Such extremists have been tied to deadly rampages over the past year at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California, and possibly to a mass shooting just last week at a garlic festival in California. The statement posted shortly before the El Paso shooting cited the live-streamed assault on two mosques in New Zealand earlier this year, along with that perpetrator’s sprawling white-nationalist manifesto, as inspiration. (The motive for a killing spree in Dayton, Ohio, mere hours after the El Paso shooting isn’t yet clear.)
Read: Ideology kills. How do you police it?
President Donald Trump, who has stoked fear of immigrants, inflamed racial divisions, and excused the activities of white nationalists, has cut funding for, and in some cases wholly eliminated, initiatives begun under Barack Obama to counter violent extremism (known as “CVE”), including of the white-supremacist variety. But the Obama administration’s efforts also tend to be exaggerated. Today the U.S. government’s CVE programs “largely continue as they have for the past decade: underfunded, understaffed, and focused on individuals influenced by the Islamic State and other jihadi groups more than right-wing extremists,” the extremism experts Seamus Hughes and Haroro Ingram wrote in March.
“The overwhelming majority of our domestic counterterrorism infrastructure is geared toward the threat of international [jihadist] terrorism,” the former Department of Homeland Security official George Selim told me.
The FBI has noted that most of its domestic-terrorism cases featuring a racial motive involve white supremacists. The bureau doesn’t “investigate the ideology, no matter how repugnant. We investigate violence,” FBI Director Christopher Wray explained in July, adding that the agency operates with broad categories of “racially motivated” violence in mind.
Yet domestic terrorism by white nationalists is too often treated as “isolated, unconnected incidents,” argues the terrorism expert Clint Watts. This violence looks different than the sophisticated international jihadist attacks that Americans have come to associate with “terrorism” over the decades. It is carried out by Americans using guns, and thus bound up in the divisive political debate about gun violence. And it is largely a leaderless movement, in contrast to groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, which have identifiable leaders. (In this, it has more in common with homegrown jihadist terrorism.) These differences, however, are deceptive. Watts points out that in recent years, discernible patterns have developed in white-nationalist violence—the recurring targeting, for example, of minorities, and especially of black, Jewish, and Muslim places of worship.
Read: How white-supremacist violence echoes other forms of terrorism
Watts wants Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime (suspected domestic terrorists now typically face gun, conspiracy, or hate-crime charges) and to pass a law for designating domestic terrorism organizations and domestic terrorists (the State Department does this for international terrorists and terrorist groups). He’s also proposed that the FBI director launch a national domestic-terrorism case for “white-nationalist-inspired terrorism,” which would “help the FBI dedicate more resources and personnel to white-nationalist terrorism, may help them detect violent plots earlier, and increase the amount of information for sharing with state and local partners who may be better informed and positioned for thwarting extremist violence.”