This article discusses extremism in the United States as we close out 2020 and look to 2021. Security professionals can educate themselves on what’s out there and where the risk lies when it comes to extremism.
Extremism here encompasses multiple participants. One segment of radicalism here is the anti-government movement. This highly diversified sphere of extremism comprises participants such as sovereign citizens, militias, anarchists and anti-police operatives. These radicals often target police either directly or while their supporters carry out other illicit activities. The October 2020 arrest of Michigan militia members planning the kidnapping of the governors of Michigan and Virginia along with discussions to attack government targets illustrates the seriousness of these anti-government participants.
Next, traditional hate groups and bias-based movements, principally those embracing variants of white nationalism, have gained prominence during the past few years. In 2020, both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI deemed white nationalism and its adherents as the main domestic extremist threat. Between 2017-2019, the number of white nationalist hate groups (as designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center) rose by 55%. The FBI’s November 2020 release of hate crime statistics for 2019 notes 7,314 criminal acts (a 3% increase over the previous year) with a record 51 murders.
Other radicals, such as fringe ideologies and movements (e.g., Antifa, incels and QAnon) and single-issue adherents (e.g., extremist animal rights, environmentalists and anti-abortionists) are another segment of concern. In October 2020, for instance, an Antifa supporter shot and killed a Trump supporter in Portland. The past several years have included violence targeting Democrats and Republicans (e.g., Cesar Sayoc’s IEDs targeting over a dozen prominent Democrats in fall 2018 and James Hodgkinson’s shooting during a congressional Republican baseball practice in June 2017). Unfortunately, violent rhetoric across political constituencies and radical elements therein have continued undeterred, aggravated during the fall 2020 elections and allegations of a rigged presidential election.
In the realm of foreign-aligned terrorism in the United States, foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), such as al Qaida, Islamic State, and Hizballah, homegrown violent extremists (HGVEs) (those who ascribe to the goals of a foreign terrorist group, but act independently of it), and state-sponsors of terrorism with tentacles here, threaten the homeland. The key risk among these participants here are HGVEs, mostly aligned with the Islamic State threats. Social isolation, marginalization, the pull of social media and the ease of embracement of extremist ideals, aggravated by COVID-19 stressors, will likely continue in the coming years.
Against this backdrop, multiple factors inducing radicalism and kinetic attacks are worth highlighting. Radicals exploit social media seeding discord with misinformation and disinformation. Portions of the populace are mesmerized by such extremist precepts that offer easy solutions to baseless grievances blamed on newly found or long-targeted ascribed enemies.
Perpetrators globally mimic terror targets and the means of attack irrespective of ideology. One should recognize that radicals may undertake their attacks in areas outside their geographical bases. Segments of radicals in the United States (e.g., some hate group actors and militias) can be characterized as accelerationists: those seeking to start an upheaval precipitated by a notable attack.
Never underestimate the lethality arising from lone wolves, especially in causing mass casualty terror attacks (e.g., 23 killed at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, 11 murdered at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, and 49 killed at an Orlando nightclub in 2016).
In closing, the U.S. will have its hands full with these and other unknown threats during the next few years.
Since publishing on terrorism in 1991, Prof. Alexander has written several books on the subject, including: Family Terror Networks (2019), The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (Lexington, 2015), Business Confronts Terrorism: Risks and Responses (Univ. of Wisconsin, 2004) and Terrorism and Business: The Impact of September 11, 2001 (Transnational, 2002).