The Threat Within: Right Wing Terrorism in the US

The phenomenon of Right-Wing extremism and its accompanied terrorism is one that has not been nearly as studied and analyzed as the rise of Islamic terrorism. With its global, far reaching implications and prominence all around the world, Islamic terrorism dominates the headlines and the field of counter terrorism. However, within the United States, the real threat might be closer to home than people ever imagined. The Department of Homeland Security reported that lone wolf attacks carried out by those with right wing ideologies “are the most dangerous domestic terrorist threat in the United States”. According to the news, politicians, academia, and the average US citizen the answer would almost certainly be different. Why is threat going largely unreported?

The history of right wing domestic terrorism in the US usually starts and ends with a man named Timothy McVeigh. He is responsible for carrying out the most deadly act of domestic terrorism ever and the most deadly attack on American soil before 9/11. On April 19, 1996 a truck parked with 5,000 pounds of Ammonia Nitrate and nitromethane (ANNM) at the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The resulting blast killed 168 people including many children at a daycare located in the building. Motivations for this attack included revenge for the Waco Siege and Ruby Ridge incident, where the government, in McVeigh’s eyes, were responsible for killing innocent people. This antigovernment sentiment was combined with aspects of white nationalism, as a copy of the book Hunter, written by the founder of the white supremacist group National Alliance. McVeigh stands as the poster child for the mass destruction that a so-called “lone wolf” can inflict on society. He even reveled in this accomplishment by stating “isn’t it kind of scary that one man could reap this kind of hell.”

From anti-government militias to white supremacist groups, the vast network of right wing extremism provides a difficult task for counter-terrorism officials. However, there are key elements to this puzzle that can offer a better understanding of how to deal with this phenomenon. First, to fix a problem one must admit they have a problem. This phenomenon has largely been ignored despite various departments warning of its danger. As a society, the US has effectively dehumanized the terrorist that lives in the Middle East and abroad. It is much easier for US society to dehumanize and act violently against Islamic terrorists that look different, speak another language, and live thousands of miles away. However, when they belong to the same group it is a much more difficult process to target them. This may explain why right wing terrorism remains an understudied topic, and comparatively, receives little attention. This must change.  Despite the strategy of “lone wolf” attacks, these individuals are usually seeking identity within a group. Many have had failed relationships and unsuccessful stints in the military and the only group that accepts them is the radial one. With the advent of the internet, these groups are easier than ever to find. This is a serious problem, but also offers counter-terrorism officials a starting point for tracking certain behavior. From emails to message boards, these websites provide valuable information on ideology, movement, and even the possibility of actionable intelligence to prevent attacks. Finally, it is important that we do not view these attacks as isolated incidents committed by psychopaths. To dismiss them as “crazy” only fuels the extremist ideology that isolates individuals in the first place. A greater understanding of what drives these groups, much like the work being done in Islamic terrorism, should be applied to right wing domestic terrorism. Rather than dismiss the enemy, study them, learn, and apply those lessons in the field.

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