To fight white supremacist terrorism at home, fight it abroad

Four weeks ago, the world watched in horror as a white supremacist gunned down 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., targeting them because they were Black. A 180-page manifesto that the accused gunman allegedly posted online promoted the “Great Replacement theory,” the notion that an influx of non-whites is causing the “extinction” of “the white race,”and praised the notorious 2019 attack on Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

Unfortunately, Buffalo may be just the tip of the iceberg. White supremacist terrorism is a global — and growing — threat. To fight it here at home, we must fight it abroad.

From Christchurch to Buffalo, from El Paso to Oslo and beyond, the world has witnessed a dramatic spike in such attacks. Perpetrators have attacked mosques and synagogues, grocery stores and refugee centers, and countless other soft targets, seeking to terrorize religious and minority communities. They’ve targeted Jews, Muslims and immigrants. They’re motivated by deep hatred of those they perceive as threats to their identity, and they’re often animated by virulent antisemitism.

It’s clear that this threat is on the rise. From 2011 to 2017, there were approximately 350 white supremacist terrorist attacks in Europe, North America, and Australia, according to a New York Times analysis. In 2011, there were just nine such attacks. In 2013 the number increased slightly, to 16. In 2015, there was a dramatic jump — to 135 — likely in reaction to large-scale migration from war zones in the Middle East to Europe. In 2016, the number dropped to 65 before rebounding somewhat in 2017 to 88. 

Americans know this threat all too well.

In August 2019, in El Paso, a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart, targeting Latinos in response to what he called a “Hispanic invasion.” Earlier that year, in Poway, Calif., a shooter opened fire at a synagogue after claiming that Jews were carrying out a “meticulously planned genocide of the European race.” And in Pittsburgh, in October 2018, a man slaughtered 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat services. 

We see the same alarming trend happening in places overseas. In the March 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, an Australian named Brenton Tarrant gunned down 51 people at a pair of mosques — a horror that was livestreamed on the internet for the world to see. In Hanau, Germany, in February 2020, nine people were killed in an attack on two hookah bars. A few months earlier, a terrorist unsuccessfully attempted to attack a synagogue in the German town of Halle before killing a bystander and shooting a guest at a Turkish cafe

White supremacist terrorism is the gravest domestic terror threat the United States faces. It’s not the only such threat — in 2021, 49 percent of domestic terror attacks were carried out by “the violent far-right,” while 40 percent were perpetrated by “the violent far-left,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — but it is the most lethal.

To effectively tackle this threat, we must understand the ideologies that fuel it. White supremacist ideology often glorifies Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The group Blood & Honour is named after a Hitler Youth slogan; Combat 18 takes its name from Hitler’s initials being the first and eighth letters of the alphabet. These terrorists promote “accelerationism,” a fringe theory holding that attacks can “accelerate” a coming race war — which, in their twisted view, would be a good thing.

Many of these terrorists call themselves “eco-fascists.” They blame immigrants and non-whites for environmental problems. And they want to, in the words of Tarrant, “kill the invaders” to “save the environment.” 

Let’s be clear: This is not merely “violence,” nor does the term “violent extremism” seem to be adequate. It’s terrorism, plain and simple. These attackers don’t just want, for example, to kill several Hispanics; they want to terrorize all Hispanics. They use violence to advance their grotesque political agenda. That is the textbook definition of terrorism.

What can we do about it? During my time at the State Department from 2017 to 2021, I led the United States’ efforts to combat the international aspects of white supremacist terrorism. Here are some of the key tools:

First, the U.S. and foreign partners must share information that can be used to investigate suspects, disrupt plots, take down fundraising and facilitation networks, and support prosecutions.

Second, designate groups and individuals as terrorists to deny them resources to plan attacks. In April 2020, the State Department sanctioned the Russian Imperial Movement, or “RIM,” along with three of its leaders — the first time the United States imposed terrorism sanctions on white supremacists. It’s a good start, but we need more such actions. The Biden administration sanctioned several additional figures linked to RIM last week, but it has yet to target any other groups. RIM was the first; it must not be the last.

Third, employ counter-messaging to delegitimize white supremacist ideologies. One particularly powerful tool is testimony from “formers” — people who were involved with a movement but quit, and now have unique credibility to dissuade others from taking the same misguided path.

Fourth, tech companies must promptly take down terrorist content that violates U.S. law or their own terms of service. Under no circumstances should legitimate political discourse be subject to cancellation. But neither should graphic video footage of massacres remain available online for years, as is the case with the Christchurch shooting. 

Fifth, harden international borders against white supremacist terrorists traveling to recruit followers, raise money, or carry out attacks. One way to prevent such travel is to add the names of known white supremacist terrorists to national watchlists and international law enforcement databases such as INTERPOL, just as is done for Islamist groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.

The scourge of white supremacist terrorism is causing devastation around the globe, and attacks in one country can reverberate far beyond its borders. But we can degrade these deadly networks if we apply some of the same counterterrorism measures we’ve used against terrorists of other ideological stripes and perhaps save untold lives in the process.

Nathan A. Sales is a senior adviser at The Soufan Group and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. From 2017-2021, he served at the State Department as ambassador at large and coordinator for counterterrorism, among other roles. Follow him on Twitter @AmbNathanSales.

Tags Mass shootings terrorist attacks White supremacy

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