on security

Examining Whether the Terrorism Label Applies to Antifa

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
7 MINS READAug 27, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Members of an antifa group march as the Alt-Right movement gathers for a

Members of an antifa group march as the Alt-Right movement gathers for a "Demand Free Speech" rally in July 6, 2019, Washington.

  • Antifa is an umbrella movement comprised of people of various ideologies who are united in their opposition to white supremacism, neo-Nazism and fascism. 
  • Nevertheless, elements that often participate in antifa actions, such as anarchists, do condone and participate in terrorism and political violence.  
  • White supremacist groups intentionally hold rallies in left-leaning cities like Portland, Oregon, in hopes of sparking antifa violence, as they believe such action generates publicity and sympathy for their cause. 

In 2017, Oxford Dictionaries shortlisted it as one of its words of the year, and since then, the term has become arguably even more prominent. Indeed, antifa (Anti-Fascist Action) seems to be everywhere these days. An anarchist associated with antifa was shot and killed by police on July 13 as he carried a rifle and attempted to burn buses and a propane tank at an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington. On Aug. 4, a man who associated with antifa killed nine people in a mass shooting outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, having previously carried a similar rifle while participating in a local counterprotest against the Ku Klux Klan on March 25. And on Aug. 17, a large group of antifa and other counterprotesters rallied to oppose a gathering of white supremacists in Portland in the latest in a long string of confrontations between antifa and white supremacists in the Oregon city. The event drew widespread media coverage — although it wasn't just the press that was watching. Prior to the event, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that authorities were giving "major consideration" to naming antifa an "organization of terror." Portland police largely succeeded in keeping the two sides apart, but they did detain 13 people (mostly antifa-linked anarchists) after the white supremacists left the city. 

The Big Picture

Anti-Fascist Action, better known as antifa, has made a name for itself in opposing white supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, yet that does not necessarily make much of what it does virtuous, particularly as elements within the movement frequently engage in activity that harms people or property. Understanding what antifa is, and is not, can help people understand the threat it poses.

But does all of that make antifa a terrorist organization? The short answer is no — if for no other reason that antifa isn't really a group or organization to begin with. That, however, doesn't mean that some who have adopted the ideological mantle of anti-fascism do not engage in terrorist or militant activity — something that could have profound implications for anyone caught in the middle of a battle between antifa and the far-right.

Amorphous Antifa 

Far from being a single group or organization, antifa is more a campaign featuring a wide array of movements, "affinity groups" (anarchist shorthand for operational cells) and individuals subscribing to various ideologies who band together to oppose neo-Nazis, white supremacists and others they consider to be fascists. antifa, accordingly, doesn't have a single unified and overarching ideology that binds participants together other than their joint opposition to fascism. That said, antifa as a movement does openly promote the use of "direct action" — which can take the form of harassment, intimidation and violence against its right-wing opponents. But while many of those who participate in antifa actions do hold ideologies that condone political violence, including terrorism, this is not a universal belief, meaning conflict between people of various ideologies inside antifa protests is not uncommon. In Portland, for instance, anarchists severely beat an antifa participant for criticizing their indiscriminate violence.   

Anarchists, along with Marxists, Maoists and anarcho-syndicalists, are usually among the most visible, vocal and violent elements that participate in antifa protests. Their respective black, red, and red-and-black flags are a ubiquitous sight at antifa gatherings, and it is no coincidence that many participants wear clothing with the same colors. The anarchist Black Bloc contingent, for example, is usually conspicuous at protests due to its dress, flags and the violence it leaves in its wake.  

Ultimately, there is a long history of anarchist terrorism, both in the United States and around the world. And it is not just a thing of the past. Anarchists frequently mail parcel bombs or conduct fire bombings or other attacks in Mexico, South America and Europe, and many also plan and stage terrorist attacks inside the United States. The Tacoma and Dayton incidents, accordingly, were not the first anarchist attacks to occur in America. Of course, history is also replete with examples of Marxist militancy in the United States and elsewhere from groups such as the Weather Underground and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (both in the United States), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Red Army Faction (Germany) and the Red Brigades (Italy), among many others.

Is it wrong to oppose neo-Nazis and other white supremacists? No. But that does not make the more violent aspects of the antifa movement a noble undertaking.

A Battle Going Back to Nazi Times 

The history of anarchist and communist opposition to fascism is nearly a century old, particularly in regard to Adolf Hitler's Germany and Benito Mussolini's Italy. In Germany, the specter of communism, as evidenced by the domestic public's reaction to the alleged communist involvement in the 1933 Reichstag fire, directly contributed to Hitler's rise to power. And beyond the mere implications for Spain, the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War pitted the global anarchist and communist movements against Europe's fascist states. This leftist opposition to fascism continued through World War II, when communists and anarchists proved to be some of the most successful anti-Nazi partisan fighters in places like Italy, Greece, France and Yugoslavia. After the war, these leftists remained a potent force — even forming the government in Yugoslavia. 

In the end, both fascists and communists/anarchists strived to dominate the world based on diametrically opposed utopian narratives: the Aryan Third Reich versus an international workers' paradise. Both of these ideologies opposed — and continue to do so — the current bourgeois political and capitalist economic system in the United States and the West. They seek to overthrow the current world systems with new orders, which is why it is no surprise that anarchists and communists — whatever their enduring differences of opinion on how to organize society — detest the police as representatives of the state and frequently clash with them during protests. During demonstrations, they also often vandalize businesses and destroy property belonging to multinational companies.

Far from beating back the white supremacist movement, antifa is pouring fuel on the racist fire.

Eliciting Sympathy for the Devil 

Is it wrong to oppose neo-Nazis and other white supremacists? No. But that does not make the more violent aspects of the antifa movement a noble undertaking, as both parties in a conflict can be odious. By way of example, look no further than the battle between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, which disproves the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  

Furthermore, the methods that antifa participants use to oppose white supremacists are clearly at odds with the U.S. Constitution, which grants everyone — no matter how reprehensible their speech is — the right to speak freely or assemble without facing the prospect of physical violence. What's more, antifa's actions against groups such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer not only generate massive amounts of publicity for these extreme organizations, but also sympathy. This benefits white supremacists more than it hurts them — illustrating why they continue to conduct marches in places like Portland, where the well-organized local antifa scene will inevitably take the bait and assault them, reinforcing their narrative that they are an oppressed group. In this way, far from beating back the white supremacist movement, antifa is pouring fuel on the racist fire.

But even if elements that participate in the antifa movement espouse political violence to oppose white supremacists, that doesn't make it a terrorist group — presidential threats to declare it one notwithstanding. Nevertheless, the more forceful aspects of the ideology's direct action are likely to result in disorder on the streets and damage to property, presenting a problem for any person or business that happens to find itself in the way. 

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