White Nationalism and Militant Islamism are Transnational Terrorist Threats | Opinion

The twentieth anniversary of the devastating 9/11 attacks offers a somber opportunity to assess the current U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the decades since. Despite the Biden administration's acknowledgement that white nationalism is "the most lethal" national security threat to the United States, our counterterrorism framework still relies on an outdated post-9/11 worldview instead of adapting to address the 1/6 reality. The result is the continued criminalization of Muslims and people of color in the United States and around the world, as well as the lack of full accountability for white nationalist terrorism.

As I discuss in my book, Homegrown Hate, based on over a decade of research and direct interviews, the term "terrorism" still conjures images of a brown, bearded man when the insurrection has forced America to recognize that the faces of terrorists are also white. America's continued differentiation between domestic and international terrorism is neither helpful nor accurate and is now hindering our government's response to the Jan. 6 attack.

The names of the hundreds of attackers on the U.S. Capitol—the heart of democracy—are not known to the public, unlike the names of the 9/11 hijackers, or their leader, Osama bin Laden. Nor is the insurrection often directly linked with terrorism. Instead, terms like "riot" and "mob" are mainly used in the media to describe the atrocities of Jan. 6.

The label "terrorism" is powerful both in the court of the law and in the court of public opinion. Its lack of application to white nationalists who participated in the insurrection is a glaring example of a continued double standard. White nationalist terrorism is simply not perceived in the same way as militant Islamist terrorism. And these differences are linked directly to the definitions between domestic and international terrorism outlined in the USA Patriot Act.

Passed in the immediate wake of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act draws sharp, and increasingly irrelevant, distinctions between domestic and international terrorism. The act defines domestic terrorism as occurring "primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States," but allows for prosecution of foreign terrorism, defined as "primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States." The current application of the act also creates categories of terrorist organizations that are to this day predominantly militant Islamist.

Today's terrorism, especially in the age of social media, is transnational. The planning of Jan. 6, for example, was conducted almost entirely online on separate continents.

Police officers detain a Proud Boy member
Police officers detain a Proud Boy member during a protest against white supremacy at Huntington Beach Pier on April 11, 2021, in Huntington Beach, Calif. Apu Gomes/Getty Images

Social media has accelerated the transnational nature of white nationalism. Building upon the already existing sophisticated media infrastructure used by white nationalists, the ability to share tactical information and communicate in real time through social media has further strengthened organizational ties.

We know that on the day of the insurrection itself, white nationalists coordinated their movements "using hand signals, cell phones, walkie-talkie-like apps and encrypted chat programs like Signal, MeWe and Zello." Since then, the hundreds of charges made by federal prosecutors have shown that white nationalist groups like The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and Proud Boys, not only coordinated the Jan. 6 attack, but also have ties outside of the United States.

Beyond Jan. 6, you don't have to look far for examples of how these transnational bonds manifest in terrorism. Take for example Brenton Tarrant's livestreaming of the 2017 Christchurch attacks on two masjids in New Zealand resulting in the murders of over 50 Muslim Kiwis. This attack was bolstered by online chat groups that supported Tarrant's worldview to the point of committing this atrocity. His manifesto, The Great Replacement, was itself the model for subsequent manifestos and terrorist attacks across the world.

The reality of the post-1/6 security threat demands that terrorism be redefined as transnational instead of understood as domestic versus international. This will allow for the shift in both perceptions and resources to address white nationalism.

Beyond perceptions, this shift would also mean that resources, including money, time and people, will be allocated to understand and counter white nationalism more fully, rather than be spent on the needless surveillance of communities of color who are disproportionately criminalized as terrorists despite scant evidence.

Understanding terrorism to be transnational will shift public perceptions, prosecutorial powers and resources to countering the full scope of white nationalism, the most pressing threat to the security and social stability of the United States and many countries around the world.

Dr. Sara Kamali is a public scholar of white nationalism, militant Islamism and interlocking systemic inequities. She is also the author of Homegrown Hate: Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists Are Waging War against the United States (University of California Press, 2021). Her Twitter is @sarakamali.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.