'We Are Being Eaten From Within.’ Why America is Losing the Battle Against White Nationalist Terrorism

By VERA BERGENGRUEN AND W.J. HENNIGAN, Times

The site of the Dayton attacks on Aug. 4.        John Minchillo—AP

The site of the Dayton attacks on Aug. 4. John Minchillo—AP

When you think of a terrorist, what do you see? For more than a generation, the image lurking in Americans’ nightmares has resembled the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks: an Islamic jihadist. Not a 21-year-old white supremacist from a prosperous Dallas suburb.

But long before that young man drove to El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 and allegedly murdered at least 22 people at a Walmart crammed with back-to-school shoppers, it was clear that white nationalists have become the face of terrorism in America. Since 9/11, white supremacists and other far-right extremists have been responsible for almost three times as many attacks on U.S. soil as Islamic terrorists, the government reported. From 2009 through 2018, the far right has been responsible for 73% of domestic extremist-related fatalities, according to a 2019 study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). And the toll is growing. More people–49–were murdered by far-right extremists in the U.S. last year than in any other year since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress in July that a majority of the bureau’s domestic-terrorism investigations since October were linked to white supremacy.

Yet the nation’s leaders have failed to meet this menace. In more than a dozen interviews with TIME, current and former federal law-enforcement and national-security officials described a sense of bewilderment and frustration as they watched warnings go ignored and the white-supremacist terror threat grow. Over the past decade, multiple attempts to refocus federal resources on the issue have been thwarted. Entire offices meant to coordinate an interagency response to right-wing extremism were funded, staffed and then defunded in the face of legal, constitutional and political concerns.

Today, FBI officials say just 20% of the bureau’s counterterrorism field agents are focused on domestic probes. This year alone, those agents’ caseload has included an investigation into an Ohio militia allegedly stockpiling explosives to build pipe bombs; a self-professed white-supremacist Coast Guard officer who amassed an arsenal in his apartment in the greater Washington, D.C., area; an attack in April at a synagogue outside San Diego that killed one; and the July 28 assault at a garlic festival in Gilroy, Calif., that killed three. Cesar Sayoc, a 57-year-old man from Florida, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Aug. 5 after pleading guilty to mailing 16 pipe bombs to Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump.

The FBI has warned about the rising domestic threat for years, but has not had a receptive audience in the White House. As a result, agency leadership hasn’t historically prioritized white-supremacist violence even among homegrown threats, for years listing “eco-terrorism” as the top risk, former special agent Michael German told the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in May.

Law-enforcement officials say the cancer of white nationalism has metastasized across social media and the dark corners of the Internet, creating a copycat effect in which aspiring killers draw inspiration and seek to outdo one another. The suspect in El Paso was at least the third this year to post a manifesto on the online message forum 8chan before logging off to commit mass murder. More people were killed that day in El Paso than all 14 service members killed this year on the battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

“Even if there was a crackdown right now, it’s going to take years for the momentum of these groups to fade,” says Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), whose 2009 report on right-wing extremism was lambasted by conservatives even before its release. “I’m afraid we’ve reached a tipping point where we’re in for this kind of violence for a long time.”

Right-wing terrorism is a global problem, resulting in devastating attacks from New Zealand to Norway. But it is particularly dangerous in the U.S., which has more guns per capita than anywhere else in the world, an epidemic of mass shootings, a bedrock tradition of free speech that protects the expression of hateful ideologies and laws that make it challenging to confront a disaggregated movement that exists largely in the shadows of cyberspace.

Law enforcement lacks many of the weapons it uses against foreign enemies like al-Qaeda. To defend America from the danger posed by Islamist terror groups, the federal government built a globe-spanning surveillance and intelligence network capable of stopping attacks before they occurred. Federal agents were granted sweeping authorities by Congress to shadow foreign terrorist suspects. No comparable system exists in domestic-terror cases. Domestic terrorism is not even a federal crime, forcing prosecutors to charge suspects under hate-crime laws.

“White supremacy is a greater threat than international terrorism right now,” says David Hickton, a former U.S. Attorney who directs the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security. “We are being eaten from within.” Yet Hickton says federal prosecutors are limited in how they try domestic cases. “I’d have to pursue a white supremacist with hate crimes, unless he interfaced with al-Qaeda. Does that make any sense?”

Then there is the problem of a Commander in Chief whose rhetoric appears to mirror, validate and potentially inspire that of far-right extremists. The screed posted by the suspected terrorist in El Paso said he was motivated by a perceived “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” President Trump’s campaign has run some 2,200 Facebook ads warning of an “invasion” at the border, according to a CNN analysis. It’s a term he regularly uses in tweets and interviews. “People hate the word invasion, but that’s what it is,” he said in the Oval Office in March. “It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.” (The El Paso shooter said his actions were unconnected to Trump. A senior Administration official told TIME that the criticism linking the President’s rhetoric to violence was “unfortunate, unreasonable and obviously politically motivated.”)

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Olivia McDowellComment