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What's behind the 'blended extremism' surfacing today?

What's behind the 'blended extremism' surfacing today?
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Extremists used to be classified easily into discrete categories, but that is getting harder to do. Increasingly, extremists’ motivations seem cobbled together from different, even contradictory hatreds — including adherents of both white supremacism and radical Islam. Why this is happening is unclear.

Last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Army private Ethan Melzer with planning an ambush against his unit. Melzer allegedly sent inside information to a neo-Nazi, white-supremacist group, the Order of the Nine Angles (O9A), for forwarding to jihadist terrorists. O9A members espouse “violent, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs, and have expressed admiration for both Nazis, such as Adolf Hitler, and Islamic jihadists, such as Osama Bin Laden, the now-deceased former leader of al Qaeda,” according to the DOJ.

On Sept. 3, the FBI arrested Boogaloo Bois Michael Solomon and Benjamin Teeter for trying to carry out attacks in support of Hamas.

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At a March 2, 2021, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that terrorism has been “metastasizing” into “blended ideologies.” Wray explained: “One of the things that we struggle with, in particular, is that more and more the ideologies … that are motivating some of these violent extremists are less and less coherent, less and less linear, less and less easy to kind of pin down. And in some cases it seems like people [are] coming up with their own sort of customized belief systems … maybe combined with some personal grievance.” 

In Minnesota, he said, two individuals “identified themselves as so-called Boogaloo Bois,” although they ultimately were charged with trying to provide material support, “as in weapons,” to Hamas. “These are not things that neatly fit together in anybody’s worldview,” Wray said.

Fortunately, authorities interrupted the Solomon-Teeter and Melzer plots. At other times, they were less successful.

On March 12, 2018, 17-year-old Corey Johnson allegedly killed 13-year-old Jovanni Sierra for mocking his new Muslim faith. Johnson previously had attracted police attention for espousing Nazi, white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual beliefs. Later, police learned he supported ISIS. Per police reports, “Allegedly, Johnson has viewed several videos of ISIS online including beheading videos, has stated he wants to join the organization and has also reached out to ISIS via the internet.” The FBI became involved after Johnson reportedly threatened a United Kingdom Catholic school using Instagram and, by March 5, 2018, the U.S. attorney had decided to charge him. Unfortunately, that did not happen before the attack that killed Sierra.

Devon Arthurs and his three Tampa roommates were all neo-Nazis. Arthurs converted to Islam and on May 19, 2017, allegedly killed two of them for mocking his new faith. 

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On Dec. 28, 2019, Grafton Thomas reportedly attacked a Hanukkah party with a machete, killing a man. Police searching his home found journals complaining that Jews “took” from “ebinoid Israelites,” an apparent reference to Black Hebrew Israelites. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), many Black Hebrew Israelite sects are anti-Semitic. The journals also contained drawings of swastikas and references to “Adolph Hitler” and “Nazi culture.” On Thomas’s phone, police found internet searches asking, “Why did Hitler hate the Jews?” 

Signs of blended ideologies have cropped up in lesser crimes, too. In a December 2016 vandalism incident in Chandler, Ariz., a menorah was twisted into a swastika. While stopping short of blaming the incident on white supremacists, the Washington Post noted that the swastika is “the symbol of the Nazi party that carried out the murder of 6 million Jews and of current-day hate groups.” It turned out that the swastika was created by a Black man named Clive Jamar Wilson and three unidentified minors. Swastika graffiti has also featured in the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, as at UC Davis in February 2015 and at Purdue and the University of Indiana in March 2016.

Anecdotal evidence from Europe suggests it is common for anti-Semitic expressions by Muslims or Arabs to employ Nazi motifs such as swastika graffiti or Hitler salutes. According to British Jewish community official Dave Rich, “Those British Muslims who verbally abuse British Jews on the street are more likely to shout ‘Heil Hitler’ than ‘Allahu akbar.’” 

Theoretically, combining Nazism and white supremacism with radical Islam is an awkward fit. The former are nearly always influenced by Christian identity, according to the ADL. Nazism considered Black people inferior, so Nazism’s appeal for Thomas and Wilson is difficult to understand. Yet, these ideologies coexist within many perpetrators.

What is behind this amalgamation?

During a Jan. 8, 2020, hearing before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Elan Carr, the former special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, testified that neo-Nazis deliberately target urban Black Americans via the internet, to turn them against Jews. “They don’t do it as neo-Nazis,” Carr explained, “but they hide their identities and they’re putting forth materials specifically meant to poison African American-Jewish relations.”

Although ideology is the “glue,” former white supremacist Christian Piccolini suggested looking at extremism as a “search for identity, community and purpose. … I have worked with Black neo-Nazis … with Latino neo-Nazis … with Jewish mothers who … their sons are denying the Holocaust. They’ve found these movements because they’ve been accepted into them when maybe in other cases they were not accepted into society. … So they’ve forgotten who they are and what their history has gone through, in some cases, because the reward of feeling accepted is greater than the pain.”

Similarly, Ahmet Yayla of the George Washington University Program on Extremism, observed: “Only around 3 percent of my subjects became a member of that terrorist organization solely based on their ideologies,” but over 75 percent joined “because their friends or relatives kind of pulled them in.”

In this strange way, extremists’ hatred toward others is an outgrowth and expression of their search for warmth and understanding for themselves.

Johanna Markind is an attorney and writer in Philadelphia who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice from 2009 to 2015.