Threat Of Right-Wing Extremism In U.S. Debated By Feds, Analysts
NEW YORK -- The bombing and shooting spree in Norway on Friday has raised questions about whether federal law enforcement agencies in the United States are devoting enough resources and attention to the threat posed by right-wing extremists here. On the alert for such threats posed by white supremacists and members of a sovereign citizen movement that rejects government authority and militias, law enforcement officials around the country have reportedly asked for budget increases to handle the task.
Department of Homeland Security officials insist that the level of activity by such groups has remained consistent over the past few years and that the agency is focused on the menace posed by such groups.
"As it stands today, we have been much more focused than at any time in the last 10 years on threat posed by homegrown terrorism," a senior DHS counterterrorism official told The Huffington Post.
Yet analysts who track extremist activity claim that the threat posed by right-wing extremists in the United States is on the rise and that federal law enforcement agencies may not be giving them enough resources or attention.
Right-wing extremist activity increased in 2008 and 2009 and has stayed persistent in 2010 and 2011, says former DHS domestic terror analyst Daryl Johnson, who founded a consulting firm that tracks extremist activity. He produced the 2009 report that created a political firestorm after it warned of a surge in right-wing extremism due to the election of the country's first black president and the economic recession.
Johnson says extremists have been active, with several shootings in the past several months. He says the militia movement "exploded" over the last two years and that groups have been "stockpiling weapons and plotting to kill government officials in Michigan and Alaska."
"A Norway incident could definitely happen here; the same things that played into the Norway suspect's mindset are here in this country," Johnson said. "If anything, extremists are much more capable of committing violent acts here due to their access to weapons and ammunition, which they don't have in Europe."
That conclusion is disputed by the DHS official, who says that the perception of increased extremist activity may be due to increased awareness of the threat by the government and the public.
"What has changed -- and this is really significant -- is the interconnectivity of what was once a very isolated activity," the official said. "[Extremists] were pretty isolated and now they're connected through the social networking environment."
Johnson claims that DHS has devoted fewer resources to tracking such activity. Since he left DHS last year, he says his unit, which focused on domestic terrorism, has been reduced in size from at least seven people to a single inexperienced analyst and a lone contractor. In comparison, there are at least 25 analysts devoted to tracking Islamic terrorism, he told HuffPost blogger Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at Cal State San Bernandino.
That imbalance in law-enforcement resources persists despite the preponderance of right-wing attacks and access to weapons, Johnson says, noting that "there were more firearms possessed by the [alleged right-wing extremist] Hutaree militia than by all 200 Muslim extremists arrested in the U.S. since 9/11."
That account is disputed by the DHS official, who says that parts of the agency were reorganized and that there are "a significant number of analysts who focus on homegrown violent extremism." The agency gives multiple briefings on such activity to state and local governments, the official said.
Johnson, a longtime Republican, says he was shocked by the vehement reaction to his 2009 report by conservatives who complained that it was hyperbolic and politically motivated.
"Politics should never interfere with this type of analysis," he said. Johnson says that the report, which was never formally withdrawn, was due to be revised and re-released but never was. Instead, several sources say DHS is expected to release several reports narrowly focused on sovereign citizens and militias.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 824 militia groups in the U.S. last year, a significant increase from the 149 counted in 2008. In its report, the center noted that militants have been inspired out of concern about immigration and by fears that America's racial makeup is changing to the extent that whites are projected to be in the minority by 2050.
An increase in right-wing extremist activity has also been tracked by the Anti-Defamation League's associate director of fact finding, Marilyn Mayo.
"We've seen a lot of violent incidents in the past few years -- a rise in the activity of white supremacist groups and a tremendous growth in anti-government groups," she said. "The number of militia groups has quadrupled in the last four years, from about 50 to about 200."
Mayo, who says the ADL was disappointed that the 2009 DHS report was pulled, says the increase in extremism results from the election of President Obama and the conspiracy theories "that flow when you get a liberal president -- that all guns will be confiscated, that FEMA is setting up concentration camps."
Much of the activity in the U.S. is inspired by fears that echo those expressed by alleged Norwegian shooter Anders Behring Breivik.
"We've seen an increased focus on the idea that multiculturalism and diversity is destroying American-European culture," Mayo said.
Breivik was influenced by right-wing extremists in the U.S. such as Timothy McVeigh, says Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which monitors right-wing extremists. Breivik's rambling manifesto seems to have also been inspired by the "Turner Diaries," a novel set in a post-race-war United States and popular in Norwegian far-right circles, according to Burghart.
"My initial take on [Breivik's] manifesto was that it was an Islamophobe's nonfiction account of the diaries," he said.
Levin says that the two biggest threats to the United States are Islamic jihadists and right-wing extremists, but only one gets major news coverage.
"In just the last month, there was a police shootout with a sovereign citizen in Texas, the trial of a heavily-armed militia in Alaska which was allegedly targeting judges and state troopers, a sovereign citizen on trial in New York and the death-row sentencing of white supremacist Richard Poplawski who killed three cops," he explained. "None of these were major stories -- if they had been Islamists, that would have been a big headline."
Part of this reduced focus is due to the perception that right-wing extremists are less organized and incapable of pulling off a major attack, says Matthew Goodwin, a lecturer in terrorism issues at the University of Nottingham.
"Our entire anti-terror strategy has been focused on Muslim communities, far less on far-right extremism for reasons being that this is an amateur movement considered incapable of committing mass violence," he said. "But it is clear after these attacks and others in recent years that right-wing extremists deserve far more attention."
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings and 9/11, American and European security services have devoted enormous resources and done an excellent job tracking and stopping would-be terrorists, according to Hagai M Siegal, a terrorism expert and professor at New York University in London.
"But there is a problem when you get overly concerned with one particular threat and take your eyes off others -- that is a natural tendency and it is impossible to keep focused on every possibility," he said.
Siegal says that it is especially difficult to track apparent lone wolves like Breivik. "If they are intelligent and patient and not publicly involved in organized groups, then they can hide relatively successfully."
And he cautions against overdramatizing the threat of such extremists, based on one horrific recent incident.
"Just because one individual does this doesn't mean it is a normal trend," Siegal said. "People pick up guns and shoot people -- is [Breivik] interacting with other groups? We don't know yet."