Insights Aug 02, 2021

Understanding Domestic Extremism in the 21st Century

Jon Zimmerman, Data Scientist

In his testimony before the United States House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee on September 17th, 2020, Christopher Wray, FBI Director stated, “The greatest threat we face in the homeland is that posed by lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons. We see this lone actor threat manifested both within domestic violent extremists (DVEs) and homegrown violent extremists (HVEs), two distinct sets of individuals that generally self-radicalize and mobilize to violence on their own. DVEs are individuals who commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and anti-government sentiment.  HVEs are individuals who have been radicalized primarily in the United States, and who are inspired by, but not receiving individualized direction from, foreign terrorist organizations (1).

Several months later, on January 6, 2021, the United States Capitol was stormed during a protest of the 2020 US Presidential election by right-wing supremacists, militias, and other extremist groups.  As a result of this riot, 5 people lost their lives, 138 police officers were injured, and extensive physical damage to the Capitol occurred tallying more than $30 million in repairs and security measures.  In another congressional hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2nd, 2021 following the riots, Christopher Wray stated “January 6th was not an isolated event.  The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.  At the FBI, we’ve been sounding the alarm on it for a number of years now (2).” 

It is difficult to determine if the tragic events of January 6th could have been prevented, but to mitigate future attacks, it is essential to understand the warning signs and identify the trends that led to past domestic terrorism plots.  This blog post analyzes the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. 

The PIRUS dataset contains deidentified individual-level information on the backgrounds, attributes, and radicalization processes of over 2000 violent and non-violent extremists who adhere to far right, far left, Islamist, or single-issue ideologies in the United States covering 1948 through 2018 (3).   

In order to be eligible for inclusion, each individual must meet one of the following five criteria:

  1. the individual was arrested; 
  2. the individual was indicted of a crime; 
  3. the individual was killed as a result of his or her ideological activities; 
  4. the individual is/was a member of a designated terrorist organization; or  
  5. the individual was associated with an extremist organization whose leader(s) or founder(s) has/have been indicted of an ideologically motivated violent offense 

In addition, each individual must: 

  1. have been radicalized in the United States 
  2. have espoused or currently espouse ideological motives, and
  3. show evidence that his or her behavior are/were linked to the ideological motives he or she espoused/espouses (4) 

As Christopher Wray stated, most of the domestic terrorists we see today were radicalized online.  Other non-internet radicalization methods have waned since the 1990s.  This trend is apparent for all 4 of the radicalization ideologies (far right, far left, Islamist, and single-issue). A large spike in internet-radicalized individuals’ actions coming to light (exposure) is observed for both far right and Islamist ideologies in 2008-09 and continued to climb until the mid 2010s.   

These radicalized individuals were broken down into various categories to determine who is most vulnerable to radicalization.  We found that most of these individuals were men between the ages of 18-29, single (never married), never enrolled in the military, had earned at most a high school diploma, and were regularly employed at the time of exposure.  Within these groups, most of these individuals subscribed to the far right ideology.  Of the individuals that were single (never married), about an equal number of them subscribed to either the far right or Islamist ideology. 

To further understand the differences between the ideologies and what motivates these individuals, they were further categorized into their primary belief systems.  Twenty-nine percent of these individuals were categorized as White supremacists/KKK/Neo-Nazis, 24% were labeled as Islamists, followed by 9% who were described as “Anti-Government.”   

Among the far left, the largest portion of individuals were labeled as “Animal rights/environmentalists” (40%), New Left (primarily 1960’s student movements/anti-Vietnam War) (27%), and Black Nationalists (22%).  Far right individuals were most often labeled as White supremacists/KKK/Neo-Nazis (63%), anti-government (21%), militia/gun rights advocates (8%), and xenophobic/anti-immigrant (6%).  Individuals who subscribed to the Islamist ideology only recorded one primary belief system, Islamist (100%).  Single issue extremists were labeled as “anti-abortion” (46%), members of the “Jewish Defense League” (21%), Puerto-Rican Nationalists (21%), and “anti-gay” (10%). 

Regardless of belief system, the threat of violent extremism is only getting worse.  Since 1948, there were a total of 662 attempts of violent extremist plots, 78% of which were successful.   Forty-five percent of successful executions of violent plots occurred since 2008. For individuals subscribing to the far left ideology, an increase in non-violent activities and a decrease in violent activities was observed.  For individuals who align with the far right ideology, an increase in both violent and non-violent activities was recorded.  For individuals who followed the Islamist ideology, an increase in violent activities coupled with consistent levels of non-violent activities was observed. 

Finally, it is important to understand what actions have been taken against these radicalized individuals to deter future radical behavior.  Seventy-eight percent of all radicalized individuals have been charged with a felony and 8% have been charged with a misdemeanor.  Most individuals were involved in violence against person(s), training and/or seeking training, conspiring to kill/injure, committing violence against property/arson, and illegal protest/criminal trespassing.

Thankfully, the majority of individuals (51%) have either been convicted or were under arrest and awaiting trial at the time of coding.  However, still a large portion of individuals (22%) were still at large.

Much work is still needed to mitigate the impacts of domestic terrorism in the United States.  Understanding who these individuals are and what motivates them is only the first step.  We need to be more cognizant of the influence social media plays with the spread of misinformation and take steps to educate those who are most vulnerable to radicalization.  It may not be possible to completely stop the next attack, but if we take more calculated steps now, we can be better prepared.