Defeating domestic terror requires confronting white supremacy across the globe

Defeating domestic terror requires confronting white supremacy across the globe

The Biden administration has vowed to review and revamp America’s approach to combatting domestic terrorism. Succeeding in this endeavor will require bringing the full range of domestic counterterrorism tools to the fight.  But tackling the scourge of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic terrorist threat facing the country today will also require combatting its sources of strength beyond America’s shores.   

The new administration’s move is the right one: the United States has experienced an unprecedented and sustained wave of terrorist attacks motivated by an ethno-supremacist ideology starting in 2015 and showing no signs of abating. 2020 alone saw 15 such terrorist plots either attempted or executed. The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol brought renewed focus on the threat. 

The spike in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, or “REMT” in official government parlance, in the United States over the past half-decade represents one slice of a larger threat that emerged globally during that same period. REMT attacks around the world increased by over 300 percent from 2014-2018.  Attacks have often targeted religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Jews, including a 2019 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed more than 50, a 2017 attack on a mosque in Quebec City that killed six, and a 2019 attack near a synagogue in Halle, Germany that killed two.  

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The perpetrators of REMT attacks, whether domestically or internationally, are doing their part to bring about civil wars aimed at toppling democratic governments throughout the West, many with the goal of replacing them with white-dominated ethno-states. This philosophy, known as accelerationism because of its goal to accelerate the collapse of Western societies, may strike many Americans as fantastical. So, too, did Islamist terrorists’ stated goal of establishing a caliphate, until the Islamic State stood one up the size of the United Kingdom.

Accelerationism is at the heart of a heavily interconnected global white supremacist, anti-Semitic and anti-government movement. The movement is diffuse and lacks a single leader. It is composed of fluid groups throughout Europe and North America bearing names like Combat 18, Feuerkrieg Division (meaning “Fire War Division”) and the Base (perhaps not coincidentally the word al-Qaeda means “Base” in Arabic), as well as unaffiliated individuals around the world that share an allegiance to the same ideology. The nodes of this amorphous network coordinate across international boundaries for training, recruiting, fundraising and promoting propaganda. The domestic terrorism threat that exists in the United States is homegrown, but it belongs to — and derives strength from — this global movement.   

Similar to the Islamist terrorist movement spearheaded by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, thousands of aspiring white supremacist and neo-Nazi terrorists from around the world have traveled overseas, primarily to Russia or Ukraine, for training and combat experience. I independently confirmed at least a half dozen Americans made the journey, some of whom the Department of Justice has charged. The Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group designated as terrorists by the State Department in 2020, reportedly invited some organizers of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally to Russia for combat training. None of those individuals appear to have made the trip to Russia, but they did bring some RIM members to the United States to meet with like-minded groups in 2017.

The global REMT movement also coordinates across international boundaries to recruit and raise funds. Music festivals and ultimate fighting contests organized by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe serve both purposes by attracting a global coterie of admission-paying recruits. Other groups, including some in the United States, receive donations from sympathizers around the world in a manner not dissimilar to how al-Qaeda raised funds, especially pre-9/11. Ample evidence also exists of white supremacists coordinating, plotting and spreading misinformation across international boundaries through a combination of social media, encrypted messaging forums and video game platforms.    

Recognizing the international dimensions of the domestic terrorism threat will allow the federal government to leverage the full package of tools needed to sever domestic terrorists from their sources of strength overseas. That toolkit includes designations aimed at cutting off money to overseas groups and deterring Americans from interacting with them, travel restrictions to the United States on foreign white supremacist and neo-Nazi terrorists and the promotion of counter-narratives to combat conspiracy theories promulgated by the movement. The vast resources of the U.S. intelligence community could also serve as a powerful means for prevention and disruption targeting the foreign elements of the movement.  

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Attacking the foreign dimensions of the threat will complement the domestically-focused efforts of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. One trap that the Biden administration must avoid in the pursuit of defeating domestic terrorism is restricting free speech, even objectionable speech.  Censorship — whether at home or abroad — is not only antithetical to the First Amendment, but also a failed counterterrorism tactic that often exacerbates the threat it seeks to mitigate.  

Only with a robust strategy that respects fundamental American values and confronts all facets of the global REMT movement will the Biden administration succeed in protecting the homeland from domestic terrorism.    

Christopher Harnisch served as the deputy coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department from October 2018-January 2021.