The rising threat of domestic terrorism

There was a staggering rise in the number of people killed or injured by white supremacists, anti-government zealots and domestic jihadist extremists in 2017, according to a new report that shows the toll of these smaller-scale attacks is far more widespread than most Americans realize.

The number of incidents has risen steadily since 2014, when there were twice as many as the year before. Extremists have killed 68 people in the past five years.

The Washington Post analyzed data from the Global Terrorism Database, which compiles information on terrorist attacks around the world.

The database defines a domestic terrorism incident as one that takes place in the United States and is carried out by a U.S. citizen or resident, or a noncitizen who is a legal permanent resident.

It includes attacks and alleged plots against specific people, groups and property within U.S. borders.

In 2016, there were 34 such incidents, up from 21 in 2015 and 13 in 2014. In addition to the Charleston church shooting in June 2015, other notable cases last year included an attempted bombing at an abortion clinic in Champaign, Ill. and an attack on a San Diego-area convenience store that was allegedly carried out by two men who identified with the Islamic State extremist group.

The increase over the past three years coincides with heightened fears about terrorist attacks inspired or coordinated by groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.

But most of these incidents are carried out by far-right extremists who target Muslims, blacks, Jews and government entities they perceive as threats to their freedom.

The last decade has seen an uptick in violent extremism of all kinds in the U.S., with Islamic extremism leading the pack, followed by far-right extremism. The number of plots and attacks from white supremacists and other far-right extremists increased between 2010 and 2017, according to data provided by New America.

The organization found that since the 2008 financial crisis, "there's been an increase in right-wing violence," said Peter Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who co-authored a book on right-wing extremist groups. That includes violence from neo-Nazi groups, racist skinheads and anti-government militias.

"I don't know if it's because there are more groups or because they're becoming more active," Simi said. He added that he thinks Trump has helped fuel both sides. "When you have someone espousing racist rhetoric or defending symbols of hate … it helps legitimize those ideas."

Simi said federal law enforcement seems to be taking the threat seriously but not putting enough resources toward combatting it.  "Just based on the cases they've made public, I would say they're only touching the tip of the iceberg," he said.

However, the database shows that far-left incidents were higher than average in 2018 and surpassed the annual average number of far-right incidents. The database, which CSIS describes as "the longest and most comprehensive index of radical violence in the United States," shows that far-left extremist incidents soared from an average of fewer than 10 a year for most of the 1990s and 2000s to 62 in 2018 and 73 in 2019 through Aug. 12.

The database defines far-left extremists as those whose ideology is rooted in anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, or a belief that government is inherently oppressive. It includes groups such as eco-terrorists as well as black nationalists and anti-fascists (Antifa), as well as animal rights and other environmental groups. The largest number of far-left perpetrators come from Antifa groups, who use violence to combat white nationalism and racism.

Some experts say that the surge in far-left extremism was sparked by President Trump's election and his administration's crackdown on immigrants and Muslims and his encouragement of nationalist causes, including holding a rally last summer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to boost support for a wall on the Mexican border.


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