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It’s time to get serious about white nationalist terrorism

Yes, gun control would help. But confronting violent white extremists requires a broad counterterrorism strategy that employs sophistication, resources and persistence.

Shoppers exiting with their hands up after a mass shooting at a Walmart
Shoppers exiting with their hands up after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday.
REUTERS/Jorge Salgado

The Global War on Terror turns 18 next month, having been a focus of U.S. policy since the Sept. 11 attacks — at a cost of perhaps $6 trillion. It’s about time to stop pretending that Islamic extremists are the only terrorism risk, and get serious about white nationalists. 

To start, President Trump needs to stop pandering to white supremacists. And important as the national debate about guns is, treating the attack that killed 20 people in El Paso on Saturday as only a gun control issue misses something essential. It is part of a pattern of violence by militant white nationalists in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. America has more deaths in part because America has more guns. But the impetus is the same.

The Sept. 11 attacks made the terrorism problem impossible to ignore. While President George W. Bush stressed that he didn’t regard all Muslims as the enemy, the campaign quickly got out of control. Largely driven by the military and the intelligence community, it came to encompass torture, the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the stain of Guantanamo. 

Even now, no one is arguing that the threat has been eliminated. But Americans seem to be slowly moving on. The Islamic State has been greatly diminished, and a Pew Research Center survey found that the number of Americans who regard it as a major threat dropped 15 percentage points in two years. U.S. news outlets reported the death this past week of Osama bin Laden’s son, who was thought to be his heir apparent in Al-Qaeda. 

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The Taliban, which shielded Bin Laden, hasn’t been defeated. Even so, Trump is eager to get out of Afghanistan, as are most of his potential Democratic opponents. Officials are negotiating the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops in exchange for concessions from the Taliban, including a pledge not to back Al-Qaeda.

Instead, El Paso is in the headlines after the attack by a 21-year-old man federal officials say posted an anti-Latino screed online. In June, a regional official in Germany who had supported bringing refugees to the country was gunned down, allegedly by a neo-Nazi. In March, 51 Muslims died in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Last October, 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. There have been attacks in other countries including Canada, Australia and Sweden. 

Just like Islamic militants, these attackers were radicalized online. Yet Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was hierarchical, which made it vulnerable to intelligence agencies, police work and military attack. Today’s terrorists of all varieties are most often “lone wolves” who may cause less damage but are much harder to track.

Many violent white nationalists draw inspiration from Anders Breivik, the young Norwegian who killed 77 people in meticulously planned gun and bomb attacks in 2011. J.M. Berger, a terrorism researcher, argues that Breivik’s attack was a turning point because it showed how much mayhem one person could cause. 

This analysis indicates there were nearly 350 white extremist terror attacks in the United States, Europe and Australia between 2011 and 2017, and tracks their connections. The period coincides with a spike in migration to Europe and highlights an important point about the link between immigration and terrorism. 

A study published in May found that increases in migration do indeed lead to more terrorism – but not in the way people might think. The only increase in terrorism is by aggrieved members of the radical right. 

In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate hearing in July that the agency made nearly as many arrests on domestic terrorism charges in the previous nine months as on international charges. Of the domestic arrests for racially motivated offenses, a spokeswoman told the Washington Post, the majority were believed to be linked to white supremacy

Erin Miller, who manages a database of terrorism activity at the University of Maryland, says right-wing or domestic terrorism is often regarded as “terrorism lite.” In the best case, that means white supremacists haven’t gotten as much attention as Islamic militants. In the worst case, it may expose a tendency to rationalize their behavior.

Wray’s comments indicate that at least parts of the federal government are on to the problem. But Trump’s unwillingness or inability to come to grips with it prevents authorities from tackling it head-on – and probably makes it worse. While he does condemn violence by white supremacists, he often equivocates. He has a bad habit of retweeting racists and xenophobes. And he wants to virtually shut the border. If it’s true that right-wing attacks increase along with immigration, you could argue that ending immigration might reduce such violence – except that you’d be blaming the victims, and doing nothing to protect people inside the country.

Trump would do well to model Bush — at least before the latter let the war on terror run off the rails — by being clear about who is at fault, and focusing the power of the federal government on them. But don’t hold your breath.

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Trump’s opponents need to understand that while gun control and white supremacist violence intersect, they are distinct problems. Gun control would help. But don’t let this issue be captured in the dead-end debate about guns. Confronting violent white extremists requires a broad counterterrorism strategy that employs sophistication, resources and persistence.

For everyone, it starts with being clear that targeting innocent people to make a political point is terrorism – period — no matter who the victim is, and no matter who does the killing. It’s pretty basic.