For much of the past 50 years, white-supremacist groups were largely relegated to the fringes of American society, where they continued to survive, if not thrive, as a shameful artifact of history. Yet today they are finding a geopolitical landscape that has grown permissive, or even supportive, of their rhetoric and activities—and we need to do more to combat them. The recent decision of the FBI to elevate racially motivated violent extremism to a “national threat priority” is a strong start. These malign actors are terrorists, and that’s what we should call them. What’s more, we need a comprehensive domestic-terrorism law, one that would help bring the full weight of our laws and resources against the unaddressed and violent manifestations of racism that still persist in American culture today.
Too many of today’s white-supremacist groups have taken unchecked strides to rebrand themselves as part of the contemporary political mainstream, emphasizing “heritage” or pseudoscience to mask their true, violent intentions. Identifying and prosecuting such organizations for the terrorist groups that they are—just as the international community rightly fought against the Islamic State’s attempts to brand itself as the true voice of Islam—denies these groups the credibility and narrative that they so desperately seek.
When I was commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a particular tool greatly improved our ability to fight terrorist organizations and minimize their influence: the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation. This mechanism, which is managed by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, allows for the sanctioning of foreign organizations—including travel restrictions, the freezing of assets, and legal ramifications—for any group that does business with the entity in question. Without this designation, organizations such as the Haqqani network would still to this day be operating freely in support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
J. M. Berger: The strategy of violent white supremacy is evolving
Creating a similar “Domestic Terrorist Organization” designation, or at minimum, including foreign white-supremacist groups on the FTO list, would help us more effectively counter such groups.
This course of action raises some difficult First Amendment questions. Yet without this designation, violent actors can exploit loopholes in the existing panoply of laws aimed at restricting their ability to do harm. Indeed, a radical white nationalist who’s a U.S. citizen and who attacks individuals with a knife, or runs a vehicle through a crowd, is in most cases not eligible for prosecution as a terrorist under current U.S. law. However, were this individual associated with an organization on the FTO list—linked to some form of traditional foreign terror group—then the full measure of the law could be used to bring this individual, and the organizations with which he is affiliated, to justice. It is time we introduce consistency in our legal parameters regarding terrorism.