The Intelligence Report is the SPLC's award-winning magazine. Subscribe here for a print copy.

Editorial - Terror From the Right: The Threat is Real

Terrorism is a real and serious threat no matter what its ideological origin.

In the aftermath of the February leak of a new report on radical-right domestic terrorism from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the political right went into familiar denial mode: The DHS was ignoring the Islamist threat, mainly because left-wingers like President Obama were so afraid of offending Muslims that they were willing to risk American lives in the pursuit of political correctness.

At Fox News, Eric Bolling, co-host of “The Five,” exemplified this trend, complaining that DHS’ paper on the “sovereign citizens” movement was another example of ignoring real terrorism and instead focusing on “all of these non-existent threats.” “Do you have any examples [of right-wing terrorism] from the last seven years?” he demanded of co-host Juan Williams. When Williams declined to take the bait, Bolling said Williams’ demurral was a “typical left-wing response.”

Well, hardly. Not unless you’re willing to discount a scholarly study last year that showed that law enforcement officials across America see the movement of sovereign citizens, people who believe most laws don’t apply to them, as the form of violent extremism that worries them most. Not unless you’re willing to sneer at Bob Paudert, a retired police chief whose officer son was murdered by sovereigns.

Not unless you’re willing to simply ignore reality.

A quick review of a few examples of right-wing terrorism from 2014 alone: Federal agents arrested a man in Katy, Texas, who they said was plotting to rob banks and armored cars, kill police officers, and blow up government buildings and mosques. Neo-Nazi Frazier Glenn Miller allegedly murdered three Kansans in two Jewish community centers. A neo-Nazi in Florida was charged with 10 counts of attempted murder after 50 rounds were fired at police outside his home.

A Georgia man with antigovernment views was killed while attempting to storm a courthouse. A radical couple murdered two police officers in a Las Vegas restaurant before slaying another man and being killed themselves. Extremists in Utah, California and Pennsylvania allegedly attacked police or plotted to do so. And in Austin, Texas, a white supremacist opened fire on a federal courthouse, the Mexican consulate and police headquarters before being shot dead.

No one with any sense would argue that there is no serious threat from jihadist terrorists. Recent massacres in Paris and Copenhagen, barbaric beheadings and other atrocities carried out by the Islamic State, the slaughters and schoolgirl abductions by Boko Haram in Nigeria — not to mention Al Qaeda’s murder of close to 3,000 Americans in 2001 — all testify to the extreme gravity of the threat.

But the threat from the radical right is also very real.

In this issue, we examine the threat of “lone wolf” domestic terrorism by taking a look at 63 incidents in the last six years. Overall, we find that extremist violence is continuing at levels comparable to the 1990s, when the militia movement was producing a great many terror attacks or attempted attacks. And, in accordance with other studies, we find that the number of Americans killed by radical-right extremists in recent years is more than the total murdered here by jihadists.

Counter-intuitively, perhaps, we also document in this issue the declining number of both hate and antigovernment “Patriot” groups in 2014. Both categories of radical-right organizations fell by about a fifth. But that drop, a function of the strengthening economy, law enforcement crackdowns and other factors, was not accompanied by any real diminution in violence from domestic terrorists.

What seems to be happening is an accelerated movement of people with radical-right views out of groups and into the anonymity and safety of the Internet, which also provides them with the ability to reach huge audiences. At the same time, our study shows that those with criminal intentions are increasingly acting alone, without the aid or direction of other people or organized groups. And, in any case, the lower numbers may be deceiving. A large number of Klan groups disappeared last year, but at least some of them seem to have simply gone underground.

As the new year began, in the wake of a raft of news about jihadist attacks like the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, a new danger on the domestic scene seemed clearly to be looming — terrorism aimed at Muslim Americans. In Houston, a large building in a new Islamic center was torched, allegedly by a man who later told a store clerk that he hated Muslims. Former congressman Tom Tancredo called for halt to all Muslim immigration. And a new study, by the Christian research group LifeWay, showed that 27% of Americans — and 45% of senior Protestant pastors — see the Islamic State, or ISIL, as exemplifying what Islam really is.

Terrorism is a real and serious threat no matter what its ideological origin. And it is not only the immediate casualties who are victims — attacks on minorities for ideological reasons have the effect of terrorizing entire minority groups. In a country that will lose its white majority within the next 30 years, it’s especially critical that we build a country that is truly welcoming to all.