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New evidence shines a light on the right-wing extremist threat

The number of domestic terrorism incidents reached a modern high in 2020, and despite Trump's claims, it wasn't the left that was responsible.
Image: Capitol riot
Rioters attempt to enter the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was memorable for all sorts of unfortunate reasons, most of which related to the Republicans' indifference toward potentially violent right-wing extremists. Trump telling the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by," for example, briefly jolted American politics and sparked celebrations among right-wing extremists.

But as part of the same sentence, the then-president quickly added, "This is not a right-wing problem; this is a left-wing problem." At the same debate, when asked if he was willing to condemn white supremacists and fringe militia groups, Trump shrugged and said, "Sure, I'm willing to do that -- but I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing."

At face value, the politics of these comments made sense: the Republican incumbent saw far-right activists as political allies, so he instinctually tried to divert blame to Americans he perceived as enemies. But there was also a substantive element: Trump wanted Americans to see a far-left menace that eclipsed anything seen on the right.

In reality, of course, everything Trump said on the matter was the opposite of the truth. Fresh evidence to bolster the point reached the public yesterday.

Domestic terrorism incidents have soared to new highs in the United States, driven chiefly by white-supremacist, anti-Muslim and anti-government extremists on the far right, according to a Washington Post analysis of data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The surge reflects a growing threat from homegrown terrorism not seen in a quarter-century, with right-wing extremist attacks and plots greatly eclipsing those from the far left and causing more deaths, the analysis shows.

The evidence compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was striking in its scope and implications: the number of domestic terrorism incidents reached a modern high in 2020, and despite Trump's declarations at last fall's debate, it's not the left that's responsible.

The Washington Post's report added, "Since 2015, right-wing extremists have been involved in 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities, the data shows. At the same time, attacks and plots ascribed to far-left views accounted for 66 incidents leading to 19 deaths.... More than a quarter of right-wing incidents and just under half of the deaths in those incidents were caused by people who showed support for white supremacy or claimed to belong to groups espousing that ideology, the analysis shows."

Among the most common targets in these domestic terror incidents are mosques, synagogues, Black churches, abortion clinics, and government buildings, which have been "threatened, burned, bombed and hit with gunfire over the past six years."

As chilling as this information is, there's reason to believe the federal government, especially in the post-Trump era, is confronting the scourge in a serious way.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the New York Times reported a couple of months ago, "The Biden administration will examine if additional F.B.I. agents are needed at the bureau's field offices to address the threat of domestic violent extremism, a senior administration official said on Friday."

The day before that article was published, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said his panel would do a "significant dive" into anti-government extremists in the United States, including questions surrounding radicalized groups' possible connections to foreign allies.

And two weeks before that, as NBC News reported, the Biden White House announced a major initiative aimed at overhauling the government's approach to domestic terrorism, ordering intelligence agencies to conduct a "comprehensive threat assessment" into what officials say has become a pressing national security challenge.

The shift in focus is welcome, but just as importantly, it's long overdue. NBC News recently reported that former Department of Homeland Security officials -- from Democratic and Republican administrations - agreed that among the agency's recent difficulties has been a failure to focus on "the rise of domestic threats" during the Trump era.

The NBC News report added, "[I]t was the four years of inadequately monitoring and communicating the rising threat of right-wing domestic extremists that ultimately led to DHS' failure to prevent" the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol, according to former DHS officials.

Around the same time, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration "diverted" federal law enforcement and domestic security agencies, pressuring officials to "uncover a left-wing extremist criminal conspiracy that never materialized," even as "the threat from the far right was building ominously."

The Times' report added that the FBI, "in particular, had increasingly expressed concern about the threat from white supremacists, long the top domestic terrorism threat, and well-organized far-right extremist groups that had allied themselves with the president." Those concerns were not prioritized.

Fortunately, that's clearly changed. As David Ignatius noted in a recent column, the United States is "finally catching up" to the threats posed by domestic extremists.