Right-Wing Terrorist Groups on the Rise as Trump Cuts Funds to Fight White Supremacist Threat

Interview with Elizabeth Yates, faculty specialist at the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, conducted by Scott Harris

The House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties convened a hearing on June 4, titled “Confronting White Supremacy: Adequacy of the Federal Response.” The objective of the hearing was to raise public awareness of the Trump administration’s deliberate withdrawal of resources to address the growing threat of domestic terrorism from right-wing white supremacist groups promoting race hatred and violence.

The FBI has reported a 30 percent to 40 percent rise in domestic terrorism cases since October last year. Committee Chairman Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, cited research that finding between 2009 and 2018 extremist right-wing groups were responsible for 73 percent of all hate crime murders in the U.S., while international terrorism was responsible for 23 percent of terrorist-linked deaths.

Despite the rise in right-wing extremist violence in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security has disbanded a group of intelligence analysts who focused on domestic terrorism, resulting in a decrease in the number of analytic reports investigating the threat posed by white supremacist groups. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Elizabeth Yates, faculty specialist at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (or START). Here, Yates summarizes the research that finds an increased threat from white nationalist violence, while the Trump administration is reducing resources dedicated to monitoring these violent extremist groups.

ELIZABETH YATES: There’s a lot of data, I think in this area, a number of ways to measure this and all of it sort of definitely indicating a recent growth in far right and especially white supremacist violence. But also pointing out that this has really been a long-term issue and a long-term threat over several decades. But, let me talk about a few of the different ways we measure that.

So one is the number of far-right terrorist attacks. So if you look at data from the global terrorism database, the GTD, you know, we see that far-right attacks have increased greatly, especially in the last five years. So between 2000 and 2014, you know, you saw zero or maybe one or two far-right, terrorist attacks a year. But in 2012 there were six, down in 2013 again, but then 10 in 2014 and 2015. Then nearly 30 in both 2017 and 2018. So that’s a really huge jump. And that’s in the number of attacks or attempted attacks.

And then if you think about it in terms of deaths, again this is in the United States, you see, zero or one or two throughout the 2000s. And then you start to see a jump in 2012, again in 2013 and especially in 2014 you see higher numbers, 20 in 2015, 11 in 2017, 26 in 2018. So you definitely see a clear trajectory of increase. So again, those are far-right terrorist deaths and attacks in the United States.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dr. Gates, I wondered if you would discuss the fact that some officials in the Trump administration in particular believe that far-right terrorism doesn’t present a major threat to civil society. And I’m wondering if you think that notion, if it does exist, should be challenged?

ELIZABETH YATES: Yeah, so I think there has been a couple of efforts that have given those of us who study foreign extremism, have been concerning and disappointing. So there were some defunding of some prevention efforts. Those have really been de-emphasized – potentially some resources, diminished in DHS (Department of Homeland Security) to focus on domestic terrorism. At the same time, we have understood that the FBI is starting to shift resources towards domestic terrorism and to looking at the far right. So I think there are places in the federal government right now where people are focused on this. We’ve had hearings on a number of different committees in Congress recently and I think that’s produced really a wealth of expert testimony on the issue.

And one of the goals that is reiterated by a lot of experts in that area is to try to make the work in this area done by government agencies and law enforcement more transparent so that we can know what kinds of resources are being dedicated to this issue, from what offices. And then also just sort of increase data about it generally. So, far-right violence is something in the United States that is often tackled at the local and jurisdictional levels. It’s handled in all these different places. And so we don’t really have a repository of what kinds of crimes are occurring anywhere. So we don’t have this sort of national data that I think people are looking for right now. It’s another thing that researchers and advocates have really been calling for from the federal government

BETWEEN THE LINES: During recent congressional hearings, it came out that, to the surprise of many representatives, domestic terrorism is not a federal crime. Therefore, it does hinder the accurate tracking of these kinds of hate crimes that go unreported, as you just said.

ELIZABETH YATES: There’s a definition of domestic terrorism that is codified, but there’s not a specific (list of) crimes. That’s different from usually Islamist terrorism. There’s a list. The State Department maintains a list of foreign terrorist groups, right? And so, often Islamist extremists will get charges based on the relationship to those groups, right? So to ISIS or whatever for material support. And that doesn’t exist for domestic terrorists. So it does make it more difficult. There’s, I think, some debate about how to try to create better data about domestic terrorism. Of course, in all of these areas, everyone has concerns about civil liberties and protecting constitutionally protected activities. So, you know, that’s something that there’s a lot of debate about. But it does make it hard to compare and it does make it less visible in a lot of cases.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And Dr. Yates, as you said before, some members of Congress have raised concerns that the Trump administration has systematically cut back funding levels to address threats of violence from far-right groups. What is Congress’ job here in this area, do you think? What should they be pursuing in terms of either funding or getting clarification on a classification system for these types of hate crimes?

ELIZABETH YATES: I think again, that that looking for transparency in this – asking we want to know where resources are, where they’re coming from and how they’re being dedicated to try to understand, to try to document hate crimes nationally. The FBI does track hate crimes, but it relies on voluntary reporting from jurisdictions, so that makes it not very reliable. So again, I think there are some really serious calls to try to make this data visible and publicly accessible. And I think that’s ongoing.

For more information on The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), visit start.umd.edu.

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