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SPLC president warns U.S. House members about threat of radical-right terrorism

SPLC President Richard Cohen testified today about the threat of radical-right terrorism before the U.S. House Subcommittees on National Security and Government Operations.

He delivered the following remarks, in addition to written testimony:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

It’s an honor to have the opportunity to testify before the subcommittees this afternoon.

9/11 was the Pearl Harbor of our time.

The anniversary that we just commemorated of that horrible day serves as a reminder of the continuing threat of terrorism associated with radical forms of Islam.

But, as members of the subcommittees know, our country also faces deadly threats from those blinded by racial and ethnic hatred and rage at our government.

Yet, because the 9/11 attacks were so unexpected, so spectacular, and so deadly, these latter threats have not always been given the attention they deserve in the years since 9/11.

The clearest example of this point comes from the history of the domestic terrorism task force the Justice Department established after the deadly Oklahoma City bombing.

The task force was scheduled to have one of its regular monthly meetings on 9/11.

But not only was that meeting canceled, the task force didn’t meet again for 13 years as the threat associated with groups like al Qaeda came to dominate the government’s attention.

During this period, the number of hate and conspiracy-minded antigovernment groups skyrocketed, and the level of violence from the radical right increased by a factor of four.

By 2014, state and local law enforcement agencies were actually more likely to see antigovernment extremism as a threat than extremism connected with al Qaeda or likeminded terrorist organizations.

For the last eight years, President Obama has been a lightning rod for the radical right.

He reflects our country’s changing diversity and has been a target of the backlash to that change.

The day after he was first elected, Stormfront – the world’s leading neo-Nazi website, whose members have committed numerous murders – reported that it was getting six times its normal traffic.

Yet, when DHS released a report assessing the likely backlash to the election of our first black president, the reaction from groups like the American Legion and members of Congress was so fierce that the report was withdrawn and the DHS unit that produced the report was allowed to wither.

In 2014, the Justice Department finally revived its domestic terrorism task force after a white supremacist, Glenn Miller, killed three people in Overland Park, Kansas, he thought were Jewish.

But still, there are indications that the threat of terrorism associated with groups like ISIS dominates the government’s thinking.

The Oklahoma City bombing was the first terrorist incident that President Obama mentioned in his speech at the White House Summit on Countering Violence in 2015.

But it was virtually the only mention of terrorism from the radical right during the entire summit.

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof – a young man who appears to have been radicalized entirely online in the echo chambers of the radical right – killed nine people at an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Yet, two weeks after the massacre, the House Homeland Security Committee released a terror threat snapshot that didn’t mention the church killings.

Congress has held multiple hearings – as it should – on the threat of terrorism associated with groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS.

But, neither the House nor the Senate has held hearings recently on the threat of terrorism from the radical right.

Nor has the House or the Senate held hearings on the threat of terrorism directed at law enforcement officials by antigovernment zealots like the Bundys.

By focusing exclusively on Muslim-American communities, CVE (countering violent extremism) programs not only ignore potential threats from other communities, they also often fray the bonds of trust between law enforcement and Muslim-American communities that are so essential to effective law enforcement.

The nature of many of the CVE programs exacerbates the tensions.

Again, the threat of extremist violence from individuals associated with or inspired by groups like ISIS is perhaps the most serious one that we face.

But it is not the only threat that merits the full measure of our attention.

Terrorism from the radical right has been with us since the Ku Klux Klan was founded in the days after the Civil War.

In recent years, it has been driven by rage at our government and the backlash to our country’s demographics.

As our country’s diversity continues to increase, the forces that propel terror from the radical right are likely to increase as well.

Thank you.

Photo Credit: Lisa Nipp