By now, the story is all too common. A white man espousing racism, white supremacy or anti-semitism decides to act on his toxic ideology by perpetrating a mass shooting.
It happened in 2015 at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine people died at the hands of a white supremacist shooter. It happened in 2018, when a white gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people. And it happened in 2019 at an El Paso Walmart, a massacre that took the lives of 23 people.
Events like these are often depicted as the work of a single mentally unwell individual acting independently.
But that “lone wolf” narrative couldn’t be further from the truth. I spent the final months of 2020 traveling the world to report on white supremacy for my National Geographic series “Trafficked.” And what I learned is that much of the white supremacist violence we see in America is the product of a global network of organizations whose goal is to incite a race war.
Until we acknowledge this fact, we won’t be able to effectively confront this scourge.
White supremacist violence poses a significant threat to our national security, according to leading researchers. In 2020, white supremacists were responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found.
And according to security analyst Mollie Saltskog from the Soufan Group, a global intelligence consultancy, white supremacists have committed nearly three times as many attacks in the United States as Islamic extremists over the last 20 years.
The effort to prevent white supremacist violence is often hampered by the notion that it’s an uncoordinated, isolated incident perpetrated by one individual.
But that’s simply not the case. I spoke with members of these groups. They confirmed that the Americans who commit these abhorrent acts on U.S. soil aren’t working alone. They rely on a worldwide network of ideologically aligned white supremacists who share tools and information online, inspire one another to commit atrocities, and in some cases, even provide military training.
As one former white supremacist explained to me, the internet is “an all-you-can-eat, 24-hour hate buffet,” which these organizations use to recruit young men with alarming efficiency.
I recently interviewed members of one such group, the Atomwaffen Division, now known as the National Socialist Order. The organization seeks the collapse of the current social order so that a whites-only society may rise up in its place. The group has sent members to train in Ukraine, where neo-Nazi militias have recruited white supremacists from around the world to join their fight against Russia and advance racist ideology. In propaganda videos intended to further this goal — which are readily available on the internet — the group advocates a three-step process.
The final step, “Act,” depicts explicit violence — an incitement for sympathetic individuals to take up arms.
These efforts to attract misguided young men, propagate racist conspiracy theories over the internet, and incite violence are inseparable from the so-called “lone wolf” attacks we see so often here in the United States.
Consider the El Paso shooting. On its face, the incident looked like one man killing in isolation. But shortly before opening fire, the gunman posted a racist manifesto on the internet that borrows ideas directly from another white supremacist screed — one written by a New Zealand man who killed 51 people at a mosque in Christchurch in March of 2019.
White supremacist groups in the United States and around the world frequently distribute the New Zealand manifesto as a piece of propaganda. That it reached the El Paso shooter and helped inspire his shooting spree is no coincidence.
The Department of Homeland Security recently identified “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists” as “the most persistent and lethal” terrorist threat facing our nation.
Nevertheless, U.S. authorities still lack an adequate framework for addressing this threat. One problem is that the FBI doesn’t currently designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations. This limits the government’s capacity to investigate and prosecute them.
Of course, given its widespread scale, no single solution is sufficient to stem the tide of white supremacist violence. Some combination of more aggressive policing, as well as efforts to de-radicalize those who have fallen prey to these ideologies — particularly those in prison — is certainly required.
But before these changes can occur, we need to stop treating white supremacist violence as the work of a few troubled “lone wolves.” The violence we’re seeing in our country and around the world is the result of a dangerous global network that traffics not in drugs or weapons, but in hate.
Mariana van Zeller is an award-winning journalist and hosts the Emmy-nominated National Geographic docuseries “TRAFFICKED with Mariana van Zeller.” New episodes of Season 2 premiere every Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern on National Geographic and episodes are available to stream on Hulu.