Last month, the State Department designated a Russian white supremacist group, the Russian Imperial Movement, as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions on three of its leaders. The designations identified this group as providing training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe, which resulted in attacks carried out by two individuals in Sweden. The State Department described its action against the Russia Imperial Movement as “unprecedented." Indeed, it was the first time financial sanctions have been used to target a white supremacist group. One State Department official said that “we are taking actions no previous administration has taken to counter this threat.”
These designations, which freeze the assets of the targets subject to U.S. jurisdiction, are a welcome step. The Trump administration, however, should hold off on the self-congratulations. The threat of domestic and international right-wing extremism is greater than it has been in decades.
In October 2019, 40 members of Congress signed a letter to the State Department identifying numerous global right-wing extremist groups, including the Azov Battalion and National Action. And many other groups and individuals have been identified by allies such as Britain, Canada and Germany. Just last month, the United Nations committee dedicated to countering terrorism warned of “a recent increase in … frequency and lethality” of far right-wing terrorism, mentioning incidents in New Zealand, Germany and the United States. The report cites studies identifying a 320 percent rise in extreme right-wing attacks globally over the past five years.
The Department of Homeland Security has stated that “white supremacist violent extremism … is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism.” Law enforcement agencies have been increasingly turning their attention to the domestic white supremacist threat. But the U.S. response to the global threat has lagged. The White House’s 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism focuses almost exclusively on radical Islamist terrorism, with only a brief nod to white supremacy and far-right extremism.
The administration’s action against the Russian Imperial Movement has the potential to be the start of a meaningful campaign against global right-wing extremists. But without an intelligent and aggressive follow-up strategy, the move risks becoming an empty, symbolic gesture.
We know what it looks likes when the U.S. government puts its mind to the targeting and dismantling of global terrorist organizations. The Treasury Department has led sanctions campaigns to dismantle their financial networks. Since 9/11, hundreds of individuals and entities in the global financial networks of such organizations as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Hezbollah have been identified by the Treasury Department and thus isolated from the international financial system, depriving these groups of critical income.
After the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin released a statement implying that he intended to use Treasury’s tools to target such groups. As of now, however, the number of Treasury Department designations of white supremacist groups is exactly zero.
If the Trump administration is serious about targeting the financial infrastructure of white supremacist groups, here’s what it would look like. When the U.S. government sanctions a terrorist group, the objective is to go after the entire network and make it harder, costlier and riskier for them to operate. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies collect information to identify the group’s financiers and methods of raising and moving funds. The agencies then map the financial and other support networks, including whether groups have ties to the United States, which has been reported in the case of the Russian Imperial Movement.
One of the important tools in the war on terrorist groups is long-term, sustained, Treasury Department-led efforts to apply waves of sanctions against these groups, their financiers and facilitators. Beginning with the group itself and its inner circle, these sanctions campaigns unfold over months and even years, gradually targeting entire facilitation networks. The end goal is to cut the group off from its financial supporters and make it far more difficult for it to access the international financial system. With global terrorism groups on the rise, the Treasury is in no shortage of targets — the list of terrorist groups that Congress identified last October, as well as the groups allied nations have identified, are both good places to start.
This approach is no silver bullet. Despite many years of U.S. government efforts, terrorist groups still manage to raise and move funds. And as with any police power, without appropriate due process protections and safeguards to protect basic freedoms and liberties, it can be subject to abuse and overreach.
If the Trump administration really wants to demonstrate its commitment to fighting white supremacy globally, it should follow up the State Department’s action with a full-scale Treasury Department financial campaign to bankrupt white supremacist groups throughout the world and cut them off from the international financial system. It is long past due for the United States to treat white supremacist groups as the dangerous threat that they are.