The Road to Radicalism in Charlottesville

Violent extremism—whether in jihadist or white supremacist form—is often driven by the same processes.

White nationalists shelter behind shields, displaying the Southern Nationalist flag.
White nationalists shelter behind shields, displaying the Southern Nationalist flag at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017.  (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

“Of course, it was terrorism,” said General H.R. McMaster on Sunday morning, the day after James Alex Fields, Jr. allegedly plowed his gray 2010 Dodge Challenger into a crowd of anti-white supremacist protestors, then reversed and, bumper dangling by a thread, hit still more people on the way back. When he was done, one person, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was dead and 19 more were injured. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Monday that the attack was an act of “domestic terrorism” and that the Department of Justice was investigating him. Fields is being held without bail on a second-degree murder charge.

In being an act of violence with an apparent political motive, Fields’s alleged actions clearly “count” as terrorism according to most definitions of the term. But there are also parallels between Fields and other terrorists in aspects of his route to Charlottesville.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Fields, but there is evidence that he was an adherent of a violent and extremist ideology. Just hours before he allegedly drove his car into that crowd, he was seen marching with and carrying a shield featuring the insignia of Vanguard America, a known white-supremacist group. According to Fields’s former high-school teacher Derek Weimer, Fields was also infatuated with the Nazis. “It was obvious that he had this fascination with Nazism and a big idolatry of Adolf Hitler,” Weimer told The Washington Post. “He had white supremacist views. He really believed in that stuff.” A paper Fields wrote in high school, according to the teacher, was a “big lovefest for the German military and the Waffen-SS.”

In American political discourse, terrorism is a label often reserved for followers of a violent interpretation of Islam, whereas people who commit violence in the name of extremist far-right ideology based on race are sometimes portrayed as troubled young men, or criminals. The actions of the Trump administration have only deepened that gap. As one of its first acts, the administration reoriented the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program away from combatting white-supremacist groups. Life After Hate, an organization which helps people leave such groups, says it never received a promised $400,000 grant, even as the Southern Poverty Law Center received increased reports of hate crimes and threats in the period immediately after the election. In the months after the election, Life After Hate reported getting a 20-fold uptick in calls from family members, begging for help to pull their loved ones out of violent white supremacist groups.

The policy to shift federal resources away from protecting Americans against far-right extremism is both misguided and dangerous. According to a 2017 study done by the Government Accountability Office, fatal attacks by far-right extremists outnumbered those by jihadists by a factor of two to one in the last 15 years. (They are slightly less effective, however, as the jihadists have killed more per attack.)

Still, the two types of attacks often use similar methods. The attack in Charlottesville, after all, used a signature ISIS technique, one that has also been espoused by the American far-right in targeting Black Lives Matter protesters. “Run them over,” they say. Or, “All lives splatter.” But for the differing death tolls, it looked a lot like the acts of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who plowed an 18-wheeler into a crowded boardwalk in Nice.

Similarly, despite the differences in jihadist and neo-Nazi, white-supremacist ideologies, the two movements and how they attract and retain followers are often studied side by side by scholars of extremism. When the problem of mass recruitment by jihadists emerged in the West, researchers turned for guidance to what they had learned studying the psychology, behavior, and structure of neo-Nazi groups. “It’s an obvious comparison, absolutely,” says Jessica Stern, a leading scholar of terrorist groups.

Take, for instance, Daniel Koehler, founder of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS). He grew up in a small town in East Germany where, after reunification, neo-Nazi culture was all the rage among young locals. But after spending years helping German neo-Nazis leave those far-right groups, he moved into helping families pull their kids out of jihadist movements. And it worked—precisely because the two movements are so similar in how they seduce individuals.

“The process and structure of radicalization and extremism,” J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague, wrote via email, “are the same in different kinds of movements, even when the content of the extremist belief is different (such as with neo-Nazis and jihadists).”

Scholars have often observed a radicalization process that goes something like this: After a first contact with the ideology, a person’s curiosity drives them to seek out more information, often through social media. After trying it on for size, they decide that the ideology sufficiently addresses their grievances, usually by framing it as the result of their group—their Muslim brothers and sisters, or their brothers and sisters in the white race—are being victimized by another group, say infidels or non-white immigrants. Then, the new adherent will consider whether he or she is doing enough to advance the cause, and if the answer is no, the person will act. “Extremist groups rely on a crisis-solution construct,” says Berger. “The in-group”—the ideological group, say, neo-Nazis or ISIS members—“is afflicted with a crisis that is blamed on the out-group”—people excluded from that group as enemies and threats, say, non-believers or non-whites—“and the extremist movement is presented as offering a solution to that crisis, which is often violent. The crisis is defined as being intrinsic to the identity groups involved, rather being than situational or temporary.”

Another parallel is how the recruitment narrative can involve the promise of rewards. With ISIS it was sometimes the promise of wives or sex slaves; the Daily Stormer goaded its followers to head to Charlottesville by saying that “random girls will want to have sex with you. Because you’re the bad boys. ... Every girl on the planet wants [you] now.”

Violence isn’t always the result; few people radicalize in the first place, and still fewer commit attacks after doing so. But what can lead to violence is the many ways in which the process of radicalization is constricting: It alienates you from family and friends, and posits an acute problem to which the ideology demands a solution. After a while, it feels like an emergency every day. “The general psychological process of moving to those movements is very much the same,” says Koehler, who is also a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. “It is a process of de-pluralization and isolation. There is a grievance or perceived threat, and it gets more and more intense until you don’t see any other solution but violence.” Both the jihadist and white-supremacist ideologies, Koehler said, “explain what is wrong in your life, and tie your personal frustration into a global struggle—the global conspiracy against Islam, or against white race—and gives you a chance for significance, for living out a positive, heroic life.” Koehler has even worked with several neo-Nazis who became jihadists. (They’re not common, but some have made it into the news.)

There are few identifiable patterns in who is most susceptible to radicalization; it is, scholars agree, a highly individualized process. In my reporting on radicalization, for instance, many of the youth that joined ISIS came from homes where there was no father, or where he was a weak presence. Fields’s father reportedly died before his birth in a car accident, but scholars say this alone doesn’t predispose someone to radicalization and extremism. Plenty of terrorists come from happy or intact families, and plenty of non-terrorists come from broken ones.

Still, what’s known about Fields shows he had some of the known risk factors. There is evidence that people with mental-health problems are more susceptible to being radicalized. Fields, it seems, fit the bill. His mother repeatedly called 911 on her son, then barely a teenager, who was physically violent with her and once threatened her with a 12-inch knife, according to police records described by The Washington Post. The same report says that in 2011, she told police that she wanted him hospitalized for assessment, and that in 2010 she told them that Fields was on medication to control his temper. Weimer, Fields’s high-school teacher, told the Associated Press that Fields had confided having been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The aggression toward family, especially mothers, is also something Koehler says he has observed in his work. “I have seen that in ISIS radicalization where they’ve been aggressive against their mothers,” Koehler says. “It’s part of the process of de-pluralization. These groups will try to draw a line between the group and ideology, and the biological family. They have to do that so that the recruit can join the new spiritual family, to turn the recruit against the family because otherwise they can step in and interfere in the radicalization. And kids, teenagers, don’t know how to cope with that kind of tension.”

Another sign is fascination with a warrior myth. “It’s very common,” says Koehler. “The ISIS fan boys dream of being Muslim warriors. Warrior hero culture is essential to understanding that specifically male aspect of radicalization.” Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist and author of Life After Hate, wrote that, “Since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of being a warrior.” Fields tried to become a warrior, joining the Army in 2015, and then flunking out in a matter of months after failing to meet basic training requirements. He then worked as a security guard.

There’s one other thing that is the same between jihadi and white-supremacist radicalization: identity. Radicalization is simultaneously an intensely individual and intensely collective process. What draws a person to an extremist ideology, be it jihadism or neo-Nazism, grows out of a unique cocktail of that person’s experiences, frustrations, hopes, and needs. But what keeps them there and propels them toward the final, violent stage comes from a community that first reels them, keeps them engaged, and pushes them toward action. “In my experience, there is no radicalization without a group context,” says Koehler. “It happens within the interaction between individuals. It is impossible to get to the stage of using violence without other people to support you, to push you forward.” There are no true lone wolves, in other words, not in radical Islam, not in white supremacy.