By Seth G. Jones
Right-wing extremism in the United States appears to be growing. The number of terrorist attacks by far-right perpetrators rose over the past decade, more than quadrupling between 2016 and 2017. The recent pipe bombs and the October 27, 2018, synagogue attack in Pittsburgh are symptomatic of this trend. U.S. federal and local agencies need to quickly double down to counter this threat. There has also been a rise in far-right attacks in Europe, jumping 43 percent between 2016 and 2017.
The threat from right-wing terrorism in the United States—and Europe—appears to be rising. Of particular concern are white supremacists and anti-government extremists, such as militia groups and so-called sovereign citizens interested in plotting attacks against government, racial, religious, and political targets in the United States.1 The October 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting by Robert Bowers, and the arrest a day earlier of Cesar Sayoc who sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, appear to be the most recent manifestations of this trend. Both perpetrators were far-right extremists. Although violent left-wing groups and individuals also present a threat, far-right-networks appear to be better armed and larger. There also is a continuing threat from extremists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. But the number of attacks from right-wing extremists since 2014 has been greater than attacks from Islamic extremists. 2
With the rising trend in right-wing extremism, U.S. federal and local agencies need to shift some of their focus and intelligence resources to penetrating far-right networks and preventing future attacks. To be clear, the terms “right-wing extremists” and “left-wing extremists” do not correspond to political parties in the United States, such as Republicans or Democrats. Opinion polls in the United States show that most Republicans and Democrats loathe terrorism. 3
Instead, right-wing terrorism commonly refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities whose goals may include racial, ethnic, or religious supremacy; opposition to government authority; and the end of practices like abortion.4 As Bruce Hoffman writes, right-wing terrorists generally criticize the democratic state for “its liberal social welfare policies and tolerance of diverse opinion—alongside its permitting of dark-skinned immigrants in the national labor force and of Jews and other minorities in positions of power or influence.” 5 Left-wing terrorism, on the other hand, refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism; focus on environmental or animal rights issues; espouse pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; or support a decentralized sociopolitical system like anarchism.6
The rest of this brief is divided into four sections. The first examines the growth of right-wing terrorism in the United States. The second examines its evolving nature in the United States, including the use of the internet and social media. The third assesses the challenge of far-right extremism in Europe. The fourth discusses policy implications.