Here's why you can't ignore violent right-wing extremists when it comes to domestic terrorist attacks. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Eight years ago, I warned of a singular threat — the resurgence of right-wing extremist activity and associated violence in the United States as a result of the 2008 presidential election, the financial crisis and the stock market crash. My intelligence report, meant only for law enforcement, was leaked by conservative media.

A political backlash ensued because of an objection to the label “right-wing extremism.” The report also rightly pointed out that returning military veterans may be targeted for recruitment by extremists. Republican lawmakers demanded then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rescind my report. The American Legion formally requested an apology to veterans. Some in Congress called for me to be fired. Amid the turmoil, my warning went unheeded by Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security caved to the political pressure: Work related to violent right-wing extremism was halted. Law enforcement training also stopped. My unit was disbanded. And, one-by-one, my team of analysts left for other employment. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats.

Since 2008, though, the body count from numerous acts of violent right-wing terrorism continued to rise steadily with very little media interest, political discussion or concern from our national leaders. As this threat grew, government resources were scaled back, law enforcement counterterrorism training was defunded and policies to counter violent extremism narrowed to focus solely on Muslim extremism. Heated political campaigning by Donald Trump in 2016 pandered to these extremists. Now, right-wing terrorism has become the national security threat which many government leaders have yet to acknowledge.

The mere existence of so many heavily armed citizens filled with hate and anger toward various elements of American society is troubling enough in its own right. They number in the hundreds of thousands. More troubling is the violent convergence now underway within right-wing extremist movements — sanitized with the label “alt-right.” Largely under the media radar, disaffected extremist groups with long histories of squabbling have been independently pooling resources, some even infiltrating our government through the outreach efforts of right-wing extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriff’s and Peace Officers Association. Over the past year, we’ve witnessed political violence erupt between right-wing extremist protesters and counterprotesters at pro-Trump rallies in Minnesota, Washington, California and now Virginia. This rebranded alt-right extremist movement has the ultimate goal to disrupt civil society, undermine government institutions and pick which laws — if any — they will abide by, and what supposed “justice” they will administer on their own authority. 

But the story, in a very real sense, didn’t begin in 2017. As with the Waco and Ruby Ridge sieges during the 1990s, the 2014 Bundy standoff in Nevada and the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge siege in Oregon have served not only as recruitment opportunities for anti-government and hate groups, but they also serve as a radicalization facilitator. Why? Because extremists in the 2014 and 2016 standoffs were allowed to take up arms against the federal government and threaten law enforcement officers without suffering any legal consequences.

More recently, the renewed debates over Confederate monuments, same-sex marriage and Black Lives Matter has reinvigorated alt-right extremists to mobilize toward a more radical fringe element capable of violent action at any moment. Of further concern, a new generation of “charismatic leaders” within the white supremacist movement has emerged after Trump’s election, creating an opportunity for disparate groups to unite under one banner.

Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, militia extremists, and other radical right-wing zealots march side-by-side at pro-Trump rallies across the country. Trump’s endorsement of the border wall, the travel ban, mass deportations of illegal immigrants — these ideas were touted on white supremacist message boards merely 10 years ago. Now they’re being put forth as official U.S. policy. Such controversial plans have placated white supremacists and anti-government extremists and will draw still more sympathetic individuals toward these extremist causes along with the sort of violent acts that too often follow, like Charlottesville.

Rhetoric from the president has further emboldened the alt-right. After the violence in Charlottesville, former KKK leader David Duke welcomed President Trump’s remarks: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.” Similarly, other white nationalists praised the president for not attacking them.

America finds itself overwhelmed with domestic terrorist attacks, increased terrorist plotting and the emergence of new polarizing political issues. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has not only failed to implement an effective strategy to combat right-wing terrorism; it is afraid to even raise the subject in public for fear of political backlash or contradicting its narrow-minded terrorism narrative (e.g., terrorism only comes from Muslims).

Extremists no longer hide anymore. They number in the hundreds of thousands and are extremely well-armed. The political apparatus and the news media appears confused in their reporting of the scope of the domestic terrorist threat — some ignoring it completely. When 9/11 happened, the government made an effort to connect the dots beforehand, but failed because of a lack of communication among agencies. In this case, the government isn’t even trying — and worse, it appears to be enabling the threat to flourish.

The Islamist militants who brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers 16 years ago (or the ones who rammed their vehicles into pedestrians in London, Paris and Barcelona recently) had no domestic constituency. Their acts weren’t enshrined instantly on social media or obliquely heralded by the president, duly elected representatives or rationalized by media ideologues dead set on preventing a political backlash. The terrorists I have dedicated my life to stopping have had all that going in their favor. This is more than a formula for disaster. It virtually invites the disaster upon us.

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