National Security

Las Vegas highlights Islamist terrorism is not America's greatest domestic threat

As the investigation into the horrific events in Las Vegas unfolds, officials will try to determine what motived Stephen Paddock to carry out the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Despite the Islamic State's initial claim of responsibility, FBI agents overseeing the investigation were quick to refute any assertion that the shooter was connected to an international terrorist group. Indeed, the tragedy in Las Vegas underscores the reality that the greatest threat to domestic security is not Islamist terrorism. 

Coincidentally, the new FBI Director, Christopher Wray, testified last week before the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He revealed that white supremacists are as big a threat to America's national security as Islamist terrorists. 

The FBI director's testimony is an important first step in achieving public recognition that Islamist extremism is not America's greatest terror threat. While recent events such as those in Charlottesville drew national attention to the issue, many scholars and policymakers have long argued that far-right domestic terrorists have been a more significant threat than Islamist terrorists.

 

Indeed, during the FBI director's testimony Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) noted that the number of attacks carried out by white supremacists were "almost triple" those undertaken by individuals related to ISIS. McCaskill also expressed her disappointment that there have been zero public hearings related to far-right domestic terrorism. Her frustration is warranted.

Research has consistently shown that right-wing extremists have been far deadlier than Islamist terrorists when it comes to U.S. homeland security. According to the FBI's own reporting, 94 percent of all terrorist attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005 were perpetrated by non-Muslim groups.

Researchers at the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) reached a similar conclusion and found that only 7 percent of terror attacks on U.S. soil between 1970 and 2011 were motivated by religious beliefs. Other studies have found that over the past nine years, right-wing groups have carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Islamist extremists. In sum, Islamist terror groups are only responsible for a small portion of attacks in the United States. 

Far-right extremist groups also tend to be much more lethal in their attacks than Islamist terrorists. Studies based on the Extremist Crime Database have shown that between 1990 and 2014, Islamist terrorists killed 62 individuals while far-right extremists killed 245 individuals. The results are congruous with other studies that have found since 9/11, "nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists" than by Islamist terrorists.

Finally, it should be recognized that the number and lethality of right-wing attacks are undoubtedly much higher than what the evidence currently suggests. As the FBI Director acknowledged last week, many domestic incidents are not treated as acts of terrorism and instead prosecuted as a criminal matter. Other observers point out the added legal complexity of distinguishing between a "hate crime" and "terrorism." Both factors likely result in an underreporting of incidents.

What is disappointing about Wray's testimony, however, was his statement that the FBI disregards ideology when investigating acts of terror. This reflects a flawed understanding of terrorism.

Scholars have long argued that ideology has a strong influence on how a terrorist group selects its target. Not only does ideology allow a group to decide who or what is a legitimate target for attack, but it also serves as a moral basis on which a terrorist group justifies its heinous actions. Ideology can also determine how a group attacks and its choice of weaponry, i.e. handgun vs. suicide bomber. It is therefore essential the FBI consider a terrorist group's ideology.

Far-right terrorists pose a serious threat to America's law enforcement officers. When examining the total number of murdered law enforcement officers between 1990 and 2015 by either far-right extremists or Islamist terrorists, researchers discovered that 81.8 percent were perpetrated by individuals with a far-right ideology. In other words, law enforcement officers are disproportionately targeted by far-right extremists and constitute a greater threat to America's brave police officers.

It is perhaps no surprise that police officers around the country have also identified far-right extremists as being the most significant domestic terror threat. A survey conducted by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (TCTHS) found that 74 percent of law enforcement agencies rated anti-government extremism as one of the top threats in their jurisdiction. By comparison, only 39 percent listed Islamist terrorism as a major threat. Their concern is justified, especially as recent incidents suggest that white supremacists may now be attempting to obtain chemical and biological weapons.

This is not to suggest, however, that Islamist terrorism is not a threat to the United States. Indeed, the dramatic events of 9/11 and recent lone wolf attacks including the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando underscore the need for continued vigilance against Islamist terrorism. 

Moreover, the Institute for Economics and Peace reported that in 2015 the four groups responsible for 74 percent of all global terrorist-related deaths were by Islamist terrorists including ISIS. Researchers at START have confirmed that attacks undertaken by the Islamic State are especially lethal with nearly three-quarters of their attacks resulting in at least one death. The identification of threat is not a mutually exclusive endeavor - the United States must guard against all threats. 

Nevertheless, it is essential that policymakers recognize long-standing empirical evidence that Islamist terrorism is not America's greatest domestic threat. A more balanced approach to understanding terrorism must entail a forthright acknowledgement of the threat posed by right-wing terrorists. The FBI director's testimony and acknowledgement of the significance of right-wing terrorism is an important step in formulating sensible counterterrorism policy.

The tragic events in Las Vegas further provide an unfortunate reminder that most incidents of domestic terrorism are not carried out by radicalized Muslims. The country must now move forward with the grieving process and investigators must focus on determining not just the motivation but also the ideology behind Paddock's heinous acts. 

Jeffrey Treistman is an assistant professor of national security at the University of New Haven. Treistman previously worked for the U.S. Department of State as a policy advisory in Baghdad, Iraq and was a consultant for the Department of Defense's African Command.

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