Domestic Terrorism US domestic terrorism Violent Extremist White supremacists

Violent Extremism and the Reality of Domestic Terrorism in America

Violent Extremism and the Reality of Domestic Terrorism in America

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Amb. Curtis A. Ward

(30 January 2021) — It’s fascinating to watch as many in the US government, in particular in the US Congress, and in the media, feign surprise at the level of threat posed by domestic terrorism in the US. Warnings about white supremacists and radicalization of racist extremists have been known for a long time. Is it because the greatest threat of domestic terrorism is an outgrowth of an ideology grounded in white racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry why it has been ignored? Racist, because the greatest threat is from white extremists with ties to major politicians and a significant segment of the far right core of the Republican Party. Xenophobia and religious bigotry, because of the incredulous fear of non-white immigrants and others who practice a religion other than Christianity, such as Judaism and Islam, perpetuated by the words and actions of these same conservative actors.

For several years now, as an Adjunct Professor, I have used the opportunity of my class on Terrorism at the University of the District of Columbia (Homeland Security Graduate Program) to expose my students to the threat of Domestic Terrorism in the United States. I have highlighted to them the major deficiency federal prosecutors face because domestic terrorism is not a prosecutable offence in the Federal Criminal Code. The fact is, because of the lack of domestic terrorism as a criminal offense, federal prosecutors are forced to prosecute domestic terrorists under other provisions of the Criminal Code, and are constrained in describing these criminal offenders as terrorists.

White violent extremism is domestic terrorism

At the same time, it is important to note the FBI definition of domestic terrorism as: “Violent criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

In the wake of the terrorist attack on the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, questions are now being raised as to why the US Congress has failed to act on legislation making domestic terrorism a criminal offense in the United States, as it is in many western democracies. The only logical answer lies in the underlying support for white racism in America among many white conservative political leaders and legislators. This is the environment in which a racist rose to leadership of the Republican Party and elected president of the United States in 2016. This is the environment in which white violent extremism found fertile ground to grow and given the imprimatur to carry out the attack – the insurrection – on the Capitol Building.

Most Americans have been misled, thus forming misguided beliefs that terrorism is exclusively within the ambit of radicalized Islamic violent extremists, especially of Middle Eastern heritage. Hence, the profiling and xenophobia in the early targeting by the Trump administration in banning immigrants from certain Muslim countries were overlooked by most. In the definitions formulated by the FBI and other national security and law enforcement agencies in the United States, there is a thin line between the definitions of international terrorism and domestic terrorism. But, there are differences which, if applied indiscriminately, would force law enforcement agencies to pay far greater attention to the threat from homegrown white violent extremists.

Domestic terrorism rooted in racism

Among the factors often overlooked in categorizing the rationale for mass killings by white extremists of people of color as acts of domestic terrorism are the tendency to ignore the religious bigotry and political objectives of these racist actors, including denial of the political rights of non-white populations in the United States. Whenever any of these mass killings by white supremacists occurred during the semester, my students ask puzzling questions as to why these egregious acts are not referred to as acts of terrorism.  They ask me why these acts – mass murders – are treated differently from similar acts perpetrated by individuals of Middle Eastern heritage. It is indeed puzzling, when law enforcement agents in seeking to find motives for these crimes often unearth political, racist and extremist religious ideology, including manifestos outlining the process of radicalization of the perpetrators.

Timothy McVeigh

As a response to these anomalies in the treatment of white perpetrators, vis-à-vis perpetrators of other races and nationalities, I always dedicate a session of my classes on the ‘faces of terrorism’ and I generally lead with an image of the white terrorist Timothy McVeigh. This white terrorist McVeigh and his white accomplice Terry Lynn Nichols  carried out the largest terrorist act in America prior to the international terrorist act of September 11, 2001. McVeigh exploded a powerful truck bomb, more than two tons of explosives, destroying the Edward P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children; and more than 300 nearby buildings were damaged. The FBI described this as the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the history of the United States. So there should be no surprise to anyone that white domestic terrorists attacked the poorly protected Capitol Building.

Murrah Building

It is also incredulous for anyone being surprised that as much as 20% of white extremists have served in the US military. This was not a secret prior to January 06, 2021. Both McVeigh and his white accomplice Terry Lynn Nichols served in the US military. This was not an aberration. There are thousands of former military service men and women known by law enforcement agencies to be active in right-wing militias and white extremist racist groups.

Stephen Paddock

Let me repeat, acts of domestic terrorism are often ignored as such because of the race of these American citizens. In support, I cite examples of white terrorist acts, including the Mother Emmanuel AME Church attack by white supremacist Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, killing nine African-American worshipers; and the Las Vegas, Nevada mass shooting by Stephen Paddock, a white violent extremist, on October 1, 2017, resulting in the deaths of 61 people and injuring 867. The FBI, perhaps in deference to the then president, failed to identify the political motivation of this white extremist. Neither of these two mass killings were prosecuted as acts of domestic terrorism.

FBI and DHS finally in sync

It wasn’t until February 2020 before FBI Director Christopher Wray classified the the issue of white violent extremists as a threat. And, in a statement before the House Homeland Security Committee on September 17, 2020, Wray recognized Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs), alongside Homegrown Violent Extremists (individual terrorists with international links), as a growing threat to the US. Wray went on to describe DVEs as posing “a steady and evolving economic harm to the United States.” Wray said, “The trends may shift, but the underlying drivers for domestic violent extremism–such as perceptions of government law enforcement overreach, sociopolitical conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia,  misogyny, and reactions to legislative actions–remain constant.”

More recently, on January 21, 2021, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a federal alert warning the public of domestic terrorist threats to the US. According to the DHS warning, these threats are “fueled by false narratives” including false claims about the conduct and outcome of the presidential elections of November 3, 2020. I need say no more. Question is: Has America been awakened to the reality of domestic terrorism and prepared to take action to suppress and prevent this scourge? Only time will tell.

© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post

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About the author

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with Special Responsibility for Security Council Affairs (1999-2002) serving on the UN Security Council for two years. He served three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. He is an Attorney-at-Law and International Consultant with extensive knowledge and experience in national and international legal and policy frameworks for effective implementation of United Nations (UN) and other international anti-terrorism mandates; the legal and administrative requirements to effectively implement and enforce anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); extensive knowledge of the legal and regulatory requirements for effective implementation and enforcement of United Nations multilateral and U.S.-imposed unilateral sanctions; and the imperatives for Rule of Law and governance. He is a geopolitical and international security analyst, and a human rights, democracy, and anticorruption advocate.


  • Ambassador Ward,

    In deference to your knowledge – but – with a perspective of my own – may I posit an approach I choose to term ‘ the chicken or the egg White supremacist issue’.

    I launch my argument by reference to this statement in your article:-

    ” The only logical answer lies in the underlying support for white racism in America among many white conservative political leaders and legislators.”

    May I term the egg – ‘the economy’.

    Then may I term the chicken – ‘ the White supremacist attitude’.

    There are various root causes for White supremacist attitudes. However, one can note a few points of reference first by observing the state of ‘the egg’. America at present is facing structural economic challenges. Those challenges negatively impact all working Americans. However, when the White working class is negatively impacted there is a distinctly different attitudinal response. Why so?

    Well, previously, the American economy, at least post the Great Depression, guaranteed each successive generation of the White working class, in the cities, in mill towns and across the country in large measure – the promise of economic improvements in their lives and the prospect of greater improvements in their children’s and grand-children’s lifetime. That expectation has changed. In effect, the economic yolk of ‘the egg’ does not presently assure economic sustenance for the future – so the White chickens are most disgruntled. I place the argument this way, for in the main it is not well educated college graduates or successful entrepreneurs or managerially secure persons and others experiencing economic stability in their lives who especially find White supremacism attractive. It is the disgruntled Whites who are feeling the undertow of a faltering US economy. We are White – not Black or Brown people – so we should not be experiencing what those ‘other’ folks have experienced for centuries in America. I am angry, I am upset, I am ill-treated, I am disrespected by my treacherous government – and I am mad as hell and prepared to do something about – for after all and first and foremost – I am White.

    So, that is why I start with the economy for my explanation.

    P.S. I do not otherwise discard, nor do I seek to discredit or discount, your several other prescient observations; I am only expressing myself on what I term – the central driving factor. And finally, to bolster my argument – I would reference the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s rise to power having due regard for the state of the German economy at that point in history,

    • Courtney, I have no problem with your analysis except that you have actually confirmed the underlying racist element of “white supremacist” ideology. I am by no means suggesting that you are racist. This is not the first time the economy has been in a tailspin but the class of people you reference have not in the past turned to violent extremism and their responses have not been driven by the perception that America is better off as an all white society. Most Americans accept plurality of races (multiculturalism) in American, but racism becomes a defining factor when it appears people of color are rising to the top. In other words, people of color must remain at the bottom, no matter their qualifications, because they are inferior. Note the rise in white extremism during President Obama’s presidency. Why?

      And, don’t discount the fact that Donald Trump used that underlying racism to gain access to the White House. He started his campaign, before announcing his candidacy, by pushing the racist ‘birther movement.” Trump found that this racist crap resonated with a large enough segment of Americans to win the primaries. Why?

      After his election, Trump did everything to legitimize racism and the latent racism in a broader segment of white society grew into racist radicals – the logical continuum of that is violent extremism. A big part of the problem is that decent white Americans remained silent for the most part and allowed Trump to keep building support among this group. It now seems out of control.

  • I think that we are both coming to the same conclusions approached from different starting points.
    My main point is the economic driving force behind the resurgent White racism. As I said:-
    “ Well, previously, the American economy, at least post the Great Depression, guaranteed each successive generation of the White working class, in the cities, in mill towns and across the country in large measure – the promise of economic improvements in their lives and the prospect of greater improvements in their children’s and grand-children’s lifetime.”
    You state:-
    “ In other words, people of color must remain at the bottom, no matter their qualifications, because they are inferior.”
    Your observation is accurate ( in the sense of identifying how the White supremacists think). Previously the White population had far more official support for their racial prejudices. I go one step further and say that the reason for the attendant violence occurs like this:-
    i) The history of racism in America is that it ( racism) has always been accompanied by violence. Most evident is slavery and lynching.
    ii) That historical background gains an added dimension, which was my point as stated above. The sense in the White supremacist group that their prospects for a better economic future look dim; add salt to the wound when some people of colour are seen doing better than them.
    iii) So, previously, the US government acted as a White handmaiden to the sustenance of slavery and Jim Crow laws, while overtime steadily things changed, from Civil War to 1960s civil rights legislation. Today, the White supremacists also sense that the colour bar which had assisted their ‘White privilege” has now shifted too far from protecting their special self-interests – so as a last extreme resort they turn on and attack the government.
    Thanks for your reply.

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