Recently, President Trump said he doesn’t believe white nationalism is a growing problem—and at home in the U.S., he’s right.
The problem isn’t growing. It’s never subsided.
“There has been a steady rate of far-right extreme crimes since at least 1970, when we started collecting data,” said Michael Jensen, a senior researcher at START, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. “What has changed is the emphasis on reporting far-right extremism. It produces the perception that there is a new increase. It’s not true.”
Strictly speaking, far-right terrorism has gone up, Dr. Jensen said—eight fatal attacks occurred in 2014 and seven in 2017 after decades of no more than three a year—but the broader class of extremist crimes, which includes terrorism, hate crimes and mixed motive crimes, has not.
START’s Global Terrorism Database, used to produce the State Department’s annual terrorism report for Congress, documents 180,000 attacks world-wide from 1970 forward.
Because it includes only premeditated attacks committed with the explicit purpose of promoting an ideology, its numbers are smaller than some other data sets.
One of the most sweeping is the U.S. Extremist Crime Database, a collection of violent and financial crimes committed by political extremists in the U.S. from 1990 forward—and it’s the persistence of far-right ideology this data reflects that alarms experts.
“The most striking thing is the resilience of the threat,” said Joshua D. Freilich, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and co-director of the Extremist Crime Database. “It’s consistent in terms of the level of activity.”
Since 1990, far-right extremists have killed 477 people in 214 attacks in the U.S., according to the crime data. A majority of the assaults targeted minorities, with 241 people dying in 170 attacks. (In the same period, the Global Terrorism Database records 31 far-right attacks with one or more deaths.)History of Violence Fatal events in the U.S., by attacker typeSource: Joshua D. Freilich, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
“We haven’t seen a year since 1990 with no far-right homicides,” said Jeff Gruenewald, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis who studies domestic terrorism and extremism.
U.S. crimes by Islamist extremists have tended to be deadlier than far-right crimes, but they have also been more sporadic. Since 1990, Islamist extremists have conducted 50 assaults killing 3,148 people, a figure that includes 2,997 9/11 victims.
Homicides by far-left extremists, whose attacks peaked in the 1970s, are now uncommon.
The crime database, which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security, assembles records from legal documents, news accounts, watchdog groups and other publicly available sources. To be included, the crimes must have been committed for ideological reasons.
The database defines far-right extremists as fiercely nationalistic; anti-global; suspicious of federal authority; reverent of individual liberties, especially the right to own guns and be free of taxes; believing in conspiracy theories; and, in some cases, antagonistic toward specific racial or religious groups. The mainstream conservative movement and the mainstream Christian right are not included.
Islamist extremists are defined as rejecting the traditional Muslim respect for Christians and Jews; believing Islamic law should be forcibly implemented; believing the U.S. supports the humiliation of Islam; holding all Americans responsible for government actions; and endorsing violence against those they deem corrupt.
Based on these definitions, the crime database includes the 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., shooting, where a married couple killed 14 county employees at a holiday gathering after one spouse pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State terrorist group on Facebook.
It also includes the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that occurred when an antigovernment militant detonated a truck packed with explosives outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people.
But it excludes the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, where a gunman killed 58 people at an outdoor music festival, because there was no clear evidence that ideology motivated the killer.
The Global Terrorism Database treats each of these events the same way. But it leaves out unpremeditated hate crimes such as the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was chained behind a truck and dragged for 2 miles by three white supremacists.
A third data set, Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States, or PIRUS, examines extremists in an effort to deduce when, and how, they were radicalized.
The data, which is also assembled by START, includes 2,148 violent and nonviolent individuals who committed ideologically motivated crimes in the U.S. or who associated with domestic or foreign extremist organizations from 1948 through 2017.
Far-right extremists are the largest ideological group in the database, accounting for 43% of the entries. Islamists account for 23%.
PIRUS shows radicalization occurring in waves. The latest wave of far-right radicalization began in the 1980s and continues today.
“It’s not a brand new thing,” Dr. Jensen said. “It’s certainly a very real national security concern right now, but it’s something we’ve dealt with for quite some time.”
By Jo Craven McGinty