Why Law Enforcement Fails to Stop White Nationalist Terrorism

White nationalist group like the Traditionalist Workers Party ("The Blackshirts") compete for leadership through assaults on civil rights advocates.

This week’s New York Times Magazine had an in-depth report on the failure of national and local law enforcement to counter the rising tide of white nationalist terrorism. Most terrorism related deaths in the United States are the work of these far-right extremists. According to the New York Times report:

White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has reported that 71 percent of the extremist-related fatalities in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were committed by members of the far right or white-supremacist movements. Islamic extremists were responsible for just 26 percent. Data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that the number of terror-related incidents has more than tripled in the United States since 2013, and the number of those killed has quadrupled. In 2017, there were 65 incidents totaling 95 deaths. In a recent analysis of the data by the news site Quartz, roughly 60 percent of those incidents were driven by racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, antigovernment or other right-wing ideologies. Left-wing ideologies, like radical environmentalism, were responsible for 11 attacks. Muslim extremists committed just seven attacks. These statistics belie the strident rhetoric around “foreign-born” terrorists that the Trump administration has used to drive its anti-immigration agenda.

While the United States government has made counter-terrorism a major priority, the Stimson Center estimates that between 2002 and 2017, the United States “spent $2.8 trillion — 16 percent of the overall federal budget — on counterterrorism,” very little of that expenditure has gone towards work against white nationalist violence. It has almost all been spent on work against groups inspired by ISIS, Al Qaeda, and similar groups with roots in the Middle East.  The Times article says that “Terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists killed 100 people in the United States during that time. Between 2008 and 2017, domestic extremists killed 387 in the United States…”

National security strategist P. W. Singer told the Times that when he met with senior officials in the Trump Administration about the growing violence from white supremacists, “They only wanted to talk about Muslim extremism.” He said that both the Trump administration and prior administrations “willingly turned the other way on white supremacy because there were real political costs to talking about white supremacy.” Those costs were illustrated by the release of a report on the recruitment of white nationalist extremists on the internet from the Department of Homeland Security. The sober 2009 report was greeted by conservatives as the beginning of a Stalinist crackdown on free speech. After the Obama administration backed away from the report, any momentum for dealing with the increasing white nationalist violence was lost.

Refusing to investigate, or even acknowledge, white supremacist violence is not confined to Federal officials. According to the FBI, 88 percent of police agencies that report hate crime data indicated that there had not been a single hate crime in their jurisdiction in 2016. Racially motivated violence and terrorism is rarely taken seriously as anything other than ordinary crime.

Gavin McInnes, leader of the Alt-Right street gang the Proud Boys, has claimed that his group has a lot of support among the NYPD and other police departments. This claim is unverified and may not have any truth to it at all, but points to a belief among members of violent extremist terror groups that the failure of police to arrest Proud Boys after they assault opponents is due to tacit support from the police.

The FBI and local law enforcement also tend to not characterize deadly attacks from white supremacist extremists as terrorism. The Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, and the couple who perpetrated the San Bernardino massacre were commonly called terrorists by police and the media. Far-right killers acting on political and racial motives are often described as “troubled individuals.” The focus after these events is often on the mental health of the killer, rather than the radicalization that he underwent on the internet. Calls are made by politicians for increased mental health services (which never materialize) rather than for the disruption of online recruitment of white terrorists.

The situation only got much worse when Donald Trump moved into the White House. According to the New York Times:

In the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, security analysts noted with increasing alarm what seemed to be a systematic erosion of the Department of Homeland Security’s analytic and operational capabilities with regard to countering violent extremism. It began with the appointment of a new national-security team. Like their counterparts now running immigration policy, the team came from the fringe of conservative politics, some of them with connections to Islamophobic think tanks and organizations like ACT for America or the Center for Security Policy, whose founder, Frank Gaffney, was Washington’s most prominent peddler of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

In addition to Gaffney, whose biased and statistically flawed data on the “Muslim threat” became the premise for Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, there were other ideological fellow travelers like Sebastian and Katharine Gorka, the husband-and-wife national-security team. Sebastian Gorka became a senior White House adviser, and Katharine Gorka became a senior adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. During the transition, Sebastian Gorka predicted the demise of “C.V.E.,” which he suggested was a fuzzy, politically correct approach to a problem — terrorism — that needed a better fix. Shortly afterward, Katharine Gorka, who once criticized the Obama administration for “allowing Islamists to dictate national-security policy,” made it clear, Nate Snyder recalls, that she didn’t like the phrase “countering violent extremism.” From now on, the mission would be focused on “radical Islamic terrorism,” the White House’s go-to phrase, which, as Sebastian Gorka later explained, was intended to “jettison the political correctness of the last eight years.”

As the Trump administration shut down the few programs intelligence agencies had for coping with burgeoning white nationalist violence, experts within those programs left. The U.S. is now less equipped to cope with this form of domestic terrorism than at any time in the recent past.

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