Ending the White Supremacist Terror Threat

When presidential administrations change, we have an opportunity to take stock of our national challenges. In homeland security, the chief threat is evident: white supremacy terrorism.

For decades, the United States has slow-walked its way to an acknowledgement that the homegrown white supremacist threat is growing. It is mystifying why this brand of terrorism has received little response, relative to the vigor with which the United States pursues adherents to al-Qaida and ISIS. The data and analysis on white supremacy are clear.

The FBI is required by the National Defense Authorization Act to produce a report specifying acts and ideologies relating to domestic terrorism and the government’s response. The 2020 report identifies the dominant terrorist threat as white supremacy, though the FBI is four months late in releasing the full findings.

The Department of Homeland Security’s October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment says white supremacist extremists “will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” Such a finding should set off alarms at every level of government.

Arrests Alone Won’t End Terrorism

In 2020, white supremacists were responsible for 67% of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States, according to data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They used firearms, explosives and vehicle-borne attacks. Using a vehicle to drive through a crowd is a tactic promoted by ISIS, and it has been employed in terror attacks in Nice (2016), Berlin (2016), London (2017), New York (2017) and Charlottesville, Virginia (2017). 

All of this was known when the FBI thwarted plots in October to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the 13 individuals arrested hailed from and collaborated with multiple white supremacist and anti-government groups. 

Do we need buildings to come down in a terror attack before we admit just how much of a problem we have? When the terrorist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, his intention was to catalyze a race war. Twenty-five years later, the white supremacist threat he exemplified is more dangerous than ever.

We must make this a national priority and take much stronger steps to stop it.

Among the lessons learned from a 20-year campaign against al-Qaida and its ilk is that we will never arrest our way out of a terrorist problem. We can imprison every violent white supremacist and someone will take their place. Terrorism erupts at the nexus of an alienated individual, a legitimizing ideology and an enabling community. Of the three, the community is most susceptible to positive influence. In addition to law enforcement investigations, we need tools to intervene in communities from which extremist actors might emerge — and, critically, to do it before they commit violence.

Biden Must Fight American Terrorism

The path to disrupting plots and preventing terrorism includes community-level work: nurturing dialogue between individuals to overcome ignorance and hate; providing awareness and education to families, educators, community leaders and others who can identify someone heading down a violent path; known outlets for communities to report warning signs; and the research and capacity to deliver effective de-radicalization programming to those who might benefit from it.

To achieve this, the United States requires a clearly articulated domestic counter-terrorism strategy that is designed to diminish racially motivated extremist networks while also inhibiting violence. Executing the strategy will require the participation of local, state and federal law enforcement, as well as the intelligence community, the courts, health care providers, academic institutions and many others.

The cooperation and sense of urgency we need to bring these stakeholders together in a concerted effort to fight this threat will come from American leadership, starting at the top.

Much ink has already been spilled chronicling the dog-whistle racism that characterizes the outgoing presidential administration. Racist statements are fuel on the bonfire of hate. Just this past weekend, the Proud Boys and other far-right groups with white nationalist ties and philosophies turned out at a “Million Maga March” in Washington, D.C.  

When President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office in January, there is every reason to believe the “stand back and stand by” sentiments of the last four years will end. But voting out racist rhetoric is just a start. We are only at the end of the beginning when it comes to defeating American terrorism.

This piece was originally published in USA Today.

Erroll Southers

Dr. Erroll Southers is USC Associate Senior Vice President of Safety and Risk Assurance. He is the former Director of the Safe Communities Institute, a former FBI Special Agent, Presidential nominee for TSA Administrator and California Governor’s appointee to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. He holds roles around the world and throughout the international counterterrorism and national security arena.

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