Defining and Combating Right-Wing Terrorism

A package addressed to former CIA director John Brennan is shown beside an explosive device that was sent to CNN’s New York office. Photo Credit: ABC News via AP

By: Shruthi Rajkumar, Columnist

The rise of right-wing extremism in the United States was recently acknowledged by the FBI as a threat on par with jihadist groups.[i] U.S. Counterterrorism strategy over the past two decades has largely ignored this problem, focusing instead on organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda. Since 9/11, the United States has enlisted thousands of government personnel, and spent trillions of dollars, combating jihadist terrorism.[ii] This is in spite of the fact that, over the past decade, the vast majority of Americans who died in terrorist attacks were not killed by jihadist groups; rather, nearly three-quarters of these deaths were caused by right-wing extremist groups – an umbrella term for organizations that espouse white nationalist, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi ideologies.[iii] In the last month alone, right-wing extremists have been responsible for a series of high-profile attacks, including the mailing of pipe-bombs to Democratic politicians and critics of the Trump administration, the gunning down of two elderly black customers outside at a grocery store in Kentucky, and the shooting in a synagogue outside of Pittsburgh that killed 11 congregants. Despite the preponderance of attacks carried out by far-right extremists, American authorities have failed to properly characterize this threat – which, in turn, has contributed to a broader failure to combat these groups.

The definition of terrorism is notoriously nebulous. Some definitions emphasize threats to civilians; other definitions stress the political motives of violence; and still others focus on the non-state status of the actors.[iv] The existing legal framework also fails to provide clarity. Domestic terrorism is not recognized as a federal crime; instead, it is treated only as a law enforcement issue, with prosecutions under domestic terrorism charges usually being reserved for incidents with connections to foreign terrorist organizations.[v] The very use of the term “right-wing terrorism” has generated backlash from some conservatives, who see it as a political statement rather than an objective assessment of radicalization.

One frequently cited reason for not establishing a stricter definition of domestic terrorism is that it would lump together peaceful proponents of political causes with their violent counterparts.[vi] The lack of a direct political objective by right-wing extremists is also often reasoned as the basis to not necessitate a stringent state response, but to look instead to social support systems and de-radicalization measures to solve the problem of violence by actors seemingly on the fringe. Practically, this misstep helped embolden those that were or were becoming radicalized and shielded them from potential political repercussions.

There is now an urgent need for the United States government to adopt measures to better deal with the growing problem of right-wing extremism. A more comprehensive working definition of domestic terrorism would contribute to a shift in resource allocation and attitudes towards right-wing extremism.[vii] Less than 350 out of the FBI’s 2,000 counterterrorism agents were tasked with dealing with domestic terrorism in 2008 and 2009 (the only years for which the statistics were publicly available). [viii] The fixation with ISIS and Al Qaeda has filtered into the attitudes of local law enforcement officials as well, who have often comparatively underestimate the threat of far-right violence. Local law enforcements also lacks a centralized database and networks to track the threat of far-right violence, which has makes combating these groups all the more difficult. This could be improved by expanding local and federal law enforcement “fusion centres” that facilitate information-sharing and assessment of terror threats.[ix]

Finally, authorities should pay greater attention to tracking the influences and behaviour of potential perpetrators by looking for patterns, especially on social media. Social media platforms are becoming increasingly significant in radicalizing extremists, and there is a clearly visible pattern of hate speech preceding violence. The social media accounts of the pipe bomber, Cesar Sayoc, indicate a rapid and radical evolution of a political identity steeped in far-fetched conspiracy theories, sensational right-wing news stories, and other misinformation.[x] Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect, was active on Gab, a social media platform popular with the far-right, where he spewed anti-Semitic slurs and conspiracy theories.[xi] A clear trend is emerging: extremists are radicalized online and evolving from a keyboard warriors verbalizing hate to perpetrating acts of terrorism. As such, the U.S. government needs to adapt their counterterrorism strategies to effectively engage with the internet as a medium of radicalization.













[i] Harriet Sinclair, “White Nationalism is as much a threat to U.S. as ISIS, FBI’s open investigations show,” Newsweek, Sep 27, 2018.

[ii] Robert L. McKenzie, “Countering Violent Extremism in America,” in Brookings Big Ideas for America, ed. Michael E. O’Hanlon (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2017), 22.

[iii] Peter W. Singer, “National Security Pros, It’s Time to Talk About Right-Wing Extremism,” Defense One, Feb 28, 2018,

[iv] Kathy Gilsinan, “If the Pipe-Bomb Mailings Aren’t Terrorism, What Is?” The Atlantic, Oct 26, 2018.

[v] Ryan J. Reilly, “Domestic Terrorism isn’t a Federal Crime,” Huffington Post, Aug 17, 2017,

[vi] Daniel Byman, “When to Call a Terrorist a Terrorist,” Foreign Policy, Oct 27, 2018,

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Janet Reitman, “U.S. Law Enforcement failed to see the Threat of White Nationalism. Now they don’t know how to stop it,” The New York Times, Nov 3, 2018,

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Kevin Roose, “Cesar Sayoc’s Path on Social Media: From Food Photos to Partisan Fury,” The New York Times, Oct 27, 2018,

[xi] Julie Turkewitz and Kevin Roose, “Who Is Robert Bowers, the Suspect in the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting?” The New York Times, Oct 27, 2018,

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