Terrorism falls into one of two broad categories according to our traditional understanding: First, there are the lone wolf actors. These are individuals who harbor some fringe belief or adhere to an extremist ideology but owe no allegiance to any organized group. Lone wolves act of their own volition and may only commit one violent act – a single planned event that often leads to immediate arrest or death.
Then there are the terrorist organizations – Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Tamil Tigers, the Irish Republican Army – recognized entities with a stated purpose of carrying out acts of violence against a civilian population in the interest of some political or ideological objective. These groups can operate like a proto-state, or, more familiarly, like a company. There is recruitment, training, a commitment, organizational hierarchy, a path through that hierarchy, some expectation of action.
I argue there is a third form of organized extremism emerging that does not neatly fit either definition. This category relies heavily on the internet – particularly YouTube, online forums like 8chan, and other forms of social media – to provide the virtual space needed for fringe ideas to flourish. Instead of members who claim allegiance, there are individuals who share an ideology and demonstrate varying degrees of willingness to act. There is a flat hierarchy – no head of the snake, no ranks to rise through, no pamphlets, no recruiters. But there is encouragement, there is community, there is propaganda. It is a decentralized, loosely organized, self-driven organization that forms spontaneously and often acts without planning.
This is the format that white supremacy has taken. It’s easy enough to find a white supremacist; it’s far more difficult to see the whole of it at once. But make no mistake: This is not a bunch of loners at the fringes of society acting on strictly original, self-driven thoughts. And all too often, those actions result in real tragedy.
Why bother drawing a line around all white supremacists as a single movement? Why not just name the organizations we can name – the Ku Klux Klan is the obvious place to start – and proceed with domestic anti-terrorism efforts?
For one thing, racist terrorism is not explicitly domestic. Attacks against minorities in the name of white supremacy have taken place all over the world. Adherents take inspiration from modern acts of violence as well as historic “victories” and events that advanced white primacy – Nazism, yes, but also ethnic cleansing campaigns like that of Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkans, or American movements like the Lost Cause or Jim Crow.
Additionally, disbanding the KKK – while a worthy aim – will not remove the ideology from the United States or the world. We must pay closer attention to unaffiliated white supremacists and all the forums where they gather, the same way we take seriously every claim of ISIS allegiance and monitor the known channels of communication. Labeling an entity an international terrorist group also raises the stakes and provides law enforcement and politicians with more tools to go after offenders – and fewer excuses not to.
How should we think about this new category of terrorist activity? ISIS provides a helpful entry point for comparison. The Islamic State is both a decentralized terrorist group that democratizes entry and adherence, but was also a highly administrative, hierarchical structure at its peak.
One of the cunning strategies ISIS employed was to enable any radical Islamist who wished to carry out violence to do so under the ISIS flag: Simply record yourself claiming allegiance to ISIS, commit your act of terrorism, and suddenly ISIS has struck again. That made ISIS appear bigger and more capable than it may actually have been, but by sanctioning such terrorist attacks, the group also gave legitimacy and approval to individuals already considering violence. The world didn’t always know what to make of these attacks – not every ISIS follower traveled to Syria and trained under al-Baghdadi, or even met with an underground cell in some Western city. But claiming an attack to be the work of a lone wolf also rang hollow, especially for a public increasingly unnerved by reports of ISIS attacks all over the world.
But the ISIS comparison breaks down in a key way: It was very much a hierarchical organization that sought to (and did) hold territory and operate as a theocratic state. It gained legitimacy in the eyes of fringe Islamist radicals by invoking the caliphate and claiming religious authority. That was their primary recruiting tool; when the caliphate fell and the group lost its territory, their ability to compel action remotely waned.
Imagine instead that ISIS were a widespread online community with no leader, no requirement for allegiance, no obvious distinction between them and the population at large, but equally zealous in its pursuit of a radical agenda. That’s what we face with white supremacist terrorism. And that’s why it’s crucial to call it by its name and classify it as a terrorist movement rather than a series of one-off attacks.
White supremacy permeates American political, civil and cultural institutions. It is prominent in pockets of this country and it is not sufficiently pursued by law enforcement as an organized system. This has been the case at least since the American Civil War. Hitler looked to Jim Crow for inspiration in formulating the Third Reich. Terrorists responsible for high-profile mass murders in Norway (2011) and Christchurch, New Zealand (2019) published manifestos aligned with far-right, white nationalist movements; the former individual even claimed correspondence with the latter. American law enforcement has been disappointingly weak on domestic white supremacist terrorism; perhaps labeling such attacks as part of an international movement will be a motivator.
But doing so will also better align policy with a public that is increasingly fed up with the wide berth granted to white nationalists and the violent criminals among them. This way of thinking has been normalized for too long and has grown too entrenched in the existing political infrastructure to believe that it will simply evaporate over time. Now is the time to take a hardline stance against white supremacy and condemn it with the same gusto, conviction and coordination the international community has reserved so far for Islamist terrorism. Now is the time to call it like we see it: a global movement that uses intimidation and violence against civilians in the name of advancing a single, narrow view of racial superiority and purity.
Labeling violent white supremacy an international terrorist organization will also better prepare us for the next generation of terrorists; not just non-state groups, but groups that transcend the need for a physical base of operations or a traditional hierarchy. It won’t be possible to defeat these enemies with only weapons and ground-based tactics. We’ll also need to fight the ideology, to root out the mindset. That will require the kind of nuance and strategic thinking the liberal world has struggled with in recent years, the United States in particular. But it also requires an international commitment. White supremacist terrorism is not provincial, but global. Its ideas will continue to proliferate, adherents will continue to join, and offshoots like the Boogaloo movement will continue to emerge.
White supremacists are already fighting their race war. It’s time for the global, interracial community to fight back with all the peaceful means at its disposal.
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