Domestic terror in the age of Trump

“I will say now that it appears that federal law enforcement agencies have not taken the deadly and increasing dangers posed by White nationalist hate groups as seriously as foreign terrorist threats.”

Reveal News: Domestic terror in the age of Trump


A new database of domestic terror incidents shows attacks by far-right extremists have become far more lethal since Donald Trump became president.

By David Neiwert | Jul 9, 2020

The sun sets on a memorial left outside an El Paso Walmart. Flowers and balloons crowd around a sign that says "El Paso Strong." A Mexican flag and US flag fly behind the memorial.
A makeshift memorial honors victims of the mass shooting that left 23 people dead at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019. CREDIT: Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.

Patrick Crusius is the quintessential Trump-era terror suspect: a White man, radicalized online, enmeshed in White nationalist ideology, directly inspired by preceding acts of terror and fueled by the angry belief that White men like himself are being “replaced” by brown-skinned immigrants.

“America is full of hypocrites who will blast my actions as the sole result of racism and hatred of other countries,” he wrote in his four-page manifesto, posted on 8chan just before he allegedly murdered 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last August. “This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe.”

The horrific mass killing was promptly characterized by both journalists and authorities as an act of domestic terrorism: “There’s a statutory definition of domestic terrorism,” U.S. Attorney John Bash of the Western District of Texas said the day after the attack – violent plots or acts intended for a domestic target, with the goal of instilling fear and furthering ideological goals. “This meets it.” The attack, he said, “appears to be designed to intimidate a civilian population. … And we’re going to do what we do to terrorists in this country, which is deliver swift and certain justice.”

Yet had the attack occurred only a few years earlier, there may have been a debate over whether Crusius should be considered a terror suspect at all. When Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, then-FBI Director James Comey demurred when asked whether Roof’s act constituted terrorism. And Roof himself never faced terrorism charges. As recently as last July, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that, despite the evidence, “jihadist-inspired violence” remained “the greatest terrorist threat to the homeland.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 7, 2017. CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The sea change in awareness of the domestic threat has come late. In the decade leading up to the Trump presidency, law enforcement failed to adapt as the right-wing threat grew in the United States. Nine years of domestic terror incidents compiled by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Type Investigations and published in 2017 exposed a mismatch of efforts, with law enforcement focused on Islamist radicals with ties to overseas terror organizations, even as the primary source of domestic terror incidents, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, came from the far right.

Over the three years since, that picture has come into focus, as far-right domestic terror has become far more deadly.

That threat exploded into public view in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of Unite the Right, a violent ingathering of far-right extremists. Hundreds of them, from across the country, marched to the University of Virginia’s campus with tiki torches aloft, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” The next day, after an eruption of violent melees, a young neo-Nazi drove his car at full speed into a crowd of peaceful counterprotesters, maiming nearly two dozen and killing a 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer.

The incident had an immediate impact on the public perception of terrorism – including, crucially, among law enforcement and elected officials. It had become clear that a terrorist could look like the White man next door. Robert Bowers’ alleged attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a year later, which left 11 dead and six injured, only cemented that shift .

The nation’s political gears engaged, as Congress pressed the issue in hearings on Capitol Hill. In April 2019, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on “Hate Crimes and the Rise of White Nationalism,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the committee chair, sought to address the problem by citing Reveal and Type’s database:

“I will say now that it appears that federal law enforcement agencies have not taken the deadly and increasing dangers posed by White nationalist hate groups as seriously as foreign terrorist threats. The Center for Investigative Reporting … found that there were nearly twice as many attacks perpetrated or attempted by right-wing extremists, 115, compared to those identified as Islamist domestic terrorism, 63. The report also concluded that right-wing extremist attacks were more often deadly. … In fact, only 13% of Islamist cases caused fatalities. By contrast, nearly a third of attacks committed by right-wing extremists involved fatalities.”

The FBI began to respond as well. This February, Wray testified to Nadler’s committee that he had finally placed “racially motivated violent extremism” at the agency’s highest threat level, comparable to that assigned to terrorism by Islamic State actors. He said he had created a domestic terrorism and hate crimes “fusion cell” to better leverage law enforcement resources. “The danger, I think, of White supremacist violent extremism, or any other kind of violent extremism, is of course significant,” he said in testimony before another House committee the previous April. The bureau, he said, had assessed it as a “persistent, pervasive threat.”

“We’re particularly focused on domestic terrorism, especially racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” Wray told the Judiciary Committee at a subsequent hearing. “Not only is the terror threat diverse, it’s unrelenting.”

Reveal and Type have now updated the database to include domestic terror attacks and plots from 2017 through 2019, the first three years of the Trump administration. What emerges from the data is a portrait of the homegrown terrorist that is far removed from the specter that dominated the American imagination in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The perpetrators and alleged perpetrators were not always identifiable by race and gender – some were never arrested, and the race of many others was not specified in law enforcement, prison or court records. But those who were identifiable are 92% male and 51% White. A minority of plots and attacks (31%) involve Islamist extremists, while the majority (60%) involve those steeped in far-right ideologies, whether White supremacist, militia, anti-government Sovereign Citizen, or other forms of ideological racism and anti-Semitism.

Left-wing terrorism, by stark contrast, hardly appears in our domestic terrorism tallies at all. Despite Donald Trump’s recent rhetoric about antifascists – tweeting that the United States would declare “Antifa” a “terrorist organization” – only one incident in the entire 12-year span of our database can be attributed to a self-identified “antifascist.” That was Willem Van Spronsen’s thwarted attack on an immigrant detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, in July 2019. Just four terror incidents from 2017 through 2019 involved left-wing extremists, or 4%.

The most striking finding is a dramatic increase in lethality on the far right: The 87 people killed by far-right terrorists over the first three Trump years – 145 if we include the 58 killed in the October 2017 shooting rampage in Las Vegas – far outstrip the 17 killed by Islamists or the four killed by left-wing extremists.

That’s, conservatively, 87 deaths in three years, compared with the 46 killed by far-right extremists over the final three years of the Obama administration – a dramatic shift in lethality over a short period of time.

Yet law enforcement priorities remain skewed. The database shows that during the first three years of the Trump administration, cases involving Islamist extremists were preempted 18 times, compared with seven completed attacks, or 72% – a powerful indicator of the resources federal agencies poured into such probes. In contrast, a minority of right-wing extremist cases were preempted – 18, compared with 30 realized attacks, or 37.5%.

Other indicators suggest a continuing law enforcement fixation on Islamists. More than half of the 25 Islamist cases in the 2017-2019 database arose from sting operations. But sting ops were involved in only six of the 48 cases involving right-wing extremists, or 12.5%. Prosecutors also were far more likely to file terrorism charges against Islamist radicals (22 out of 28 cases, or 79%) than against right-wing extremists (12 out of 46 cases, or 26%), among cases with living suspects. Islamists also faced federal charges far more often – 25 of 28 cases, or 89%, compared with a little over half – 25 of 46 – of right-wing extremist cases.

All of which suggests that law enforcement agencies, at the federal, state and local levels alike, are struggling mightily to keep up with the shifting realities of domestic terrorism in the 21st century – and particularly during the age of Trump.

Young suspects like Patrick Crusius are a major reason why: Their connections to real-world organizations in which law enforcement can effectively operate are much more tenuous, their motives much harder to unwrap and their plans for violence much harder to detect. If earlier generations of far-right ideologues joined groups with identifiable members and uniforms, the new generation is more diffusely organized, consuming and participating mainly in online culture.