Homegrown Threat

02.13.15 10:15 AM ET

Report: Domestic Terrorists Attack Every 34 Days

Would-be members of anti-government groups are instead striking out on their own—becoming ‘lone wolves’—committing 74 percent of U.S. terrorism since 2009, according to a new report.

The radical anti-government groups that thrived after the election of Barack Obama are having trouble attracting potential new recruits, who are scared off by the “social cost” of being exposed as members. That’s the good news in a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The bad news is that these people—and they’re all over the Internet—are moving into what the SPLC calls “Lone Wolf” violence, or “Leaderless Resistance.” “What we think is happening is very large numbers of people are leaving bricks and mortar groups for the Internet,” says Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the SPLC and editor of the report. “The action is in cyberspace these days.”

Potok cited the example of Republican leader Steve Scalise, who was excoriated for having spoken to a white supremacist conference. “He was able to hang on to his job and post, but it was very, very costly, and that’s what’s making people move away from these groups,” Potok says. A second factor prompting people to strike out on their own, or in very small groups, is frustration with the lack of action in bigger organizations.

“They get tired of the meet, eat, and retreat crowd, all the talk about the evils of black people, gay people, Muslim people,” he says. “They get sick of all the talk, and they’re moving out on their own and begin to shoot.”

The murder of three Muslim students this week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, raised questions about whether the shooter’s motivation might have been animus toward Muslims and not just a dispute over parking, as has been claimed. “It’s very hard to disentangle,” says Potok, noting that the women wore headscarves and that one of the slain women had told her father she felt uncomfortable around the neighbor who ultimately turned his gun on her.

Islamist-driven terrorist attacks dominate the headlines today, but more Americans are killed by domestic non-Islamist terror, an uncomfortable reality that is documented in the SPLC’s “Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism.” The report covers 2009 to 2015, the period Obama has been in office, and finds that a terrorist incident took place or was disrupted every 34 days.

Of the 63 terrorist acts documented, 74 percent were committed by a lone wolf. Once pairs were included, a man and a woman, or a couple of buddies, 90 percent of all domestic terror was accounted for, whether it was Islamist or some other form of hatred or anti-government ideology. Another finding: Those who commit domestic terror are much older than those who commit other crimes. “We are not in any way trying to dismiss the jihadist threat,” says Potok, “but there’s a huge amount of carnage that is carried out by the domestic radical right, and let’s not forget that.”

The political sensitivity of these issues is evident in the lead-up to next week’s White House summit on countering violent extremism. Obama has taken heat mostly from the right for his reluctance to label the current terrorist threat as Islamist-driven. At the same time, the SPLC and other groups, mostly on the left, want a broader focus and don’t want to vilify Islam. The White House is committed, “at least on paper,” says Potok, to look at all forms of violent extremism, Islamist-based, non-Islamist, foreign, homegrown and lone wolf, and the SPLC’s CEO will be at next week’s summit.

After a series of horrific incidents culminating in the immolation of a Jordanian pilot and the confirmation of the death of Kayla Mueller, a young American aid worker, “There’s a very strong temptation to look at it as Islamic-inspired,” says Potok, and that will inspire bias against Muslims. He cites a survey done by LifeWay, a Christian research company that found 27 percent of all Americans and 45 percent in a sample of 1,000 senior Protestant pastors see the self-proclaimed Islamic State as the true face of Islam.

The SPLC report credits Louis Beam, an early ’80s KKK leader in Texas, with popularizing the concept of “leaderless resistance” in a seminal (for the white supremacist movement) 1983 essay he wrote about the dangers of large, top-down groups. Beam urged his followers to move into single or small-cell terrorism, no more than six men, an idea that was picked up and adopted by white supremacists, and also by jihadists.

Raising the topic of homegrown terrorism in the context of the ongoing national outcry over Islamist-fueled terrorism is politically explosive. The Obama administration got an early taste of how the subject can spin out of control when then Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano released a report in 2009 on right-wing extremism that said these groups are interested in recruiting returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with military skills. Construing the report as an attack on veterans, the right was outraged, forcing Napolitano to apologize to the American Legion, among others, and withdraw it.

The timing of the SPLC report is an effort to put the terrorist threat in context. The effort is likely to get pushback, just as Obama did at last week’s prayer breakfast when he reminded the religious leaders that this is not the first time crimes have been committed in the name of religion, or in his interview last week with Vox when he said climate change poses a greater threat to national security than terrorism. In releasing the report, the SPLC is seeking to “find a balance that’s in line with reality.” That’s an elusive goal when the No. 1 threat in most people’s minds is Islamist-based terrorism from abroad, not our fellow Americans.