Democratic lawmakers press for white supremacist groups to be labeled foreign terrorist organizations

Democratic lawmakers press for white supremacist groups to be labeled foreign terrorist organizations
© Greg Nash

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday pressed the State Department to designate three white supremacist groups as foreign terrorist organizations, arguing that reclassification could help the U.S. seriously confront the escalating crisis of white extremist violence.

In a letter led by Rep. Max RoseMax RoseHillicon Valley: Critics press feds to block Google, Fitbit deal | Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-linked accounts | TikTok looks to join online anti-terrorism effort | Apple pledges .5B to affordable housing Twitter takes down Hamas, Hezbollah-affiliated accounts after lawmaker pressure FBI chief says racist extremists fueling one another, making connections overseas MORE (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee's counterterrorism subpanel, the 39 lawmakers asked the State Department why they have not placed Ukraine's Azov Batalion, Finland's Nordic Resistance movement or the United Kingdom's National Action on the U.S. list of "foreign terrorist organizations" (FTOs). 

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"Today, if an American citizen swears allegiance to the Islamic State (or another Foreign Terrorist Organization on the list) and spreads their message of terror, there are several resources available to the federal government to counter the threat," their letter reads.

"However, if that same American citizen swears allegiance to a violent white supremacist extremist group based overseas and spreads their message of terror, the Federal government does not have access to the same tools," it continues.

In a phone interview with The Hill, Rose emphasized that he had approached a slew of Republicans about signing on to the letter with no luck. While he declined to say whether he believes the State Department under Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Netanyahu calls Trump administration reversal on Israeli settlements a 'huge achievement' UN pushes back on US reversal on Israeli settlements MORE will take on his proposal, he said he's "very curious as to what their explanation is if they resist this."

"It is incredibly clear that these entities possess right now the ability to carry out terrorist attacks, they certainly are engaging in radicalization efforts that threaten the homeland, and we need to use the full ... tools at our disposal," Rose said. "So the ball’s in their court." 

The State Department did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment.

For years, experts and policymakers have raised the possibility of adding international white supremacist groups to the list of FTOs, which currently does not include any neo-Nazi or white extremist groups. While the idea has failed to gain traction for years, the lawmakers are reigniting the debate after the Department of Homeland Security announced a new counterterrorism strategy last month focused on the threat of white extremism.

Governments around the world have turned their attention to the issue of white extremism after a string of mass shooters this year have had ties to fringe far-right online communities, where they were radicalized and have been hailed as martyrs in the wake of gruesome attacks. 

In March, a mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, killed more than 50 worshippers at a pair of mosques after allegedly posting an anti-immigrant screed online in which the suspect laid out his bigoted views on Europe's changing demographics. In that document, the shooter claimed he trained with the far-right Azov Battalion in Ukraine.  

The U.S. has also named the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement and National Action as groups whose violence "puts American lives at risk." The man who drove his car into a group of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, killing one anti-racism protester, had links to National Action. 

But those foreign groups still aren't designated as terrorist organizations, meaning the U.S. government cannot charge their American supporters with "providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization" and cannot commit the full range of counterterrorism resources to combat their influence.

The issue of white extremism has taken on new significance over the past several years as white nationalists flock to mainstream and fringe platforms to organize, discuss their views and radicalize hordes of mostly young men. 

The top social media companies in the world, including Facebook, Twitter and Google's YouTube, have recently agreed to dedicate more resources and coordinate more over taking down extremist content that promotes violence against minorities and immigrants — an effort that picked up amid pressure from multiple governments.

But it's been a complicated process as the platforms navigate their own policies, which often tend toward allowing free expression even when content is hateful.

Rose said that designating more neo-Nazi groups as FTOs could help the social media companies commit to driving them off the platform with the endorsement of the government.

"Right now, if you look at the way in which [the social media companies] measure their ability to remove terrorist content from their platforms, they are looking at the FTO list," Rose said. "So for us to put this on that list, I think takes a bold step forward in expanding what is expected of them." 

Shootings in Poway, Calif., and El Paso, Texas, over the past several months have also been perpetrated by extremists with anti-immigrant views, which they cultivated online. 

"As we learn more about connections between certain overseas white supremacist groups and domestic terrorists, it is time we take the threat of violent white supremacist extremists more seriously," the letter from the lawmakers reads. Other signatories include key Democrats on intelligence and national security committees. 

Rose called the letter a "first step" to dedicating the full breadth of government and private sector resources toward combatting the rise of white extremism. 

Extremism-related murders spiked 35 percent between 2017 and 2018, and every one of those deaths was carried out by a far-right extremist, according to an analysis from the Anti-Defamation League. 

"What we are pointing to with this letter is the fact that these ideologies are not national but they’re connected to a global infrastructure, which is significantly tied to transnational organizations," Rose said. "These are significant organizations that directly inspired attacks here at home, whether it is Poway, whether it is the Charlottesville incident." 

"If we want to actually not only — to use the tools of law enforcement, the tools of the private sector, to prevent this type of radicalization, then we’ve got to designate these organizations at the start as FTOs," he said.

Updated at 11:12 a.m.