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Right-wing extremism in America: A growing threat?

Right-wing extremism in America: A growing threat?

The violence committed by right-wing extremists against counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, drew the world’s attention to a seemingly new threat emerging in the United States. Linda Schlegel assesses the risks from right-wing terrorism in America.

Terrorism is constantly evolving, not only in its tactics, but also in its ideological sources. In the case of right-wing extremism, criminal violence has the potential to evolve into broader terrorist activity. Indicators seem to be pointing in this direction, not least the fact that flags with swastikas, German iron crosses and other far-right symbols are displayed in an increasingly open manner in the United States.

Ideological motives

Right-wing extremism is not a well-understood phenomenon, partly because it’s so diffuse. There is no coherent movement or ideology under which to categorize far-right organizations in the United States. Rather, there are various groups that embrace different aspects of far-right ideas – like the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and the Christian Identity movement – with fluid boundaries and shared communication channels. The extremists who gathered in Charlottesville were similarly from a patchwork of groups.

According to the START consortium for the study of terrorism, the most extreme (and violent) groups on the far-right belong to the white supremacist camp, with a shared belief in the need for racial purity, and that white people face a genocide perpetrated by non-whites and the U.S. government.

In addition, certain groups believe in a Jewish conspiracy, sometimes culminating in terming the US government the ‘Zionist occupied government (ZOG)’, or that the white race are the chosen people and the true Israelites. Violence is often advocated based on the concept of a ‘Racial Holy War’, which predicts an inevitable clash between Whites and non-Whites to be won by the white race due to their supposed biological and spiritual superiority.

Threat profile

A risk analysis of these groups needs to take into account our current lack of knowledge, their long-term behaviour, and the probability of successful attacks.

There is a lack of data on far-right groups within the United States. The scant figures that are available show an average of 337 attacks per year, which far outstrips Islamist extremism. Their operations and capabilities remain elusive, though there are rough estimates of their numbers.

We do know that right-wing extremists increasingly organize through online forums, similarly to their Islamist counter-parts. This behavior increases the potential risk posed by these groups, as such communication is harder for intelligence services to monitor.

In addition to trying to recruit online, the far-right is radicalizing their own children. Although the effectiveness of such indoctrination is unproven, it does imply that the threat from right-wing extremism. is likely to be persistent across time.

Potential targets

In the near term, lower-level criminal attacks such as beatings will continue to be the most prominent form of far-right extremist violence. This can also extend to attacks on businesses owned by what these groups perceive as ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreign’ employees individually.

There does appear to be intent among to stage larger-scale attacks, but the evidence once again is thin on the ground. The far-right Christian CSA gathered toxic materials to poison the water supplies of large cities – back in the 1980s, and it’s not clear whether this was ever realistically going to be carried out.

That said, the motive to attack state infrastructure or utilities makes sense given that far-right extremists often have an anti-government aim, contrasting with Islamist terrorism, which often seeks to instill terror via civilian casualties. As such, cyber attacks may prove to be a more effective and appealing method for the far right to achieve its aims.

Right-wing groups in the US are increasingly monitored by civil society organisations, which is a necessary first step to combat the lack of data on these groups and improve the ability to pre-empt their activities. But it remains a worrying trend, especially if far right ideology continues to influence mainstream U.S. political thought and gain seeming legitimacy, emboldening its adherents.

This article first ran on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Linda Schlegel.