Virtual Insanity to Real World Calamity: How Will Lies Power Domestic Terrorism in 2021?
Preventing Domestic Extremism in America - Part 1 - What are we looking at?
The January 6 mobilization and insurrection at the U.S. Capitol came later than many thought—at least for those watching the extremist corners of social media. Former President Trump, after assuming office in 2017, imbued in his supporters an alternative reality—a rival social media nation comprised of competing facts and erroneous narratives—impervious to counter-arguments, data, science and expertise. The former President’s lies and influential supporters’ conspiracies about election fraud led to the logical finale for his term. In Washington, D.C., on that first Wednesday of 2021, peaceful protestors, conspiracy theorists and violent extremists converged at a rally that devolved into a violent insurrection that killed a police officer, trampled Trump supporters, left pipe bombs on the doorsteps of the RNC and DNC headquarters, and momentarily paused the peaceful transfer of democratic power—a national embarrassment the likes the United States has never seen in its history.
As a result of the insurrection, there’s been a disturbance in the social media ecosystem. In the wake of January 6—and likely in response to a Democrat-majority Senate—social media companies de-platformed former President Trump and many extremist groups. Facebook and YouTube have purged many of the extremist groups that coalesced in groups and channels, while Apple, Google and Amazon shoved Parler, a central hub for extremist chatter headed into January 6, from their app stores and hosting services. Today, domestic extremists test the waters of many social media apps with limited moderation: Telegram, Gab, MeWe, Minds, Clouthub and others, seeking out a space to spout their hate, organize their manpower, and listen for direction as to where they should focus their anger and violence.
The wide swath of attendees and the most aggressive insurrectionists ascending the steps of the Capitol are not a monolith. J.M. Berger, a foremost expert on these groups and author of the aptly titled book Extremism, adroitly pointed out in his mapping of online extremists that up through Inauguration Day, these were “far-right factions held in equipoise between cooperation and competition by their shared support for Trump.”
The Wolverine Watchmen members apprehended for their plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the presumed QAnon adherents arrested outside a Philadelphia vote counting location, and the hundreds charged for a violent insurrection on January 6—they come from many ideological persuasions, but share receptiveness to direction from former President Trump as to where and when to mobilize.
Those extremists who breached the Capitol appear to have skewed older, were better organized, and were also able to travel to the Eastern Seaboard on a mid-week workday—not a representative sample of the entire extremist spectrum in America. Separate from the members of various militias, some neo-Nazis and a good number of conspiracists that stormed the Capitol is a large, amorphous online network of isolated terrorists. This vast array of lone actors has resulted in numerous mass shootings and hate crimes over the past four years.
Taking together the January 6 charging documents and research about conspiracists and extremist groups over the past five years, the current domestic terrorism landscape—the gravest threat to American security now and in the coming years — is largely shaped by three facets: ideology, structure, and age. I’ve tried to visualize these dimensions.
Figure 1 is an imperfect visual analysis of a complex domestic extremism landscape. There is no fully researched dataset encompassing all of these extremist persuasions and the currents driving their violence are dynamic. For the purposes of this discussion, and to later offer methods for mitigating domestic extremism, I’ve created this estimate employing four variables.
The number of hexagons associated with listed movements indicates their estimated size relative to each other. Colors depict the general ideological makeup of collectives, but many members of these collectives have significant ideological overlap. To borrow a line from the past two decades’ War on Terror: Not all members of these groups are terrorists (most are not), but many recent terrorists have been group members. Line patterns offer an assessment of what percentage of a collective, I estimate, is committed to violence. The horizontal axis shows an estimated average age of a collective’s members. Based on available data, I set a median of 32 years for this spectrum. The vertical axis represents the toughest dimension to assess as there’s no distinct barrier between the online and offline worlds - all collectives discussed here have a presence in both environments. The graph seeks to illustrate the center of gravity for each of these collectives. Lastly, each collective has many sub-chapters, splinters and affiliated movements. There are far too many to depict in one chart and this offers only a recent and relevant selection.
Ideology of Today’s Domestic Extremists
Domestic extremism, in contrast to the past two decades of international terrorism, comes in many different stripes. Racially motivated extremism remains the top threat. Militia groups were the most visible in the lead up to and after the election. Conspiracists grow in number each day powered by online communities, with QAnon being far and away the largest. In parallel to collectives advocating racially motivated hate, anti-government views and misogyny is accelerationism—those seeking to accelerate a “second Civil War,” incite a broader race war, bring about the collapse of the government or society at large. This ideological undercurrent, which cuts across many overlapping extremist ideologies, is the most dangerous, given its adherents’ commitment to violence. Many of these ideologies overlap in the online space, and have converged, particularly in recent years, based upon the incitement and direction of political leaders and the cajoling of like-minded social media friends.
Structural Spectrum of Today’s Extremists
The degree to which these ideologies undertake violence differs based on how each organizes. Many militia groups whose members breached the Capitol on January 6, such as Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and Proud Boys (who could also be characterized as nationalists), ostensibly present as structured chapters under national umbrellas advocating for free speech and Second Amendment rights. However, a noteworthy number of their members have participated in violence or made threats of violence in recent years. Many members of these militia groups and some chapters do not accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, participated in the insurrection, and their rhetoric often speaks of civil war or secession.
Small, organized, dangerous cells of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, the most noteworthy being The Base and Atomwaffen Division (some members now rebranded as National Socialist Order [NSO]), have in recent years emerged from the online space to organize in person, create training camps, plot and plan terrorist attacks, recruit and network with a broader international white nationalist vein stretching across North America into Europe. These cells—and the smaller militant groups that have been spawned from them as The Base and Atomwaffen splintered amid in-group tensions and law enforcement crackdowns—are highly connected online, occasionally meet up in person, and remain committed to accelerationist violence. Various organized U.S.-based white supremacist groups have an international footprint, networking with extremists and other white supremacist groups around the globe including, in some cases, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2020.
Separately, social media has created a range of diffuse collectives vaguely identifying around one or more ideologies, some of which may even appear to be contradictory. Their most committed adherents to violence—Dylann Roof, 2011 Norway attacker Andres Brevik, Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant and others—emerge as lone actors committing stochastic terrorism— randomly occurring “lone wolf” terror attacks. This diffuse end of the spectrum also includes a bizarre mix of conspiracy theorists, such as the 2020 Christmas Day Nashville bomber, and those advocating accelerationist anti-government views. Ideologies ranging from white supremacy to Boogaloo-associated extremism to the burgeoning QAnon conspiracy converge and intersect in this vast, diffuse online space.
Age & Generational Shifts
The most important factor in mapping today’s domestic terrorism scene, but less frequently discussed, is age. The older generation of militias and white supremacist groups to a large extent—despite the visibility of Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Proud Boys and other militias at the January 6 insurrection—remain largely content to protest, march in parades, take selfies in battle gear, and talk a tough game right up to the limits of what free speech allows.
Violence and the ensuing notoriety is the goal for many younger extremists. Junior white supremacists celebrate and plot with like-minded friends online but strike targets on their own hoping to top the last attack. In some extremist and misogynist circles this is marked by the notion of canonization, or the referring to those who perpetuate mass violence as a “Saint.” Younger online extremists have turned to streaming or posting terror acts on social media, can rapidly assemble aggressive collectives unconstrained by older generations, and are more wanton in their violence. Atomwaffen members have plotted bombings and have been tied to multiple murders. The Boogaloo movement, which started and has persisted as a broad digital, pro-gun memetic movement on fringe corners of the Internet, has produced groups like the Last Sons of Liberty that assemble and train together. Members of Patriot Front, a young white supremacist group that often demonstrates in public, reportedly celebrated in closed group chats the anti-immigrant manifesto posted by the 2019 El Paso mass shooter. Many in this younger generation of extremists, in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, feels not shame but exhilaration.
The Coming Tumult: Domestic Terrorism Scene Summer 2021
Three forces momentarily constrain domestic terrorism from this broad landscape. First, the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies continue to hunt those insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6, and this encourages many extremists to keep a low profile and likely disrupts most terrorist attacks in the immediate term. Second, aside from Trump’s recent appearance at CPAC, there has been limited public rhetoric from the former president. However, his first public appearance post-inauguration—which again repeated false claims of election fraud—signaled what will likely be a growing cacophony of reality distorting lies, some of which may incite future violence. In short: Once Trump starts squawking, domestic extremists will start walking to the targets he designates in speeches and social media feeds. Not all will wait for Trump’s direction, but then a tertiary force still slows plots and plans—the opportunity to strike targets has been limited by pandemic lockdowns. By the summer of 2021, it’s likely all of these factors currently suppressing domestic terrorism will subside and, I believe, will reveal several currents that may drive a shifting extremist landscape in America.
Figure 2 is a visual assessment of the shifting domestic extremism landscape and offers dynamics to look for headed into summer 2021.
A decade ago, the younger, more violent Islamic State surged past its forerunner al-Qaeda, powered in large part by the zealous foreign fighter survivors of Iraq and Afghanistan whose taste for violence and fame fueled their desire to undertake new, heightened levels of violence. What we observe today in America’s domestic scene appears much smaller operationally and fragmented structurally, but will likely follow a similar trajectory. Evidence has already surfaced to show a generational divide between organized, enduring militias and white supremacist groups now demonstrating some restraint, while online, swarming, unstructured collectives of young zealots inspired by January 6 see the present as a time to mobilize.
Militia Groups: “Go to the Pub” or “Go to the Range”?
Post January 6, as some of their members and local chapters undergo intense scrutiny, major splinters within these broader groups have occurred almost daily. For example, the Proud Boys Alabama chapter publicly broke with national leadership, noting they were “created to be a men's drinking fraternity that focuses on self improvement and brotherhood,” while other chapters have also broken off as many have come to learn that the Proud Boys national leader Enrique Tarrio was once an informant. In short, many chapters now advocate for a return to their original mission: drinking, dressing in tough guy gear, and talking a mix of nationalism and misogyny to one another.
Breakaway splinter militia groups more interested in violence than ideology will be a major concern. The Wolverine Watchmen preemptively arrested by the FBI for their plot to kidnap Governor Whitmer offers the most poignant example of this phenomenon, while the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, the “tactical defense arm” of the Proud Boys, offers another. All of these groups lawfully have access to weapons, and some of their members clearly know how to use them. The most dangerous of the militia splinter groups will be those with former (and, bizarrely, sometimes current) members of the armed forces and law enforcement who know how or have participated in violence.
Stochastic Acceleration: McVeigh’s Ghost Meets The QAnon Movement
While militia group splinters committed to violence pose a threat moving forward, the most dangerous domestic terrorism remains the hardest to detect and disrupt: online, often times young, lone actors and their social media-powered collectives. 2021’s domestic terrorism scene looks similar to that of the 1990s, except it’s more expansive and fueled by social media. Eric Rudolph’s 1992 Olympics bombing, the Unabomber’s mailed explosives, and Timothy McVeigh’s tragic 1995 Oklahoma City bombing were lone-actor attacks that were tied to larger ideological movements. Today, these lone actors emerge from stochastic, online mobs where anti-government, white supremacist and mysoginist ideologies collide.
The scale of online extremism has in recent years led to like-minded individuals forming real world cells wholly committed to violence. The Base and Atomwaffen came first but were splintered by law enforcement and from within the ranks. Their remnants rapidly coalesced into new white supremacists cells like the New England-based Nationalist Social Club. Detecting and assessing their emerging formations and where they conspire on new social media platforms and direct messaging applications will be critical.
Across the generational spectrum, however, lone actors powered by hate and conspiracies will undoubtedly pose the greatest concern. Young lone terrorists targeting minorities, religious groups and women will likely continue at a steady pace. But the lone actor threat spectrum will also subsume QAnon’s leftovers—older lone actors and small cells trafficking in election fraud conspiracies, committed to striking targets tied to their chosen fantasies about COVID-19, vaccines, 5G technology, and political targets erroneously designated in nonsensical online discussions. This evolving stochastic mob, from young to old, will be the most difficult for law enforcement to monitor, detect and police.
Hopefully, this landscape discussion offers a snapshot of the daunting domestic terrorism challenge the U.S. faces and, I’d note, for each group and stripe of extremism, there are individual researchers and think tanks that do much more thorough and deeper dives into the ideology and operations of these extremists (I’ll point to them in the future). This article sought to chart a map of America’s domestic terrorism trends in the coming year so that we can figure out what to do. Up next is Part 2 of this discussion:
How should America counter the domestic terrorists in its midst?