Why Don’t We Know Much About Right-Wing Terrorists? Conservatives Fired The Guy Studying Them

After a mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine people dead and a right-wing white supremacist arrested, the country once again faces the uneasy question of just how many so-called “home-grown” terrorists are out there – heavily armed, ideologically driven, and violent.

It’s a good question, but it may be tough to answer because for reasons that are astoundingly dimwitted, the Department of Homeland Security pushed out the guy who was in charge of watching them, and dismantled his team all the way back in 2009.

The beleaguered hero of this story is Daryl Johnson, a top government counterterrorism analyst working at Homeland Security who spent six years with the agency amassing a wealth of data on far-right extremist groups that posed various degrees of threat to citizens in the United States. In 2009, in the months after President Obama assumed office, he watched as these groups veered even further right, and began to fear that America’s first African-American president could be the catalyst of a major uptick in hate crimes and anti-government attacks.

In a landmark report released just months into Obama’s term, and now looks downright clairvoyant, Johnson made the case that radical Islam is only a small piece of the terrorism pie:

“Do not overlook other types of terrorist groups,” the report warned, noting that five purely domestic groups had considered using weapons of mass destruction in that period. Similar warnings have been issued by the two principal non-government groups that track domestic terrorism: the New York-based Anti-Defamation League and the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

An annual tally by the latter group of what it calls “Terror From the Right” listed 13 major incidents and arrests last year, nearly double the annual number in previous years; the group also reported the number of hate groups had topped 1,000 in 2010, for the first time in at least two decades.

In response to that report, Johnson was destroyed. It wasn’t his integrity or claims that got him in trouble, his facts were solid. Instead, it was the inconvenient truth that much of the threat comes from right-wing conservatives, and even more awkwardly, radical right-wing conservatives who say and think a lot of the same things mainstream right-wing conservatives say and think.

Conservative pundits and politicians were incensed by these facts laid bare and demanded heads roll. DHS officials caved and Johnson was shoved out.

Since his departure, Johnson has only been vindicated. President Obama has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats, hate groups have gained ground (and in places like Bundy Ranch actually boldly stood up to the U.S. Government – and won), and, as we’ve seen, white supremacist attacks are occurring with disturbing regularity. In 2012, Johnson gave an interview with Wired magazine where he said:

“DHS is scoffing at the mission of doing domestic counterterrorism, as is Congress,” Johnson tells Danger Room. “There’ve been no hearings about the rising white supremacist threat, but there’s been a long list of attacks over the last few years. But they still hold hearings about Muslim extremism. It’s out of balance.”

We’re reminded of that imbalance again this week. In fact, the evidence has been around us for some time. In an uneasy coincidence, just one day before a white supremacist massacred unarmed men and women in a South Carolina church, the New York Times published an article reminding Americans that right-wing extremism is a clear and present danger. They couldn’t have known how soon they’d be proven right.

[R]ight-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012.

Other data sets, using different definitions of political violence, tell comparable stories. The Global Terrorism Database maintained by the Start Center at the University of Maryland includes 65 attacks in the United States associated with right-wing ideologies and 24 by Muslim extremists since 9/11. The International Security Program at the New America Foundation identifies 39 fatalities from “non-jihadist” homegrown extremists and 26 fatalities from “jihadist” extremists.

But the DHS and most Americans still remain consumed by fears of Islamic terror attacks. That stubborn refusal to face reality does two things: It allows many dangerous people to go unnoticed until they hurt people and it allows the right-wing ideologues who overtly or subconsciously encourage these people (think Texas Gov. Greg Abbott feeding “Obama is invading Texas” conspiracy theories) to wash their hands of it once something inevitably happens. If no one is studying the links, then no one can speak up about what is happening.

And this will play out again and again, until our nation wakes up and realizes the lives of minorities, the safety of children, and truly combating terrorism in all its forms demands that we put our deference to conservative feelings aside and look at the rotting underbelly of the radical right-wing. Pretending it’s not there just isn’t working.

Feature image via Elvert Barnes/Flickr