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The rise of white supremacy extremism is a global phenomenon and the United States is its chief exporter. While the threat posed by radical right wing ideologues, the milieu most white supremacists inhabit, had been on the rise prior to the Trump administration, it is now in overdrive. Responsibility, partly, lies at the feet of the President who has used social media to invoke tactics deployed by racist police chiefs and politicians who openly used tools of the state to murder, maim, and malign black Americans. Today, sadly, the echoes of the past do not reverberate solely through the bell jar of social media. The deployment of tear gas, soldiers, and wanton brutality by organs of the federal, state, and local government against citizens who have peacefully opposed oppression and white supremacy render stark the stakes at hand. While the raw emotion, tears, and rage for George Floyd’s tragic death were consuming American streets, the Trump administration used the elements of national power better deployed against overseas adversaries like ISIS and al-Qa’ida (AQ) against the grieving.
White supremacists have carried out the most vicious attacks on U.S. soil since the beginning of the Trump administration. Robert Bowers’ deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killed 11 Jewish worshipers. One year later, in El Paso, Texas, a white supremacist killed 22 people, taking aim at Hispanics. These attacks and many others led to calls for a domestic terrorism law. While such a law, if carefully constructed, could help in countering the threat posed by the radical right, one wonders, especially in light of the invocation of the Insurrection Act of 1807 and threat to designate Antifa as a terrorist group how new laws could be misapplied by the Trump administration. More appropriate is a re-examination of how counterterrorism policies, tools, and nurturing of bilateral relationships could be applied to the transnational dimensions of the radical right threat.
First, the United States should expand its use of sanctions against overseas radical right-wing groups. While there is great appetite to do so — more than 500,000 people have petitioned the White House to sanction U.S. based groups like the KKK as terrorist enterprises — the legal mechanism does not exist. The United States Department of State and Treasury can only designate foreign terrorist organizations unless a domestic group is overseen by an overseas entity. Unfortunately, the United States has only designated one radical right-wing group, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). On April 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of State sanctioned the RIM pursuant to E.O. 13224. Scores of other groups remain ripe for designation, many of whom, like the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, have extensive overseas networks. It is critical that both the State and Treasury Department sanction these groups — doing so will cripple their finances and provide the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) the capability to arrest radical right-wing financiers for providing material support to white supremacists.
Second, the United States government must increase its overseas intelligence collection against white supremacist groups. This recommendation is inextricably linked to the first. The State and Treasury Departments must have solid intelligence to use their sanction authorities. The lack of designations is possibly indicative of the fact that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) isn’t harnessing Central Intelligence and National Security Agency human and technical assets. U.S. intelligence collection is guided by the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF). Collecting more intelligence on transnational white supremacist networks can only occur if modifications are made to the NIPF. Elevating the intelligence collection on key individuals, groups, and finances that compose the international white supremacist community will allow for policies to be constructed commenserate to the threat. That will require the agency heads and policymakers who guide IC collection priorities to make collection against white supremacist networks a top tier target. At that point, the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies can devote more resources to tracking the overseas-based white supremacist threat.
Third, given the documented linkages between domestic and overseas white supremacist personalities, the United States must up its game in sharing information with partner entities, like the European Union (EU). The Soufan Center’s September 2019 report on white supremacy extremism, for instance, documented links between an American citizen, Matthew Heimbach, who was one of the organizers of the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, and the RIM. Recent reports suggest, however, that the U.S. government has been reluctant to share information on the radical right-wing menace with its EU counterparts. The lack of information sharing is particularly dangerous when it comes to transnationally linked white-supremacist groups, like the Atomwaffen Division, which has ties to organizations based in Russia, the UK, and Germany. The EU may have key pieces of information that could help U.S. law enforcement unravel white supremacist groups at home while the U.S. may possess vital intelligence that could do the same for the EU. Foreign government provided information may also have the added benefit of allowing both the EU and U.S. governments the opportunity to wield their sanction tools more effectively. Terrorist designations carried out by the EU and U.S. competent authorities will often include foreign government information.
Fourth, white supremacists in the United States and overseas are meeting in the virtual world of gaming. In 2020, Conor Climo, a member of the Atomwaffen Division, pleaded guilty to planning attacks against a Jewish synagogue and LGBTQ-friendly bar. As the case against Climo evolved, it became publicly known that he communicated over online gaming platforms with a member of the overseas-based Feuerkreig Division — a neo-Nazi group. Extremists communicating over online games, while not novel, is understudied. U.S. law enforcement should engage consistently with gaming companies, especially with their content moderation and compliance shops. There is a vital overseas aspect to possible U.S. government law enforcement engagement since one of the world’s largest gaming companies, Riot, is a Chinese owned company. Racism and hatred over myriad gaming platforms makes for fertile recruitment grounds for white supremacists.
Fifth, the U.S. government should amp up its capacity building programs and policies dedicated to countering white supremacy extremism. At home, the Department of Homeland Security has allocated 10 million dollars to fund grants dedicated to tackling extremism in the United States. When decisions are made on what to fund, DHS should allocate a significant amount of those funds to domestic programs dedicated to countering white supremacy extremism. At the same time, the State Department should expand its foreign assistance programming efforts to include assistance to countries where white supremacist activity is present. In the past, the State Department funded the travel of individuals like Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi, to speak about the steps he took to leave the white power movement. Deploying former extremists lends authenticity to programming initiatives that is often difficult to achieve.
Sixth, the United States has an extensive screening traveler program that was put in place post 9/11. More attention should be given to travelers who have gone to hotspots, like Ukraine, where a wide range of white supremacist actors have fine-tuned their combat skills. In 2019, the Soufan Center documented that 17,000 individuals, including U.S. citizens, went to fight in the Ukrainian conflict. U.S. based Atomwaffen member, Kaleb Cole, for instance traveled to Ukraine. The ease with which individuals like Cole can travel and nurture overseas white supremacist contacts is a threat to national security. Since 9/11, U.S. traveler and immigration policies have overwhelmingly focused on the ISIS and AQ Salafi-jihadist threat. The U.S. government should recalibrate these policies, so they are attuned to white supremacist related travel.
Full implementation of these policies will require a paradigm shift — one that embraces the notion that threats to national security can come in shades of white. Some senior policymakers in the Trump administration are certain to resist, but many of these ideas can be implemented by career professionals who, by definition, put politics, ideology, and demagoguery aside. There are many ways to honor the spirit of George Floyd. One that can happen now is by taking the fight overseas to dismantle white supremacist networks. This is the least the U.S. government can do — especially when so many international white supremacists, like Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, have pointed to U.S. influences.
Jason M. Blazakis is Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where he also serves as the Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC). He is also a Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center. You can follow him on Twitter @jason_blazakis.