Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Charles P. Blair, June 9
Five years ago the US Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Environment Threat Analysis Division released an assessment of US far-right extremism. Initially intended for law enforcement and intelligence agencies only, the report—“Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment”—was almost immediately leaked.
The report warned that small cells practicing “leaderless resistance” and “white supremacist lone wolves [posed] the most significant domestic terrorist threat.” Significantly, it highlighted the likelihood of expanded attempts by far-right extremists “to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.” Overall, the report warned of trends similar to “the 1990s when rightwing extremism experienced a resurgence.” That far-right extremist rally reached a violent crescendo with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995.
Reflecting on the past five years, a leading far-right extremism expert I recently interviewed described the homeland security report as “prophetic.” Mark Pitcavage, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of investigative research, explained that most of the warnings in the 2009 report have become realities. Yet at the time of its release, the document was derided by many inside and outside of government as “ridiculous [and] deeply offensive,” an “inconceivable” assault on US veterans, and, in general, “a piece of crap.” Buckling under political pressure from conservatives, homeland security rapidly repressed the report. Promptly removed from department’s website, the tabooed document also disappeared from the computer systems of state and local law enforcement divisions as well as federal intelligence agencies. The homeland security unit responsible for the report was virtually muzzled. The report essentially fell into obscurity.
New rise of the far right. For almost 15 years after the Oklahoma City bombing, far-right extremism remained a relative constant; now it has risen again in group numbers, violence, and latent explosiveness. To gain greater clarity on this alarming trajectory, I recently spoke with Mark Potok, an expert in domestic extremism and director of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Addressing the numerical ebb and flow with far-right “hate groups” (that is, US white supremacist and other groups whose beliefs or practices attack or malign an entire class of people), Potok said, “What we’ve been seeing is a long slow steady rise since 2000—it has gone from 602 groups that year to 1,007 groups in 2012.” The rise was connected to the election of an African-American president and accompanying conspiracy theories, Potok explained; a severe economic recession and fears related to immigration also were factors.
This expansion of hate groups has been paralleled by growth in the number of “patriot groups” (defined as US militias and other strongly anti-government related groups that are not primarily white supremacist or racist in orientation). The Southern Poverty Law Center’s count of such groups initially peaked in the mid-1990s, at 858. A steep decline ensued, especially after the so-called Y2K bug—the potential mass demise of computers made before the year 2000—failed to bring about societal chaos, rapture, or a millenarian apocalypse. In 2001, the movement hit its nadir with 150 groups and remained low throughout both of President George W. Bush’s terms.
But in 2009, Potok said, “[t]he patriot group numbers began skyrocketing. By 2011 there were 1,274, and in 2012 the numbers peaked at 1,360.”