They wanted to “wake people up.” Three men from a small militia group called The Crusaders gathered a stockpile of firearms, ammunition and explosives last year and plotted to load up four vehicles with bombs. Their target was a sprawling apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, where many Somali immigrants live and pray. The militia members referred to Muslims as “cockroaches,” and wanted to kill the men, women and children who called the complex home in a large explosion.
“The only good Muslim is a dead Muslim,” one of the men had told the others. They were arrested in October before the attack could be carried out.
The incident in Garden City is just one of 150 plots and attacks compiled in “ A Dark and Constant Rage: 25 Years of Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States,” a new report from the Anti-Defamation League provided in advance exclusively to Newsweek. It makes clear that even as political rhetoric and public discourse focus on what the ADL report calls “radical Islamic terror,” there is a steady stream of violence carried out by right-wing extremists.
“The very real specter of radical Islamic terror in the United States has existed alongside an equally serious threat of terror from right-wing extremist groups and individuals,” the report says, attributing the lower awareness in part to events that take place outside of large urban centers and often draw less, or less sustained, media coverage. “Both movements have generated shooting sprees, bombings, and a wide variety of plots and conspiracies. Both pose threats so significant that to ignore either would be to invite tragedy.”
White supremacists—such as neo-Nazis, Klansmen and racist skinheads—and anti-government extremists—which include militia groups, sovereign citizens and tax protesters—have for decades targeted local, state and national government branches and law enforcement, as well as African-Americans, Hispanics, multiracial couples and families, religious groups such as Jews and Muslims and other targets, the report states.
Together, white supremacists and anti-government extremists account for 85 percent of the plots identified on ADL’s list of right-wing terrorism incidents. The remainder can be attributed to anti-abortion, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and other extremists. Firearms and explosives were the most common weapons of choice in these attacks, which in total have left 255 people dead and more than 600 others injured.
“What you see is that you have a lot of people here who are really willing to cause harm,” says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism and the report’s author. His goal was to lay out the facts of modern right-wing terrorism in the U.S.—how much of it there is, who is committing it and who they are targeting.
Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine people at the AME Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, nearly two years ago on June 17, 2015, is one of the most high-profile incidents on the list, which also includes the movie theater shooting at a screening of Trainwreck in Lafayette, Louisiana, by another white supremacist that same year; the assassination of a physician in Wichita, Kansas, in May 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist and sovereign citizen; the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, which killed 168 and injured hundreds of others; and other incidents all over the country.
The report notes a recent uptick that began in 2008, not coincidentally around the time the economy plummeted into a state of crisis and Barack Obama was elected president. It details events as recent as March, when a white supremacist fatally stabbed a black man with a sword in New York City, allegedly a “practice run” for a series of attacks driven by a long-raging hatred of African-American men.
“Extremist movements, I often suggest that they’re the fringe of the fringe in the United States. But we have 350 million people in this country so even the fringe of the fringe is a lot of folks,” says Pitcavage, who earned his doctorate in history with a dissertation on the militia in the early U.S. and has been studying right-wing extremism for over two decades. “Only a minority of people involved in an extremist movement will ever become violent, [but] that still can produce so many people willing to use violence as a means to an end to achieve their political or social goals.”
The ADL, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, has been looking at violent extremism since the organization was founded in 1913 and especially since the 1930s. Terrorism, as defined by the ADL’s Center on Extremism, refers to “a pre-planned act or attempted act of significant violence by one or more non-state actors in order to further an ideological, social or religious cause, or to harm perceived opponents of such causes.” Domestic terrorism is a subset in which “the perpetrators are citizens or permanent residents of the country in which the act takes place,” the report explains.
The internet and social media have made it far easier to plan and carry out attacks in recent years, helping spread propaganda and extremist ideas quickly and facilitating virtual meetings, plotting and even self-radicalization for lone wolves. The report attributes the rise of the so-called alt-right and the resurgence of the sovereign citizen movement at least in part to the web. The former is only about five years old as a movement, and until this past year, “was largely an internet phenomenon,” Pitcavage says. But “in recent months it has moved into the real world and inevitably we will see more real-world violence.”
The threats of right-wing extremism and extremism inspired by groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, in terms of the number of incidents, people arrested or casualties, have been “very comparable” in the decade and a half since 9/11, says David Schanzer, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. On some measures one is higher and on others it’s the reverse, he says. In a 2015 report, the Triangle Center found that “law enforcement agencies in the United States consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence that they face.” The think tank New America shows that through the end of 2015, the number of people killed in far-right wing attacks in the U.S. since 2002 slightly exceeded those killed in jihadist attacks. That remained true until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016.
Still, “in terms of government reaction and the amount of resources we put into it, I think it’s undeniable that we’re putting a lot more resources into dealing with Al-Qaeda- and ISIS-inspired extremism here,” Schanzer says.
Early on in Donald Trump’s presidency, Reuters reported that the new administration planned to revamp a program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) to become Countering Islamic Extremism or Countering Radical Islamic Extremism and to focus solely on these types of threats.
“I think it would be very unfortunate if we dealt with one side of the problem and not the other. Both are problems that deserve attention,” says Schanzer, who also believes that “if you don’t do both then you’re not going to really be able to do either.” He explains that if, for example, “the Muslim community feels like they’re being discriminated against and singled out because the Trump administration thinks they’re all potential terrorists and isn’t willing to deal with the…white people who are engaging in violent extremism as well, then they’re not going to cooperate with these programs, and therefore they’ll fail.”
The change would be primarily symbolic, Pitcavage explains, since the majority of CVE efforts under the Obama administration already focused on what he calls Islamic extremism. But it would “nevertheless be an important symbolic change,” he says.
There’s typically a decrease in far-right extremist activity during Republican administrations, says Daryl Johnson, a former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security and now the owner of DT Analytics. But five months into the new administration, we’re not seeing a downturn. Johnson predicts that the amount of activity will remain heightened, possibly “due to Trump’s rhetoric in the political campaign and then his subsequent actions since he’s been sworn in,” he says. “There was a chance these groups could be emboldened further because they feel the current administration would turn a blind eye.”
Pitcavage agrees. White supremacists have seemingly been bolstered by Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Hispanics and other groups, while anti-government extremists are looking for a new place to direct their energies now that the classic presidential target is someone they consider an ally. Though he feels far more comfortable “predicting” the past than the future, “the one thing I can say is I don’t think we’re going to see any significant decrease. So many extremists are energized,” he explains. They’re just “looking for some sort of spark.”
In Kansas, Dr. John Birky, a family physician in Garden City who last year founded the nonprofit New Hope Together, focused on serving the health care, language and cultural needs of the local refugee community, said several of his Somali friends—some of whom had family members who had been injured by car bombs in Mogadishu—were incredulous after the terror plot was made public. They had moved to America to get away from terrorists, but suddenly, in rural Kansas, they’d become targets afresh.
“I think the whole town was really in shock,” he says.
Sister Janice Thome serves with the Dominican Sisters Ministry of Presence in Garden City, working primarily with those in economic distress and occasionally with immigrants and refugees in town. She attended one of the vigils of support held in the days after news of the plot against the Somali community broke. There were more than 100 people there, she estimates, some holding signs about peace, safety and freedom, many shaking hands with their Somali neighbors. Thome says that since the averted disaster, there has been a “more intentional welcoming to the Somalis or care for them among people because of them being such a target. If anything it did opposite of what it was supposed to.”
But heartwarming responses like one Thome describes have not stymied the continuing threat of right-wing terrorism in the U.S., the ADL report shows.
“The ADL does not believe that a horse race between different types of terrorist threats helps anybody,” Pitcavage says. “Both domestic Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism are serious, real threats in terms of producing violence and terrorism and to ignore either would be very harmful. It would be to invite catastrophe.
“My hope is that with a report like this people can take more seriously the threat of right-wing extremism,” he adds, “which does not mean they have to take less seriously any other threat.”