high likelihood of acts of extremist violence being perpetrated by individuals with no clear links to violent extremist groups or movements, efforts to address violent far-right extremism as a societal problem in the format of CVE programming will have to be part of the solution.

To avoid mistakes in CVE programming made elsewhere, lessons that have already been learned in the field must be taken into account. For example, lessons learned in CVE programming during the Obama administration, albeit in a different threat environment, considering the importance of involving local actors in programming, adapting interventions to local needs, and avoiding the stigmatization and marginalization of program participants should not be forgotten while designing and implementing new programs to address far-right extremism. [23]

Lessons from countries with long histories of programming to tackle the far-right, such as Germany, should be taken on board to establish an efficient response to the increasing threat as early as possible. [24] Given the highly networked nature of far-right actors and groups locally and globally, combined with the changing dynamics of far-right extremism in the United States following the events of January 6, no time should be wasted in formulating a comprehensive response to the issue.

While none of the suggested efforts will provide infallible solutions for the constantly changing far-right extremism threat to the United States, treating the issue as a transnational concern rather than a purely domestic problem and being open to learning from other contexts and countries would provide a solid basis for an effective response.

  References:

[1] United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. 2020. ‘Member States Concerned by the Growing and Increasingly Transnational Threat of Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism,’ https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism.pdf.

[2] Anti-Defamation League. 2019. ‘Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2018,’ https://www.adl.org/media/12480/download.

[3] Seth G. Jones, Catrina Doxsee, and Nicholas Harrington. 2020. ‘The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,’ https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states.

[4] Joint Regional Intelligence Center. 2021. ‘2020 Terrorism in Review: US Terrorist Incidents Decreased amid Shift in Threat Landscape.’

[5] Cas Mudde. 2021. ‘What happened in Washington DC is happening around the world’ The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/07/what-happened-in-washington-dc-is-happening-around-the-world.

[6] Daniel Byman. 2020. ‘Riots, White Supremacy and Accelerationism,’ Lawfare, https://www.lawfareblog.com/riots-white-supremacy-and-accelerationism.

[7] David D. Kirkpatrick and Alan Feuer. 2021. ‘Police Shrugged Off the Proud Boys, Until They Attacked the Capitol,’ The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/14/us/proud-boys-law-enforcement.html.

[8] Richard Hall. 2021. ‘Experts studied al-Qaeda and Isis for years, now they are turning their attention to extremists closer to home,’ The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/domestic-terror-extremism-proud-boys-b1801747.html.

[9] Laurel Wamsley. 2021. ‘On Far-Right Websites, Plans To Storm Capitol Were Made In Plain Sight,‘ NPR, https://www.npr.org/sections/insurrection-at-the-capitol/2021/01/07/954671745/on-far-right-websites-plans-to-storm-capitol-were-made-in-plain-sight.

[10] Marc Ambinder. 2021. ‘Why the Capitol Police Failed to Protect the Capitol From the Pro-Trump Mob,‘ Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/06/capitol-police-trump-mob-capitol/?fbclid=IwAR1mNTTiqu43MZ6JxKl3hGyQLAIdMAsPylMh0y1hIk3s-Xsc8Y8Wd9zoR9s.

[11] United States Department of Justice. 2021. ‘Acting Deputy Attorney General John Carlin Deliver Remarks on Domestic Terrorism,’ https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/acting-deputy-attorney-general-john-carlin-delivers-remarks-domestic-terrorism.

[12] BBC News. 2021. ‘Capitol riot “inspiration for extremism,” FBI boss warns,’ https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56258233.

[13] Cas Mudde. 2021. ‘A far-right threat shut down US Congress this week. Why aren’t we talking about it,’ The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/06/capitol-attack-threat-far-right-why-not-talking-about-it.

[14] Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan. 2021. ‘“They’re Fighting Blind.” Inside the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism,’ Time, https://time.com/5944085/far-right-extremism-biden/.

[15] Julia Ainsley. 2021. ‘Biden DHS plans to expand grants for studying, preventing domestic violent extremism,‘ NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/biden-dhs-plans-expand-grants-studying-preventing-domestic-violent-extremism-n1257550.

[16] Ofra Klein. 2020. ‘The Effects of Censoring the Far-Right Online,’ Vol-Pol, https://www.voxpol.eu/the-effects-of-censoring-the-far-right-online/; Meili Criezis and Brad Galloway. 2021. ‘From MAGA to the Fringe: What Was Happening Online Before the 6 January Insurrection and What Can We Do Now,?’ Global Network on Extremism and Technology, https://gnet-research.org/2021/01/27/from-maga-to-the-fringe-what-was-happening-online-before-the-6-january-insurrection-and-what-can-we-do-now/.

[17] Program on Extremism. 2021. ‘“This is Our House!” A Preliminary Assessment of the Capitol Hill Siege Participants,’ George Washington University, https://extremism.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2191/f/This-Is-Our-House.pdf.

[18] Neil MacFarquhar. 2021. ‘Far-Right Groups Are Splintering in Wake of the Capitol Riot,’ The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/01/us/extremism-capitol-riot.html?referringSource=articleShare.

[19] William Allchorn. 2021. ‘Tackling Hate in the Homeland: US Radical Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives at a Time of Renewed Anti-Government Extremism,’ Hedayah, https://www.hedayahcenter.org/media-center/latest-news/blog-post-tackling-hate-in-the-homeland-us-radical-right/.

[20] Seamus Hughes and Bennett Clifford. 2021. ‘The US government can do more to fight domestic terror without any new laws,’ The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/02/domestic-terrorism-new-laws/.

[21] FBI Counterterrorism Division. 2006. ‘White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement,’ http://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/402521/doc-26-white-supremacist-infiltration.pdf.

[22] Seamus Hughes and Bennett Clifford. 2021. ‘The US government can do more to fight domestic terror without any new laws,‘ The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/02/domestic-terrorism-new-laws/.

[23] Eric Rosand. 2021. ‘Revitalize US Multilateral Engagement on Counterterrorism and Violent Extremism as Well,’ Just Security, https://www.justsecurity.org/75085/revitalize-us-multilateral-engagement-on-counterterrorism-and-violent-extremism-as-well/.

[24] Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Daniel Koehler. 2021. ‘A Plan to Beat Back the Far Right: Violent Extremism in America Demands a Social Response,’ Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-02-03/plan-beat-back-far-right; Daniel Koehler. 2021. ‘Fighting Domestic Extremism: Lessons From Germany,’ Lawfare, https://www.lawfareblog.com/fighting-domestic-extremism-lessons-germany.

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