The World

Can We Call the Proud Boys Terrorists?

Canada just officially designated the neofascist group as a terrorist organization. It won’t be so easy for the U.S. to do the same.

A man in black and yellow clothing carrying a Proud Boys flag.
Members of the Proud Boys join other gun rights advocates to protest in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 18 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Feb. 3, Canada’s Public Safety Ministry designated the Proud Boys as a terrorist group, fulfilling the wishes of many Americans in the wake of the neofascist group’s involvement in the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Indeed, the Canadian government’s decision to designate the Proud Boys as terrorists seemingly centered on what its statement describes as the “pivotal role” the group played in the insurrection.

The U.S. Department of Justice underscored this very point last week when it announced that it had indicted two Proud Boys for their key roles in leading the insurrection. Canada’s Feb. 3 terrorist designation is not an outlier. In 2019, Canada designated two neo-Nazi groups, Combat 18 and Blood & Honour, as terrorist groups. Perhaps lost in the noise surrounding the Proud Boy’s designation were other important Canadian sanctions—chiefly those of the Atomwaffen Division, the Base, and the Russian Imperial Movement, all far-right groups.

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Many in the United States may be now wondering, can the Biden administration follow Canada’s lead?

It is an important question, especially when, upon examination, the U.S. Department of State has no radical right-wing terrorist groups on its Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO, list. How does Canada have six white supremacist groups on its list of terrorists while the United States has none? Is this an issue of political will, or is there something else that can explain this discrepancy? After all, it was less than one year ago that the United Nations said there was more than a 320 percent increase in right-wing terrorism.

Terrorist designations matter. The Canadian decision to sanction the Proud Boys will hinder the group’s ability to travel and raise money, and may lead to future prosecutions of members for their involvement in terrorist activity. There is also an important symbolic component to the designation: The Fred Perry polo shirt–wearing Proud Boys now have a Scarlet T for terrorist now emblazoned upon them. The stigma associated with the terrorist label is hard to overstate, and it was one the Trump administration neglected to wield against the extreme far right.

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Critics of the Trump administration were correct in saying there was a clear political calculation in downplaying the threat posed by groups like the Proud Boys. And, while the Trump administration did designate the RIM as a terrorist group pursuant to Executive Order 13224, it inexplicably did not sanction the group as an FTO—a much more well-known terrorist list. Yet, the challenges of designating groups with a U.S. presence go beyond issues of political will. It won’t be so easy for the Biden administration to follow Canada’s lead. I should know, for more than a decade I led the State Department’s office responsible with sanctioning groups as FTOs. The Proud Boys are a very hard, if not impossible, terrorist designation target for the U.S. government to pursue.

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Unlike Canada, the United States has no legal basis for sanctioning domestic terrorist groups. That’s the reason why even when more than 1 million people sign a petition to label the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist group, it results in no action. The State Department can, according to U.S. law, designate “foreign organizations.” Lawyers involved in terrorist designation decision-making have interpreted this as excluding groups that have a “significant domestic presence.” While there is some ambiguity, and thus flexibility, about what the term significant may mean, it nonetheless has clear implications for the possible designation of the Proud Boys as an FTO. The Proud Boys leadership cadre, such as its leader Enrique Tarrio, is based in the United States. Additionally, the group’s activities, such as their involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection and in street fights in Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, also are seemingly U.S.-centric. Does this mean it is impossible for the United States to sanction the Proud Boys as terrorists?

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It is unlikely, but not impossible. The group’s own literature touts the fact that it has a global presence with chapters in more than 40 countries. While terrorist groups certainly have been prone to exaggeration, it is quite clear that the Proud Boys do have a sizable international presence. The Proud Boys’ overseas chapters have a sizable membership that uses a mix of social media and encrypted platforms to communicate. If this is the case, there may be some scope for the United States government to consider the Proud Boys as a global organization. After all, the group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, is Canadian.

Simply put, the Proud Boys aren’t solely a U.S. phenomenon. Thus, the U.S. government should work with allies, like Canada, to flesh out the Proud Boys international presence. With additional intelligence, the U.S. may just be able to demonstrate the Proud Boys are an organization with a sufficiently foreign presence. If that happens the U.S. government just may be able to sanction it, or at a minimum designate its international chapters. It won’t be easy, and the U.S. legal hurdles will be high, but the Proud Boys are worthy of being considered for what they truly are—terrorists.

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