The fight against ISIS offers some lessons—but also a cautionary tale on U.S. failures to combat an ideology.
During the war with the Islamic State, I sometimes heard U.S. officials and analysts express something like relief that the group had declared a “caliphate” with recognizable borders in Syria and Iraq, even flying its flag atop Mosul’s historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri. A state was something the U.S. military could take away. An ideology is much harder to defeat. That’s the problem America faces as it grapples with the threat of white-nationalist terrorism today.
Against ISIS, America deployed drones, proxy armies, and hundreds upon hundreds of air strikes. The extremist protostate that once controlled millions of people is dead. The ideology that inspired ISIS, however, remains alive. U.S.-led efforts known as “countering violent extremism,” mainly aimed at ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers online, were of debatable utility. U.S. air strikes took out ISIS propagandists, just as an Obama-administration-authorized drone strike years earlier in Yemen killed one of al-Qaeda’s most effective messengers, the U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Yet his videos remained on YouTube until 2017, and the same basic ideas have continued to fuel terrorist attacks throughout America’s two-decade War on Terror. I remember the earnest passion one al-Qaeda member displayed, at his home in southern Turkey, as he played me a speech from someone he reverentially called “The Sheikh.” Osama bin Laden had been dead for almost three years, but the man was sure that if I just heard the logic of his words, it would open my eyes.
Last weekend’s shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which a gunman targeting Hispanic immigrants killed 22 people at a Walmart, is the latest in a series of painful reminders that Americans are under attack by adherents of another extremist ideology. U.S. authorities were quick to label it an act of domestic terrorism, amid a growing chorus of voices calling for Islamist and white-nationalist extremism to be treated as similar threats. “FBI classifies it as domestic terrorism, but ‘white terrorism’ is more precise. Many of the killers are lone-wolf losers indoctrinated to hate through the internet, just like Islamic terrorists,” Rod Rosenstein, who was the Trump administration’s deputy attorney general until May, wrote on Twitter. “Condemn and deter racists before they shoot, as we do terrorists and other violent criminals.”
Experts who have focused on both types of extremism—Islamist and white nationalist—tell me that a fundamental change in the way America views the latter would indeed help combat it, freeing up law-enforcement resources to address the growing problem. FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress last month that the bureau made about 100 domestic-terrorism arrests in the past nine months, putting it on pace to surpass the total from the previous year, and that the majority of the suspects were motivated by white supremacism. Since 9/11, far-right extremists have killed more people on American soil than Islamist terrorists have.
But U.S. struggles in combatting the ideology of Islamist extremism offer a sobering reminder of how difficult fighting the white-nationalist version will be. The comparison also underscores a key problem, one that ISIS and al-Qaeda never forced Americans to face: What if the center of an extremist militant ideology is not in some lawless region of the Middle East or South Asia, but in America itself?
The El Paso attack shows the ways in which white-nationalist terror has become an international movement—while also remaining a distinctly American one. Just minutes beforehand, a manifesto that authorities believe was authored by the suspected shooter was posted online. The 2,300-word racist and anti-immigrant diatribe expressed the fear that white Americans are being replaced by foreigners. As my colleague Adam Serwer has documented, the idea of white replacement, like the tenets of white nationalism more generally, has American roots. And these ideas are central to white-nationalist extremists in other countries. The manifesto cited inspiration from the March massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which a white supremacist shot and killed 51 people after posting his own rambling warnings about white replacement. Many attacks by white supremacists target the groups demonized in this propaganda: the black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina; the Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable,” the manifesto read.
In this sense, Islamist militant terrorism is an easier enemy. Shades of that ideology exist nowhere on the mainstream American political spectrum, but some of the central tenets pushed by white-nationalist terrorists are extreme iterations of ideas on the American right. President Donald Trump has never called for violence. But he has hinted and winked at it. He has demonized immigrants and Muslims since the early days of his presidential campaign. And he has used dehumanizing language when talking about people of color—a predominantly black congressional district is “disgusting, rodent and rat infested”; predominantly black countries are “shitholes.” He has referred to illegal immigration by Hispanics as an “invasion.”
Because the language of white-nationalist terrorism can echo the language of Trump and his allies, it raises difficult questions about how to enable U.S. authorities to better address the problem.
At the moment, there is a significant disparity in the amount of funds, personnel, and law-enforcement tools that America devotes to combatting Islamist versus white-nationalist terrorism. Finding a way to add white nationalists to the list of U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations could help address that, Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told me. It would lower the bar for law enforcement to be able to charge a person for providing material support to white-nationalist terrorists. It would allow investigators to get warrants to monitor their international communications. The Treasury Department could look into their finances and perhaps issue sanctions. U.S. investigators would have more leeway to explore whether individual attacks and plots were part of a larger network. (Alternatively, as the former FBI agent Ali Soufan has proposed, laws surrounding domestic terrorism could be changed to provide authorities with similar powers.)
But all of this is unlikely to happen in America’s political climate. “I think you’re going to have a question on the right about whether this is an end-around to targeting political beliefs. And on the left you’re going to have the same organizations that have been concerned about privacy and civil rights [surrounding U.S. efforts to target Islamist extremism] being concerned about this, regardless of the ideology,” Hughes told me. “It’s one of those things that sounds good as a talking point, but when you start to get into the weeds of it—are you going to designate a local Klan chapter, and how does that address the First Amendment?—I don’t think we’ve had that conversation yet.”
Instead, he proposed some more realistic measures. In the wake of the Charleston shooting in 2016, the Obama administration created a domestic-terrorism council within the U.S. Department of Justice, but it needs more staff and resources. The mandate of the National Counterterrorism Center could be reinterpreted to include a broader reading of terrorism that would allow it to focus on better analyzing and understanding the threat from white-nationalist extremism. “There are FBI agents who focus on the issue,” Hughest said, “but they don’t have the staff or resources international terrorism has.”
The fact that none of this has happened yet speaks to the politics surrounding the issue. In his remarks after El Paso, Trump did put the focus on the ideology behind the attack. “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy,” he said at the White House on Monday. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
On Tuesday, the FBI Agents Association issued a statement urging Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime. “This would ensure that FBI Agents and prosecutors have the best tools to fight domestic terrorism,” it said.
Designating white-nationalist extremists as terrorists would only be “a tool,” George Selim, a former Department of Homeland Security official who has held positions in the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, told me. “But in order to figure out what tools we need, the federal government has to articulate its policy and strategy to combat and thwart this threat. And this administration has no articulated policy or strategy to combat domestic terrorism, period.”
During the Obama administration and the first months of Trump’s presidency, Selim headed an interagency task force aimed at combatting domestic extremism, before taking a post at the Anti-Defamation League in the summer of 2017. DHS has since “devastated” his former office, he said. (DHS officials have pushed back against similar claims, saying that resources were redirected.) As an example of the type of large-scale effort he believes the U.S. government should now be pursuing against white-nationalist terrorism, Selim cited America’s fight against ISIS and the international coalition it assembled to join the effort in 2014. “We saw a whole-of-government effort come together and mobilize,” he told me. “The basic premise here is that the federal government needs the same tools and resources for investigating, prosecuting, and preventing the type of radicalization and recruitment we put into [fighting] international terrorism.”
Not everyone, though, sees U.S. efforts against Islamist extremism through a positive lens. The journalist Murtaza Hussain offered a wry take on the subject on Twitter: “Treating white nationalist terrorism like radical Islamic terrorism: putting lots of white people in jail who have nothing to do with terrorism, making most of them too afraid to donate money to charity or engage in politics openly, drone strikes on majority white rural areas.”
Faiza Patel, a co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, has focused extensively on civil-liberties issues arising from U.S. efforts to combat Islamist extremism. She told me that she’s uncomfortable with the idea of another expansion of law-enforcement powers, no matter which group they target, and added that the FBI and other agencies already have enough tools to do the job. The question, she said, is the amount of resources they allocate for the problem and how seriously they take it. “If you were to expand the idea of foreign terrorists to include domestic groups, you would open up a Pandora’s box,” she told me. “Maybe we can all agree that there are certain white-nationalist groups that should be designated, but it also opens the door to the designation of environmental groups, of Muslim civil-rights groups, of a whole slew of other groups.”
The designation of a terrorist group is based in large part on the acts of violence it commits, but Patel pointed to the case of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran as one example of how the designation can be fluid. The group got itself removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012 after professing to reject violence and spending years lobbying aggressively in Washington, D.C. Declaring which groups are terrorist, Patel said, can often be “a political game.”
Republicans have already offered a preview of this. Last month, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas put forward a nonbinding resolution seeking to label members of the antifascist group known as antifa as domestic terrorists.
“A lot of your willingness to tolerate the government getting involved in investigating ideologies depends on how much you trust the person in charge and which ideologies you think are okay,” J. M. Berger, the terrorism researcher and author of Extremism, told me.
He underlined some fundamental distinctions between the threats from groups such as ISIS and white-nationalist terrorists. “It’s always going to cost more to deal with al-Qaeda or ISIS, because you have to span the globe, you have to deploy a lot of international assets and resources, and you have to have alliances,” he said. “On the other hand, jihadist terrorism is fundamentally less threatening to Americans than white-supremacist terrorism, because jihadis and their sympathizers were never anywhere close to political power and anywhere close to popular power in this country. So it has much more potential to damage American society.”
Attacks such as the one in El Paso mirror the sort of ISIS attack that became more common as its caliphate deteriorated. Whereas ISIS operatives once planned and coordinated attacks such as those in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016, it eventually grew more dependent on random acts of violence by so-called lone wolves inspired by the group’s ideology. These relatively unsophisticated atrocities—driving a truck into a crowd, for example, or shooting up an Orlando nightclub—paled in comparison to the type of terrorist operations with which Americans became familiar on 9/11. But they were effective at making the threat seem like it could come from anyone, anytime, and at turning people’s suspicions on one another.
Part of ISIS’s goal was to provoke civil strife in Western countries by turning Muslims and non-Muslims against one another. But even as ISIS fades from the concerns of many Americans, a wider unrest seems only to be intensifying in U.S. society.