When a white supremacist gunman killed more than 20 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart on Saturday, he claimed a dubious honor for his cause: Right-wing terrorism is once again responsible for more deaths on U.S. soil (107) than jihadi terrorism (104) since 9/11, according to data collected by New America. (In fact, right-wing violence had been responsible for more deaths for most of this period, but jihadis had been responsible for more since the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016.)
Patrick Crusius’ attack itself was especially bloody, the most lethal right-wing attack since Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people. But the El Paso killings were a continuation of a bloody series of attacks in recent years, including the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 and the 2015 attack on a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, which killed 11 and nine people, respectively. And such high-profile attacks are few compared with regular incidents of low-level harassment and violence against blacks, Jews, Muslims, and other minorities.
The rise in white supremacist violence, and the lower-than-anticipated levels of jihadi killing, does not accord with U.S. counterterrorism officials’ post-9/11 focus on jihad. This varied response explains the relative success of anti-jihadi efforts and the problems stopping right-wing violence.
No single factor explains the recent rise of right-wing violence, which has a long and bloody history in the United States, mostly directed against black Americans. It’s not that the causes themselves have changed dramatically. Many Americans have long been concerned about immigration, opposed to gun control, and critical of protections for minorities. Most of those who hold these beliefs would condemn violence and those who use it.
But right-wing terrorism itself is changing. Part of it is 9/11 itself. The attacks highlighted fears of Muslims and gave far-right groups more credibility in their claims to be defending Christian civilization. Each jihadi attack, including highly publicized attacks abroad like the 2015 Paris killings by ISIS, bolstered their claim and created a cycle of recruitment and radicalization.
The rise of Trump both reflected the greater radicalization of right-wing voices and heightened it. Trump rode to power in part on anti-immigrant and racist sentiments. At the same time, he elevated these concerns, with a regular track record of racist statements and hostility to Mexicans and other immigrants. Many white supremacists embraced Trump. Radicalization expert J.M. Berger found that the top hashtag for the alt-right is #MAGA.
In contrast, jihadi terrorists do not have an ideology linked to any large political movement in the United States. There is no “Americans for sharia,” and those arrested for jihadi-related violence are not associated with any large movements. The American Muslim community is hostile to violence and regularly cooperates with law enforcement.
At the same time as it has claimed a champion in Trump, the white supremacist movement has globalized. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, mostly youths associated with a left-leaning political party. Before his shooting spree, Breivik posted a manifesto warning of the dangers posed by Muslims and liberals, among other enemies. In March 2019, Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand. Like Breivik, he posted a manifesto and even livestreamed his attack in an attempt to gain internet immortality. Both killers drew on “thinkers” and grievances from other countries and causes, presenting themselves as defenders of global European white civilization.
Crusius reflects this greater globalization. Like Breivik and Tarrant, he posted a manifesto on the internet. In it, he embraced anti-immigrant sentiment and cited the “Great Replacement” theory, which claims that a shadowy group of elites (usually Jews) are scheming to subordinate white European Christians through higher birthrates of black people and other minorities, and by bringing in Muslim and Hispanic migrants.
As Tarrant’s and Crusius’ attacks suggest, Breivik’s model is taking on a life of its own for future right-wing mass killers beyond ideology, leading them to embrace mass casualty violence. In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two students at Columbine High School, killed 12 students and a teacher, and in so doing they inspired more than 100 copycat attempts. Future killers are likely to again mix a shooting spree with a manifesto (and perhaps add the livestreaming element that Tarrant helped pioneer).
Even as right-wingers have globalized more, U.S. counterterrorism has disrupted one of the jihadis’ greatest strengths: their global network. Thanks to drone attacks on their safe havens, tighter homeland security, and a global intelligence campaign, it has proven difficult for ISIS or al-Qaida to engage in long-term plotting, to train large numbers of recruits, or otherwise orchestrate terrorist spectaculars on U.S. soil. Indeed, looking at the post-9/11 plots on U.S. soil, what is striking is how few of the individuals who attempted them have direct connections to ISIS or al-Qaida. When those connections did exist, they often turned out to be vulnerabilities because law enforcement was able to detect the plot as a result.
Much of what explains why right-wing terrorism is so deadly while jihad at home is less bloody than expected is because of the government response and that of other important actors. The FBI devotes far fewer resources to right-wing terrorism than it does jihadi terrorism, and programs for countering violence extremism also focus largely on jihadis. Most social media companies are aggressive in trying to get jihadis off their platforms. They are far more cautious, however, when it comes to white supremacists, fearing political backlash. Legally, federal counterterrorism officials have far more power to go after those associated with international terrorist groups than they do for domestic terrorist groups, no matter how lethal. However, as terrorism expert Clint Watts points out, there is far more political attention in Congress to black identity movements and the left-wing antifa—neither of which pose remotely the danger of white supremacists—because of their political orientation.
Giving the FBI more resources, passing new laws that target domestic terrorism, and otherwise stepping up the fight against white supremacist violence and other right-wing terrorism would have a dramatic impact, as many of the individuals and groups are not used to operating in a clandestine environment. Politically, instead of playing up racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, leaders could try to calm these roiled waters. Unfortunately, Trump has not changed his tune in response to past right-wing attacks, and there is little reason to expect a new course until a new administration comes to power.