Far-right militias pose the greatest threat to the national security of the United States, experts tell Newsweek.
In stark language, they warned of the increasingly grave risk posed by these organized armed extremist movements, as they seek to capitalize on unprecedented political instability to wage war on their own country.
“The threat posed by domestic groups is real,” Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security think tank, told Newsweek.
“Al-Qaeda and ISIS have not gone away, and tremendous resources have been devoted to combating them,” Fontaine said. “But look at where we are: there are more troops today in Washington, D.C. than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. That says a lot about where the gravest threats lie right now.”
Fontaine, who served as foreign policy adviser to late Senator John McCain and held various roles at the State Department, Defense Department and National Security Council, took note of the lingering threat posed by foreign designated terrorist organizations such as Islamist militant groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), but said the true enemy lies at home.
Last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol Building by a mob rallied by President Donald Trump to disrupt his electoral loss marked a watershed moment in rising political violence observed in the country over the last few years. Five people died in the riots, and details emerging from the chaos paint an even darker picture of premeditated plots and plans to assassinate senior figures, including Vice President Mike Pence.
Though not every Jan. 6 protestor is accused of nefarious intentions, the manifestation of far-right militias with avowed racist and anti-establishment views is an ominous sign of an empowered fringe community taking their fight to the heart of the U.S. government.
Roubadeh Kishi is Director of Research and Innovation at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), where she specializes in monitoring violence and unrest. Their main focus has been international, including hotspots across the Middle East, Africa and South America. But in July, with the mass demonstrations in the U.S. over the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, ACLED started a new project to analyze worsening domestic turmoil.
Her findings indicate an existential threat to the country like no other.
“Far-right groups pose the most significant threat to U.S. national security domestically,” Kishi told Newsweek, “having been responsible for far more violence than foreign threats like Al-Qaeda or ISIS during the period for which ACLED has data.”
According to data gathered by ACLED’s U.S. Crisis Monitor dating back to April, not a single act of violence was linked to foreign organizations operating in the U.S. The majority, she said, “is attributed to far-right, white nationalist, and white supremacist groups,” with a lesser amount tied to left-wing movements such as Antifa.
“We find that the vast majority of militias in the U.S. are right-wing, and their activity is widespread and growing,” Kishi said. “Left-wing militia activity is not as pronounced, and while the specter of ‘Antifa’ looms large in the public imagination, violent activities associated with this non-centralized movement have been minimal.”
Another major difference in right-wing and left-wing activity is law enforcement response. Kishi described police reaction to right-wing demonstrations as “friendliness or tacit tolerance.” Even in the face of violence and destructive behavior, she said law enforcement response was “muted,” while it was much more prevalent and aggressive when dealing with left-wing action.
She said an intensification of such right-wing activity could be traced directly to the beginning of the “Stop the Steal” movement, the rallying cry of Trump loyalists seeking to overturn the election of President-elect Joe Biden, an event she said has only fueled the far-right anger.
“Pro-Trump and right-wing organizing has changed significantly since the election, and will likely continue to evolve going into the inauguration and initial stages of the Biden administration,” Kishi said. “The emergence of new groups and organizing parties indicates that militias and armed groups are not going away after the end of the election period.”
Also raising the alarm on the far-right militia risk is Eric Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center and a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also studies an array of “hate groups” with ties to white nationalism and white supremacy, and sees a serious threat that outmatches that of any foreign group or left-wing elements.
“Since 9/11, right-wing domestic terrorists have killed well over a hundred Americans—more than any other group,” Ward told Newsweek. “Over the same time, anti-fascists have not been linked to a single murder. Let me be clear. I oppose political violence across the board, but far-right violence has been vastly more deadly.”
He called on law enforcement to step up their efforts against “home-grown extremists.” At the same time, he cautions against new PATRIOT Act-like measures that “would inevitably hit many of the vulnerable communities that we’re working to protect.”
The PATRIOT Act was signed into law just weeks after 9/11 and granted law enforcement sweeping new powers in the name of counterterrorism against foreign actors. But many of its surveillance measures were applied broadly, drawing widespread criticism over the sprawling net it cast over minority communities, especially Muslims and Arabs living in the U.S.
Individuals professing allegiance to international groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been connected to only a handful of major incidents since 9/11,including the 2013 Boston Bombing, the deadly shootings at a San Bernardino office in 2015 and the killings in an Orlando nightclub in 2016.
Meanwhile, white supremacists have mounted something of a national offensive, striking at seemingly random locations, including African-American churches as well as Muslim, Jewish and Sikh religious institutions, and even targeting police officers.
Despite the fact that law enforcement continues to monitor ideologically-charged groups and individuals, agencies overtly failed to prevent or adequately anticipate the insurrection that rocked the Capitol last week.
With Biden’s inauguration just days away, mounting reports of armed gatherings nationwide amidst a parallel national crisis rooted in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it has sparked has Ward worried that the danger is far from over.
And he places responsibility for the volatile atmosphere squarely at the feet of the sitting president.
“Trump has empowered and embraced extremists and planted the seeds for an ongoing insurrection against Biden,” he said. “From where I sit, I expect the presidential transition and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will inflame the far right.”
To shore up reinforcements on Inauguration Day, the Department of Homeland Security—whose acting chief, Chad Wolf, abruptly resigned on Monday—has declared a National Special Security Event involving multiple agencies such as the FBI, Secret Service, the U.S. military and other law enforcement agencies.
In a statement sent to Newsweek, the FBI would not get into specifics about the planned security deployment, but said that “it will include numerous FBI special agents, analysts, specialized teams, and support staff, many of whom are already in place.”
The agency outline a plan that mobilizes all its resources to face the challenge of extremism.
“The FBI’s National Crisis Coordination Center was established at FBI Headquarters and a command post was initiated at the Washington Field Office to provide a centralized location for gathering intelligence, assessing potential threats, coordinating on investigations, and providing any additional resources needed,” the statement said. “Command posts will also be set up in all 56 FBI field offices. As always, the FBI is working in close coordination with its law enforcement and intelligence partners in order to ensure the safety of the event.”
One former senior Pentagon official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described to Newsweek some of the tactics and techniques already used by federal agencies tackling international terrorism. These include building a “pattern of life” on targets, which includes identifying their associates, habits and course of radicalization, until reaching “a triggering point where you ascertain behavior is going to take action of a terrorist nature,” at which point the target is intercepted.
The techniques include strict monitoring of financial transactions with particular attention on large payouts of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. Yahoo News and Newsweek reported Thursday on a payment of more than $500,000 in Bitcoin to the accounts of “Steal the Vote” organizers ahead of the riot.
The widespread application of such surveillance measures within U.S. borders is murky, both legally and ethically, as the official acknowledges, but frustration over a lack of support to develop a concerted federal strategy has elicited complaints not just of incompetence, but complicity.
“These domestic terrorists, if you will, are definitely a significant threat to our rule of law and peaceable execution of government,” the former official said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s just individual, lone actors, but very coordinated and well-trained individuals, many of which have served in the military or have advanced weapons and explosives training. So that does make it pretty scary.”
The insider threat exacerbates an already festering domestic issue with deep roots in the most trusted institutions of the U.S., with no clear path to address it.
“I’m shocked and aghast at the number of former military and law enforcement that have been caught up in some of these militias or groups,” the former official told Newsweek, “the public cases that have come up, I guarantee you there are dozens, if not hundreds more behind that.”
The Pentagon acknowledges the peril this poses, as one current senior official shared.
“Left unchecked, domestic extremism in the military affects good order and discipline and degrades mission capability,” the senior Pentagon official told Newsweek, “which definitely has a negative effect on our overall national security.”