In last week's On Security column about the Christchurch attack in New Zealand, I noted that white supremacists adopted the leaderless resistance model of terrorism before jihadists did. A knowledgeable reader subsequently asked about the similarities between white supremacist and jihadist terrorism. Like jihadism, the various ideologies driving white supremacism are not going away any time soon, and comparing the two can provide valuable lessons for understanding the ongoing threat.
Since the dawn of modern terrorism in Victorian times, radicals from a variety of ideologies have attempted to use violence to draw attention to and advance their political or ideological causes. Law enforcement and security agencies have responded to terrorism using all the tools at their disposal, but arresting or killing terrorist leaders has only reduced the threat, not eliminated it. As long as the ideologies driving terrorism remain — such as the neo-Nazi beliefs that persisted after the fall of Nazi Germany — adherents will be able to radicalize and mobilize new members.
Fragmentation and a Leadership Vacuum
The white supremacist/nationalist universe is heavily fragmented. In general, white supremacists believe white people are inherently superior to other races, while white nationalists, or separatists, focus on maintaining a white race that is separate from other races. The numerous distinct strains of the white supremacist and white separatist ideology range from Klansmen who consider themselves Christians to pagan Odinists, from National Socialists (aka neo-Nazis) who seek to overturn the current political order to patriotic nationalists who seek to return to some imagined golden age. Despite their differences, most of these strains view their local efforts as belonging to a wider global struggle, making them similar to jihadists.
Like jihadists, many white supremacists and nationalists also see themselves as engaged in an existential battle against an encroaching evil. The definition of that evil varies depending on the strain of white supremacism/nationalism involved, but can include Jews, racial minorities, immigrants, global elites or a combination of these. The idea of being engaged in a struggle is similar to how jihadists believe they are battling a "Jewish/Crusader alliance" and other enemies of Islam. Jihadism and white supremacism also tend to be dualistic in the sense that a person is either a member of the ideological in-group or is considered an enemy; they recognize no innocent bystanders.
Most white supremacists/nationalists view themselves as a vanguard seeking to use terrorism to waken the masses who are not racially aware in order to precipitate an apocalyptic final battle — sometimes referred to as RAHOWA, short for "racial holy war" — that will result in a final reckoning and the establishment of pure white homelands. The attackers behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 Olympic Park bombing, the 2011 Norway attacks and the recent Christchurch mass shootings all articulated this desire to spark a final battle.
Al Qaeda was similarly formed to serve as a vanguard organization to lead a global jihad. Osama bin Laden and other jihadist leaders such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have sought to use terrorism to draw the United States into an apocalyptic battle and to mobilize the Muslim masses to rise up and fight.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, however, have proved far more successful at attracting people to the jihadist cause than white supremacists and nationalists recently have. One factor accounting for this is the battlefield successes enjoyed by jihadist insurgents in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya, which have created territory where foreign jihadists can join the struggle. While a few Western white supremacists/nationalists have traveled to fight with right-wing groups such as the Azov Battalion in eastern Ukraine and in Rhodesia during the bush war of the 1970s, there simply has not been a similar battlefield for white supremacists/nationalists to rally around. Moreover, the pull of Ukraine for white supremacists has been lessened by the fact that, like Nazi Germany, some white supremacists consider Slavic people racially inferior.
The lack of an obvious standard-bearer for the whole movement has also been a major inhibitor of white supremacism/nationalism relative to jihadism. As noted above, the white supremacist and white nationalist movement is highly fragmented. There simply is no central figure even for the various individual parts of the white supremacist movement to rally around, much less for the entire movement to rally around. This is understandable given the abundance of ideologies that comprise the white supremacist universe. Even the neo-Nazi segment of the movement in the United States has lacked a central figure since George Lincoln Rockwell.
After his 1967 assassination, Rockwell's followers formed many competing splinter groups. Some fairly well-known figures emerged from Rockwell's organization, such as National Alliance founder William Pierce, American Nazi Party leader Matt Koehl (both now dead) and James Mason, the founder of the National Socialist Liberation Front — whose later adoption of some of Charles Manson's ideas formed the ideological basis for the recently formed, violently radical Atomwafen Division. These successors were often at odds with each other as they competed for a relatively small pool of funding and recruits. More recently, some leaders have rapidly risen to prominence inside the United States only to fade, such as Bill White of the National Socialist Movement and Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute.
Such leaders have never managed to consolidate much control over the movement inside the United States, much less globally. Spencer attempted to bring some sort of unity to the movement in the United States through the August 2017 "Unite the Right" march in Charlottesville, Virginia, to which he attracted some 500 people from an array of neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, Klan, militia, white nationalist, white identity, skinhead, alt-right and other white supremacist and nationalist groups. When about 1,000 counterdemonstrators met these white supremacists in the absence of an inadequate police presence, the situation descended into violence and the rally was canceled. An angry white supremacist then drove into a crowd of counterprotesters celebrating the cancellation, killing a counterprotester.
After the Charlottesville debacle, finger-pointing and backbiting among white supremacist and nationalist leaders quickly ensued, and any small steps toward cohesion Spencer may have generated in the runup to the event quickly were reversed. An August 2018 attempt to re-create the Unite the Right event in Washington failed, with only a few dozen white supremacists/nationalists appearing. And so the white supremacist and nationalist movement continue to lack the sort of global leader akin to bin Laden or al-Baghdadi, a leadership gap it has experienced since the fall of the Axis powers.
A History of Disruption by Law Enforcement
Speaking of the fall of Hitler and Mussolini, history is another major difference between white supremacist terrorism and jihadism. Law enforcement in the United States has been dealing with white supremacist violence since the mid-19th century and the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1856 and the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1860s. Anti-immigration fervor also led to a major revival of the Klan (and its violence) in the 1920s, with millions of people joining the Klan — even in Northern states. In a show of power on Aug. 8, 1925, 50,000 robed Klansmen paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, an event Spencer consciously sought to replicate with the Unite the Right march. White supremacist violence in the United States also reared its head during the 1950s and 1960s, when Klansmen and other white supremacists lynched persons it deemed troublemakers, torched homes and bombed churches.
By the early 1970s, the Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord, a Christian identity domestic terrorist group, was formed, followed by The Order in the 1980s. The years 1977-1980 saw Joseph Paul Franklin conducted a string of racially motivated murders, robberies and arsons spanning several states, severely wounding high-profile personalities Vernon Jordan and Larry Flynt in failed assassination attempts. In 1981, a group of U.S. and Canadian white supremacists was arrested for plotting to overthrow the government of Dominica.
This cluster of white supremacist terrorist activity drew significant law enforcement attention to the movement. Law enforcement efforts culminated in the Fort Smith sedition trial in 1988, in which 14 white supremacist leaders were charged with seditious conspiracy. The charged included members of The Order and the Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord along with Klan Leader Louis Beam, National Alliance William Pierce and Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler.
In the late 1980s, a very mature and diverse white supremacist movement began to consider the leaderless resistance model of terrorism. Al Qaeda formed around the same time, launching the global jihadist movement.
Although the 14 white supremacist leaders were acquitted of seditious conspiracy charges, the trial still proved a watershed event for the white supremacist movement in the United States. Testimony at the trial revealed that undercover law enforcement informants had heavily infiltrated all of the organizations. This revelation caused white supremacists to rethink how they conducted terrorism, with many adopting the leaderless resistance model in which lone assailants and phantom cells conduct illegal activity while aboveground individuals and groups careful not to break the law disseminate propaganda and provide guidance to the underground terrorists. To do this, they have taken ample advantage of freedom of expression laws, first in physical publishing and broadcasting and later on the internet, something the jihadists have also done more recently.
The change in tactical approach was made visible in the fiction written by National Alliance leader William Pierce. In 1978, he wrote a book called "The Turner Diaries" using the pen name Andrew Macdonald, a work intended to provide a blueprint for conducting terrorist operations as an underground organization. Not coincidentally, the organization in "The Turner Diaries" was named "The Order." In 1989 following the Fort Smith trial, Pierce wrote a different operational blueprint in a book called "Hunter," which provided a leaderless resistance model. (Pierce dedicated Hunter to Joseph Paul Franklin.) Louis Beam also published a treatise on leaderless resistance in his publication "The Seditionist" in 1992.
Thus, a very mature and diverse white supremacist movement was moving to adopt the leaderless resistance model of terrorism shortly after al Qaeda was created in 1988 and launched the global jihadist movement. It would be several years before jihadists would feel the need to begin to adopt leaderless resistance in response to law enforcement pressure.
Not only did white supremacist groups garner significant law enforcement attention many decades before jihadists did, they also were far easier for European and U.S. law enforcement agencies to monitor and infiltrate because there were no ethnic or language barriers to overcome. Western law enforcement agencies and their personnel also better understood the ideology of white supremacy than that of jihadism. (Some would argue they still do.)
Indeed, attention to the white supremacist threat became so heavy that deconfliction became a serious problem for U.S. law enforcement. In some Klan or neo-Nazi meetings — and later in IRC channels, Usenet chat rooms and websites on the internet — there were more undercover law enforcement officers and informants than there were white supremacists. Organizations that monitored white supremacists such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center added to the many eyes on the white supremacist movement.
Until 9/11, law enforcement paid nowhere near the attention to jihadists that it paid to white supremacists and nationalists. Due to the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, however, the attention pendulum rapidly swung in the direction of the jihadists, with law enforcement agencies adding language skills and diversity to help in their fight.
But U.S. law enforcement never fully took its eyes off the white supremacist/nationalist threat. As we noted in 2007, law enforcement used the new tools provided by the Patriot Act to hit a wide array of white supremacist/nationalist groups and leaders very hard in the early 2000s.
Such pressure has not relented. As we noted in August 2017, law enforcement has even used the same tactics developed in the fight against grassroots jihadists to combat grassroots right-wing extremists. And U.S. law enforcement is not alone: European law enforcement agencies have consistently targeted violent white supremacist and nationalist groups, resulting in a highly fragmented white supremacist movement in Europe.
Acknowledging that white supremacism and nationalism is not a new problem and that law enforcement has never stopped addressing it is not to dismiss the danger white supremacists and nationalists pose. White supremacist/nationalist terrorism is a very old problem, one that law enforcement in the West continues to battle. And as with jihadism, the various ideologies driving white supremacism/nationalism are not going away any time soon.