Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

Addressing an urgent need for increased monitoring of right-wing extremist groups and domestic terrorism

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By Shruti Banerjee

With incidents like neo-Nazi Keith Luke raping a woman and murdering three people in 2009 because he wanted to kill all non-whites and Richard Poplawski, a white supremacist and gun enthusiast, killing three cops in 2009, it’s obvious that right-wing hate groups in the United States are active and prevalent. In a report for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Analyst Daryl Johnson warned of increased recruitment and radicalization amongst right-wing hate groups in light of current events, such as the candidacy and election of an African-American president. His predictions couldn’t have been more correct.

While conducting an internet survey, I was unsurprised to find a plethora of fear mongering, bigoted propaganda (Fox News has made me accustomed to this). But I was disturbed to come across a video of right-wing militia men training their followers to “kill fags in a way they won’t enjoy you touching them,” as well as right-wing extremist videos on how to make your own bomb and horrific images of judges and government officials being lynched [not linked for graphic and safety reasons]. These types of multimedia are unfortunately aplenty on YouTube and other sites, speaking to the prevalence of these extremist groups and their ideologies.

Despite these blatant messages to commit acts of domestic terrorism by over 900 active right-wing extremist groups, as of 2012, the U.S. government only had one analyst researching all right-wing hate groups’ activities in the country. As Johnson correctly predicted, a lack of surveillance and accountability for these hate-driven recruitment messages has ultimately led to more instances of domestic terror. By looking at a history of right-wing extremist groups from the 1990s to present and analyzing the government’s response to these groups, it’s evident that our failure to take Johnson’s warnings seriously has left our country more vulnerable to acts of domestic terrorism.

TRENDS IN DOMESTIC TERROR AND EXTREMIST GROUPS

In the U.S., there are four main categories of right-wing extremist groups: militia groups, white supremacist groups, sovereign citizen movements and various single issues movements, according to the book Right-Wing Resurgence: How a Domestic Terrorist Threat is Being Ignored by Daryl Johnson. Militia groups are defined by federal law as domestic organizations that have two or more members who retain and use firearms, teach or endorsing paramilitary training and advocate for violent resistance or overthrowing of the federal government. They tend to be against government regulation—for example, anti-taxation and anti-gun regulation—and have a history of attacking federal buildings. White supremacists groups tend to believe in the intellectual superiority of Caucasians over all other races and have a history of violently targeting minority groups such as African-Americans and Latinos. Sovereign citizen movements aim to disassociate themselves with the U.S. by giving up citizenship and creating a self-sufficient environment. These movements generally have anti-government agendas and have attempted to rename U.S. territories. Single issue movements are comprised of groups that dedicate their time to a certain issue, such as anti-abortion and anti-immigration groups. These groups have been known to physically attack institutions that they do not agree with, like medical clinics that provide abortions.

According to a DHS report, there are many factors that lead to the rise of right-wing extremist groups, including slow economic growth, high unemployment, a liberal political climate (i.e. the election of the first African-American president), heavy recruitment of veterans, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-abortion sentiment, anti-LGBT movements, general anti-government and anti-authority sentiments and prevailing racism. For example, the report documents that there was an uptick in right-wing extremist activity during the early 1990s, a time characterized by high unemployment, slow economic growth, the appearance of a liberal political climate during the 1992 presidential election and the passage of more restrictive gun laws. This surge in right-wing groups and extremist rhetoric culminated in the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. This act of domestic terrorism, which was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured over 600 others.

After the Oklahoma City Bombing, there was a decline in militia groups from 165 active militia groups in 1997 to only 60 active groups in 1999, according to Right-Wing Resurgence. Unfortunately, this decline did not last long, and Johnson was shocked by the uptick in extremist groups his department witnessed in the mid-2000s. The DHS documented in its report the formation of 45 new anti-government militia groups in an abrupt six month period (from October 2007-March 2008) after witnessing a gradual decline in these groups over the last decade. Johnson noted in his book that this drastic increase in extremist groups was the largest recorded in fifteen years, and the Southern Poverty Law Center currently reports that this number has further increased to 939 active hate groups. During this period, Johnson’s department at the DHS also noticed a sharp increase in hate speech and death threats directed at Barack Obama.

EXPANSION AND BACKLASH

In January 2005, Johnson was asked to help draft a five-year budget plan for the DHS. He noticed that the edited version listed Islamic groups and left-wing groups as domestic terror threats, but failed to mention a single right-wing group. As Johnson recounts in his book, he was assured by his supervisor that this was not an actual assessment of the domestic terror threat and will just be used for budgeting purposes. This DHS budget plan garnered significant political attention, especially from Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi. According to Right-Wing Resurgence, at a hearing Congressman Thompson said:

“As the bombings of the Alfred. P Murrah Building in Oklahoma City ten Years ago demonstrated, right-wing domestic terrorists are capable of harming America in ways similar to al-Qaeda. Indeed, white supremacists, violent militiamen, anti-abortion bombers, and other right-wing hate groups have shown a remarkable ability to resist law enforcement authorities. In 2003, for example, the American radical right staged a ‘comeback’ with the number of skinhead groups doubling from the prior year.” Thompson continued, “If DHS’ long term planning documents do not consider these and other risks posed by right-wing domestic terrorists, then lower-level agents working to fight these groups may not be receiving enough budgetary, policy, or administrative support from their superiors. This means possible threats to our homeland could go undetected”.

At the time of this report, Johnson was the only analyst researching non-Islamic domestic terror threats.  After this critique of the 2005 DHS budget, Johnson was allowed to hire more analysts to build a team specifically designed to detect and analyze right-wing domestic terror threats, though this team would later be dismantled due to political backlash.

Prior to this initiative, the government paid very little attention to domestic terror threats from right wing groups. Johnson recalls in his book that “between 2004 to 2009, virtually no one in DHS leadership had expressed an interest in non-Islamic extremists,” and Janet Napolitano was the first Secretary of Homeland Security to ask him about these right-wing threats. This seemed like a new era of surveillance of these right-wing groups until a DHS employee leaked Johnson’s DHS report in 2009 titled, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which outlined the factors that were promoting the formation of right-wing terrorist groups (mentioned above).

Conservative news media immediately picked up the leaked report and used it as a political tool to undermine the Obama administration by distorting the analysis. For example, conservative figurehead Lou Dobbs argued that, “the report says that people who are opposed to restricting Second Amendment rights to bear arms or who are concerned about illegal immigration and border security could well fall under the Department Of Homeland Security definition of an ‘extremist’.” Dobb’s analysis is incomplete and incorrect under the actual definition of “extremist” provided in the report, but a lack of government responsiveness to these attacks allowed the conservative media to continue to distort and politicize the report, arguing that DHS monitoring directly targeted conservatives.

Napolitano showed some initial support, but the White House eventually distanced itself from this report and downsized Johnson’s unit, virtually dismantling the only government department monitoring non-Islamic domestic terror threats. A few days after the report leaked, the government also suspended all domestic terrorism-related training and reporting. Ironically, this report, which was used by conservatives as a political tool to criticize the Obama administration, was written by the epitome of a “good conservative.” Johnson is a family man, a gun owner, a registered republican and a devout Mormon.

HUMAN RIGHTS IMPLICATIONS OF IGNORING RIGHT-WING TERRORIST GROUPS 

In the aftermath of the leak, the political discourse surrounding the report completely overshadowed its resounding message: that right-wing groups pose a legitimate threat to our domestic safety. Caving to political pressures when we have compiled hard numbers proving the prevalence of a terrorist threat and ignoring the direct connection between propaganda, recruiting and instances of domestic terror creates a dangerous environment that allows extremist groups to stay active. As Congressman Thompson rightfully feared in 2005, the refusal to properly monitor these extremist groups has led to undetected and underreported human rights violations on our own soil. For example, the rise of anti-immigration propaganda, publicized rallies against immigrants and legislation endorsing racial profiling in Arizona and elsewhere, were all directly correlated with an uptick in violent crimes against Hispanics, as documented in my previous article.

It is appalling that law enforcement and government officials repeatedly call calculated crimes driven by hate ‘isolated incidents’. For example, John Stack, an anti-establishmentarian, was very open about his hatred for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and government regulations. He outlined his frustrations in a six-page manifesto before flying a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas in 2010. Texas law enforcement insisted this was an ‘isolated incident’, which is hard to believe when instances of anti-government violence are common in Texas. Writing off these cases of domestic terrorism by right-wing extremists as ‘isolated incidents’ is a rhetorical tool used by politicians and law enforcement to make sure they are not liable for failing to protect their constituents from known and active domestic terror threats.

We need to be more critical of the deference we give to the first amendment rights of extremists when they are clearly promoting domestic terrorist activities. As President Obama acknowledged, we need a multifaceted approach to combat international terrorism because relying solely on military force does not thwart recruitment efforts, leaving individuals ‘ripe for radicalization’. We must combat domestic terrorism by impeding recruitment efforts with the same fervor that we do for international terror threats. This begins by combating hate speech and radical ideologies that preach intolerance, recognizing domestic extremist threats as systemic in nature and adequately monitoring right-wing extremist groups.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: David Ingram/Creative Commons

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

3 thoughts on “Addressing an urgent need for increased monitoring of right-wing extremist groups and domestic terrorism

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