04/15/2009

Homeland Security: Economic, Political Climate Fueling Extremism

A new intelligence assessment by the Department of Homeland Security warns of extremist recruitment fueled by the faltering economy, the election of Barack Obama and fears about Latino immigration — factors the Southern Poverty Law Center has previously cited as underpinning the growth of hate groups and extremist activity.

The report, "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment" also warns of the recruitment of military veterans to extremist groups — an issue that the SPLC has investigated and urged the Pentagon to address.

The department's report, dated April 7, was distributed to law enforcement agencies across the country to aid them in combating potential rightwing terrorism. The SPLC cited the same factors as contributing to extremist activity in its "Year in Hate" report issued in February. That report found the number of hate groups in the United States had grown to 926 — a 54 percent increase since 2000.

"This Homeland Security report reinforces our view that the current political and economic climate in the United States is creating the right conditions for a rise in extremist activity," said Mark Potok, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups. "As did the rise of the militia movement in the 1990s, this increases the threat of domestic terrorism."

The SPLC has warned that extremist groups could exploit the economic meltdown by scapegoating minorities and immigrants for the country's economic woes. The Homeland Security report used similar terms, noting that "the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn — including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit — could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists."

The report also noted that extremists "have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal."

The SPLC reported earlier this year that white supremacist groups claimed a post-election surge of new members and heavy traffic to their websites. This surge came after scores of racially charged incidents — beatings, effigy burnings, racist graffiti, threats and intimidation — were reported across the country following the presidential election.

The government report also noted that in the past five years "various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, rallying point and recruiting tool."

The SPLC has reported that in recent years, Latino immigration has become the primary focus of many hate groups. The rise in hate groups operating in the United States has coincided with a 40 percent growth in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics.

The Homeland Security report also raised an issue that has been the subject of SPLC investigations for years — extremists and the military.

The report said that veterans returning to the Untied States "possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists." The department noted that it is "concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities."

The SPLC reported in 2006 that large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacists were joining the armed forces to acquire combat training and access to weapons and explosives.

The SPLC urged then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to investigate the problem and adopt a zero-tolerance policy with regard to extremists in the ranks. Forty members of Congress joined the SPLC's call for action, as did Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican. Under Secretary of Defense David Chu dismissed the concerns as exaggerated.

Two years later, in 2008, the SPLC reported new evidence — including an unclassified FBI reportnow cited in this most recent Homeland Security report — that supported its initial findings. Pentagon officials have taken no action.

The SPLC first brought the problem of extremists in the military to the attention of Pentagon officials in 1986, when it alerted then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger that Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., were participating in Ku Klux Klan paramilitary activities. The SPLC contacted the Pentagon again in 1995, when three neo-Nazi soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg murdered a black couple in North Carolina. After congressional hearings, then-Defense Secretary William Perry responded forcefully, saying there was "no room for racist and extremist activities within the military." A major investigation and crackdown followed in 1996.