RIM’s designation, however, is less significant than it might appear — and may not actually suggest that the U.S. government has made stopping white supremacist terrorism a priority. Here’s why.
The United States has strong and weak ways of designating “terrorists.” This is a weak one.
Many outlets reported that the United States had designated RIM a “foreign terrorist organization.” But this term has a specific meaning in U.S. law — and in this case, the United States didn’t apply it.
The U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list criminalizes anyone who provides support to any organization on the list, including by joining that organization. These organizations must operate overseas, and they must meet the federal definition of “terrorist activities.” Though some policymakers have called the list “largely symbolic,” it can be a powerful national security tool. For example, the FTO list is the basis for prosecuting many of the U.S. nationals who joined the Islamic State.
But the State Department classified RIM as a “specially designated global terrorist” (SDGT), which is a much more limited measure. An SDGT designation means that the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control applies sanctions to the individual or organization that has been designated. In plain language, the United States can apply financial sanctions to the group, but it can’t prosecute any current or future members of RIM based on their membership in the group alone.
In other words, even in this one instance, the United States has not criminalized white supremacist activity at the same level that it has criminalized extremist Islamist activity.
The U.S. chose an obscure target
RIM is not a household name in the United States, in large part because it operates elsewhere. RIM works primarily with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and neo-Nazi organizations in Scandinavia. It was most recently connected — loosely — to a 2017 bomb plot targeting asylum seekers in Sweden. Unlike other international white supremacist organizations, such as Combat 18 or Generation Identity, it has not been linked to high-profile attacks.
So why did the U.S. government choose RIM as the first white supremacist organization to designate as “terrorist”? State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales said that RIM met the “standards for designation,” including facilitating terrorist attacks by providing weapons and combat training. But this criterion also applies to numerous other such groups, such as another Eastern European militant organization, the Azov Battalion, which 40 members of Congress have asked the State Department to designate.
RIM may have been easier to designate, since it’s an obscure organization that was not likely to raise objections from U.S. policymakers. Many higher-profile white supremacist organizations have stronger connections to the United States. But by making RIM the first pick, the United States limited the broader impact of its first white supremacist terrorist designation.
The U.S. could have chosen a group that operates domestically
On March 9, Politico reported that the State Department was considering designating at least one violent white supremacist group as a foreign terrorist organization. The most likely candidate at the time, according to officials, was the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), a neo-Nazi organization responsible for the murder of a gay Jewish teenager and several plots to attack nuclear power facilities.
The designation of the AWD wouldn’t have had many practical consequences from a counterterrorism perspective. Six AWD members have been convicted and sentenced under existing U.S. law, and the FBI arrested five more alleged AWD members in February. The organization was already decimated by the time the State Department pondered a designation.
Still, designating the AWD would have been a more significant policy maneuver than designating RIM. This is because the AWD operated primarily in the United States, though it also has cells in Canada, Germany and elsewhere. Rules for terrorist designation in the United States require designees to be foreign entities, and the State Department has historically interpreted this to mean organizations based outside the country. Still, not treating domestic white supremacist violence as “terrorism” reduces the credibility of the Trump administration’s claim that countering white supremacy is “a top priority.”
What this all means is that the administration’s designation of RIM is less consequential than media reports suggest. The United States has not legally designated a white supremacist organization as a “foreign terrorist organization.” It didn’t choose to apply its first white supremacist terrorist designation — a symbolically important move — to a particularly well-known organization. And this designation alone does not demonstrate that the United States treats white supremacist violence as a serious threat.
Anna Meier (@annameierPS) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.