FBI agents walk around the roof outside an apartment during an investigation at a building, Sept. 19, 2016, in Elizabeth, N.J. FBI agents are searching the apartment that tied to Ahmad Khan Rahimi wanted for questioning in the New York City bombing.

FBI agents walk around the roof outside an apartment during an investigation at a building, Sept. 19, 2016, in Elizabeth, N.J. FBI agents are searching the apartment that tied to Ahmad Khan Rahimi wanted for questioning in the New York City bombing. Mel Evans/AP

Why Is New Jersey Grouping American 'Black Separatists' with ISIS?

The state’s new terror-group ranking raises more questions than it answers.

As government agencies increasingly turn their attention to “homegrown terrorism,” it’s important to note who’s being targeted and who isn’t. Reuters reported this week that President Trump might be refocusing the federal “ Countering Violent Extremism ” program, which deploys resources for monitoring groups such as white supremacists and militias, into a program that focuses solely on acts of terror committed by Muslims . The Southern Poverty Law Center says this would be a bad idea .

“In recent years, we’ve seen a series of deadly terrorist attacks from homegrown extremists inspired by white supremacist or antigovernment ideologies, such as the massacre at the Charleston church in 2015,” writes Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “But now it appears that President Trump wants the government to stop its efforts to prevent terrorism by far-right extremists. This is dangerous and unacceptable.”

The campaign for rooting out homegrown terrorists doesn’t just rest within the federal government: There is a patchwork of states and cities that have their own versions of homeland security offices, many of which are tracking local extremist groups. New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness is one worth taking a look at. Its yearly terrorism threat assessments employ a color-coded system similar to the kind that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security phased out in 2011 , and places threats in three categories: “low,” “moderate,” and “high.”

The 2017 Terrorism Threat Assessment reserves its highest threat level for homegrown violent extremists (“HVEs”) who are influenced by terrorist networks like ISIS. This is not unique—most homeland security agencies are on high alert for such individuals given the recent shooting and bombing attacks in Orlando, Boston, and New Jersey. But this year, “black separatist extremists” and “anarchist extremists” were elevated from a previously “low” threat level to the “moderate” category. This enhancement places them in the same ranking assigned to Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, “white supremacist extremists,” “sovereign citizen extremists,” and “militia extremists.”

(New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness)

The reason listed for elevating anarchists among this company: “Last year, this group organized and directed counterprotests during white supremacist rallies and incited violence during anti-law enforcement and post-U.S. presidential election protests.”

The elevation of “black separatists”—defined in the report as “individuals or groups that seek to establish an independent nation for people of African descent”—is also tied to police protests. The report notes: “Last year, [black] extremists killed eight and injured 17 in response to perceived police brutality—compared to zero such incidents in 2015.”

These numbers sound dramatic until you take a closer look at the math. Those deaths and injuries were the result of three incidents, all of which have a flimsy association with black separatist extremism.

Those three incidents:

The two African Americans responsible for the Baton Rouge and Dallas events, Gavin Long and Micah Johnson, have been linked to black separatist groups, though the connections are tenuous. Johnson was briefly a member of the New Black Panther Party, but got kicked out years before he launched his attack. Long expressly stated in a video before his attack that he was not affiliated with any groups like the Nation of Islam or ISIS. He was later identified as a member of the Washitaw Nation , which is chiefly a sovereign citizen group, though it has separatist-ish leanings . The Phoenix incident is the most curious inclusion, for reasons I’ll get to later.

CityLab asked the New Jersey homeland security office for their files on these incidents that show the role of black separatist ideology in these attacks. Rosemary Martorana, the office’s director of intelligence, said she doesn’t share her methodology with the public, but shared news clippings where reporters attempted to make these connections, though unconvincingly.

One thing the attackers do hold in common, though, is that they all expressed anger about the increasing tide of publicized videos of police killing African Americans. All of the attackers were also falsely identified at some point with Black Lives Matter. Anger against law enforcement, of course, doesn’t justify taking police lives in retribution. But SPLC’s Mark Potok says “it’s a bit of a stretch” to paint the police ambushes as “black separatist” extremism.

“The reality is that [Long and Johnson] acted entirely on their own,” says Potok. “These attacks did not come out of black nationalist groups, they were individuals who were mentally unstable. Dylann Roof read the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens and then decided that black people were raping women and had to die. But we wouldn’t raise the threat level of the CCC because they didn’t send him to go murder people. In the same way, the New Black Panther Party didn’t send these guys out to go murder police officers.”

The organization that Long and Johnson had strongest ties to was the U.S. military. Long reportedly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder , possibly developed from his tour in Iraq. So why has there been a rush to associate these police attackers with black groups?

What about white supremacists?

What’s telling in the NJ report is that it also lists an increase in white supremacist attacks in 2016—these, in fact, constituted the majority of race-based attacks last year, both in incidents and the number of people killed and injured. Many of those attackers profiled in the report are directly linked to white supremacist groups and ideology. Meanwhile, hate crimes in general against people of color have been ascendant , especially after Trump was elected , and far outnumber race-biased incidents against white people. This was true for 2015 as well, as the FBI reports. And yet the threat assessment level for white supremacists went unchanged—listed as a “moderate” threat in both years.

(FBI Uniform Crime Reporting)

In New Jersey’s threat assessment, the white supremacist category doesn’t include militia groups, though those are mostly—if not exclusively—white.Perhaps militias don’t subscribe to white supremacist ideology, but the activities attributed to militias in the report sound pretty close to it:

Publicly, militia extremist groups are beginning to identify professed non-government threats. In October 2016, a Kansas militia plotted to bomb an apartment complex housing a mosque used by Somali immigrants. Additionally, in November 2016, the founder of a national militia group hosted a webinar providing instructions on how to set up neighborhood “Kill Zones” after the US presidential election—a response to his anticipation of “intruders” “suspending the democratic process” or “legitimizing the implementation of emergency powers and martial law.” Examples of “intruders” included political, civil-rights, terrorist, and race-based groups.

What the New Jersey threat level assessment suggests, then, is that a handful of incidents loosely ascribed to “black separatist extremists” constitute a growing threat, even though white supremacist attacks far outnumber them.

Such designations are not without consequences—they inform law enforcement policy. As the NJOHSP director Christopher Rodriguez writes in the report :

These circumstances dictate that the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) redouble its efforts to produce finished intelligence that informs local action, invests more personnel and resources in strategic partnerships at the federal, state, and local levels, and directly engages the public in awareness campaigns that push the “See Something, Say Something” message.

So what happens when a person sees something like an African-American group expressing outrage over police violence, and then says something like, These people are terrorists?

The Black Lives Matter connection?

These threat assessments wouldn’t be so harmful if they didn’t come during a time when ire against police violence is increasingly being described in terrorist terms. Some call for Black Lives Matter to be labeled as terrorists or a hate group . Law enforcement organizations have appropriated the Black Lives Matter slogan for a spate of laws that enhance sentencing for actions that are considered antagonistic toward police—even nonviolent actions.

There is a deadass-serious civil complaint that was filed in September by the email server / voter fraud-truther group Judicial Watch and a Dallas police officer against: George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, DeRay McKesson, the New Black Panther Party and Black Lives Matter. Reads the complaint:

Defendants have repeatedly incited their supporters and others to engage in threats of and attacks to cause serious bodily injury or death upon police officers and other law enforcement persons of all races and ethnicities including but not limited to Jews, Christians, and Caucasians. Thus, Defendants, each and every one of them, jointly and severally, conspiring and/or acting in concert either expressly or otherwise, are inciting and causing serious bodily injury or death to police officers and other law enforcement persons of all races and ethnicities, Jews, and Caucasians.

This kind of grouping would be laughable, if not for the real implications. Consider the veiled message sent to Black Lives Matter on Trump’s first day in office, when staffers wrote on the White House website : “The dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America is wrong. The Trump Administration will end it.”

Meanwhile, the White House has mentioned nothing about the quantifiably more dangerous anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, or anti-LGBTQ atmosphere in America. Donald Trump has spoken only a few sentences on that kind of terrorizing activity in a “60 Minutes” interview last November.

Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, speaks much louder. As recently as October 2015, Sessions praised a 1924 immigration law that had the express mission of banning non-white people from entering the U.S. Sessions was also awarded the “Keeper of the Flame” award in 2015 from the Center for Security Policy, an anti-immigration organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group .

Immigrants aren’t the Center for Security Policy’s only target. Last September, the organization attempted to marry Black Lives Matter to Hamas in a blog post on its website. The argument ends on this anecdote:

The same day this article broke, three Phoenix, Arizona police officers were run over by a black driver who intentionally targeted them. Israel has been having these hit and run attacks by automobiles driven by Arabs as part of the “Intifada” for a long time. The Phoenix attack is a major news story in the USA, but the plethora of car attacks by Arabs against Israeli civilians and police get almost no mention in the mainstream Media. It is this writer’s opinion that the Phoenix attack is a harbinger for the same tactics being shared by Black Lives Matter and Hamas as mentioned in this article. Hatem Bazian’s call for an Intifada in America is just starting. The driver who struck the police officers, Marc Laquon Payne, is an acolyte of the Black Panther Party which is part of the BLM/Black Liberation movement/Hamas connection.

The Marc Laquon Payne attack in Phoenix is one of the three police ambush incidents included in the New Jersey threat assessment report, attributed as a black separatist extremist act of terrorism. However, there is little evidence that Payne was an “acolyte” of—or affiliated with—any group at all.

Payne posted some angry posts about police brutality on his social media accounts, but as the Anti-Defamation League wrote in a blog about him: “These profiles and postings do not reveal membership or affiliation with any specific groups, but do illustrate a liking or admiration for a variety of black nationalist extremist groups and causes.”

Meanwhile, court documents suggest that Payne’s attack on the police officers was driven not by ideology, but by drugs and alcohol .

“These attempts to drag groups into responsibility for individual lone-wolf shooters are really misguided,” says Potok. “What if Payne liked the ‘Trump for President’ Facebook page—would we be saying that Trump is then responsible for the attack?”