This analysis appears in the Special Issue on Countering Hate and Violent Extremism of the Peace Science Digest in collaboration with Thought Partnerships.
This analysis summarizes and reflect on the following research: Ware, J. (2020). Fighting back: The Atomwaffen Division, countering violent extremism, and the evolving crackdown on far-right terrorism in America. Journal of Deradicalization,(25), 74-116. https://journals.sfu.ca/jd/index.php/jd/article/view/411
- Although arrests and a proposed Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation worked in dismantling the Atomwaffen Division (AWD), the immediate rebranding of the group under a new name undermines the success of the law enforcement response.
- Characteristics of the far-right movement—including lone-wolf terrorist activity, the use of social media, a penchant for vicious rhetoric, and attachment to a distinct accelerationism ideology—underscore how a group-centered law enforcement approach is ineffective in addressing far-right violence.
- A more effective approach to countering far-right violent extremism would center on four priority areas: addressing rampant conspiracies, preventing radicalization on social media sites, engaging in a public health approach beyond just law enforcement, and formalizing and expanding exit paths for those seeking to renounce hatred and racism.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
- In practice, a public health approach for confronting violent extremism would emphasize prevention at three levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary. This framework embraces a more nuanced approach to addressing a range of causes and risk factors at the societal and individual levels, shifting the focus away from radical ideologies to violence prevention based on evidence-based risk factors.
In early 2020, the U.S. government targeted the Atomwaffen Division (AWD) and its counterpart the Base though arrests and a proposed Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation, thus contributing to the disintegration of AWD. However, AWD leaders soon rebranded under a new organization—National Socialist Order. Moreover, the landscape of far-right extremism in the U.S. is evolving. Neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations are being joined by conspiracy theorist movements (e.g., QAnon) and anti-government groups (e.g., Boogaloo Boys), all of which pose a dangerous and imminent domestic terrorism threat. Counterterrorism experts and some law enforcement officers are calling for new tools to address violent extremism. In response, Jacob Ware provides an instructive analysis of AWD and the limitations of the law enforcement response. He illustrates the similarities between AWD, the Base, and the broader, evolving far-right extremism movement. Based on his analysis, he proposes “bolder and more transformative policies” to address the evolving threat of far-right extremism in the U.S.
Violent extremism: The “use or support [of] violence to advance a cause based on exclusionary group identities.”Even on the basis of this definition, violent extremism can take many forms—from identity-based hate crimes to acts of terrorism and large-scale, organized political violence—and, as such, encompasses a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that transcend precise categorization.
SFCG. (2017). Transforming violent extremism: A peacebuilder’s guide. Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transforming-Violent-Extremism-V2-August-2017.pdf
Although arrests and a proposed FTO designation worked in dismantling AWD, the immediate rebranding of the group under a new name undermines the success of the law enforcement response. Moreover, the law enforcement approach did little to impact the broader far-right extremism movement that poses a violent and imminent threat to the American homeland.
Several characteristics of AWD and the Base are relevant to the broader community of far-right extremist individuals and groups, including domestic and transnational groups. Rather than orchestrating indiscriminate terrorist attacks, far-right extremist groups provide an ideologically extreme outlet to channel and exploit the non-ideological vulnerabilities of its members, including a history of mental illness and ongoing social isolation. AWD, the Base, and the broader community of far-right extremists have demonstrated an adeptness with social media and a penchant for vicious rhetoric. The echo chambers created in the online environment give way to increasingly radical language and plans, which increase the likelihood of “breakaway lone actor violence.” AWD and the Base both tapped into the broader “accelerationism” strategy, which has evolved from a fringe movement into a distinct ideology of the far-right movement and has inspired at least twelve extremist organizations.
Accelerationism: an ideology embraced by neo-Nazis and white supremacists that aims to collapse the government and establish a white-dominated system. To hasten the collapse, these groups deploy violence to sow chaos and create political tension.Beauchamp, Z. (2019, November 18). Accelerationism: The obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world. Vox. Retrieved on July 12, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/11/20882005/accelerationism-white-supremacy-christchurch
The lone-wolf nature of far-right terrorist attacks, the increasingly violent rhetoric stemming from an anonymous online environment, and the proliferation of far-right ideology renders the government’s group-centered, law enforcement approach to counterterrorism inadequate in preventing the spread and appeal of far-right extremist groups. Arrests and FTO designation fail to deter lone-wolf terrorism, especially when members enjoy the anonymity of the online environment. As demonstrated in the AWD case, the elimination of one extremist group via direct targeting by law enforcement is unlikely to deter the larger, transnational movement, as new groups can emerge seamlessly. Furthermore, the far-right extremism field is evolving to include not only neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology but also extremism hinging on conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiments. Thus, the author proposes a more effective strategy to counter far-right violent extremism, centering on four priorities.
First, addressing rampant conspiracy theories is essential, as they are a key element in political extremism. For instance, recent coronavirus conspiracy theories have inspired attempted violence against hospitals and care centers. Conspiracy theories emerge in societies with high levels of distrust because adherents are motivated more by distrust of official narratives than by certainty in the conspiracy theories. To restore trust in legitimate news sources, public figures can be more disciplined about their use of the term “fake news,” distinguishing fact-based reporting from sensational reporting that is not assiduously fact-checked. To prevent future radicalization, online infrastructure should be developed to slow the spread of falsehoods.
Radicalization: “[T]he path that leads an individual to endorse or commit a politically motivated act of violence.”
Vergani, M., Iqbal, M., Ilbahar, E., & Barton, G. (2020). The three Ps of radicalization: Push, pull and personal. A systematic scoping review of the scientific evidence about radicalization into violent extremism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 43(10), 854-854.
Second, preventing radicalization on social media sites is critical in the fight against far-right terrorism. The author identifies the “redirect method” pioneered by Moonshot in which at-risk individuals are rerouted to alternative, benign content online when flags are raised. Identifying vulnerable young people on social media and halting their progression into extremist ideologies and communities is especially important considering the membership of AWD, the Base, and other like-minded groups is predominantly young.
Third, a whole-of-society approach must be deployed, including an ecosystem of actors and programs beyond law enforcement. Crucially, a public health approach must be adopted as there is ample evidence of the link between mental health vulnerabilities and far-right lone-wolf terrorism.
Lastly, exit paths for those seeking to renounce hatred and racism must be formalized and expanded. Deploying “formers” in the deradicalization space could facilitate a smoother exit path as advocated by the nonprofit Parents for Peace. Most importantly, countering violent extremism work should be done through nonprofits, as there is a potential for politicization and backlash with any government-led efforts at deradicalization. The author warns we cannot arrest ourselves out of extremism. Although law enforcement approaches were effective in stymieing AWD, these methods had little impact on the larger far-right extremism movement that remains an active threat to Americans.
Deradicalization: “[A] cognitive shift—i.e., a fundamental change in understanding [with regards to the values or ideals that motivated violence].”
Fink, N. C., & Hearne, E.B. (2008, October). Beyond terrorism: Deradicalization and disengagement from violent extremism. International Peace Institute. Retrieved September 7, 2021, from https://www.ipinst.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/beter.pdf
The author recommends adopting a public health approach to confront far-right extremism. In practice, what would this approach look like? In the world of healthcare, prevention can occur at three levels: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary prevention is focused on preventing the disease from occurring in the first place. Secondary prevention is targeted toward a specific audience susceptible to the disease. Lastly, tertiary prevention is meant to cure an individual with a specific disease. Likewise, a public health model for preventing political violence would emphasize prevention at these same three levels. Primary prevention refers to a broad range of activities undertaken by educators, social-service providers, and healthcare professionals to mitigate societal grievances that have been shown to contribute to political violence. Community and societal risk factors for political violence would be addressed under primary prevention. Some of these factors include socio-economic grievances, lack of social services, and stigma associated with mental health. Addressing these risk factors at a societal level to reduce political violence would mitigate unnecessary and counterproductive targeting of individuals that pose limited or no risk, as has historically been the case with countering violent extremism (CVE) programs in the U.S.
Secondary prevention focuses on identifying at-risk individuals—those experiencing several “push” and “pull” factors of violent extremism—and preventing their radicalization. (See “Researching the Causes of Radicalization and Violent Extremism: What Do We Know?” in this special issue.) As the author mentions, the online environment is a primary source of far-right radicalization, thus secondary prevention should be targeted at reducing radicalization on the internet and social media. The “redirect method” employed by Moonshot is an excellent example of countering radicalization in the online environment. Additionally, efforts could be directed at bolstering community engagement to increase social belonging for isolated community members outside of the internet.
Lastly, tertiary prevention is designed for individuals already radicalized, those who either have planned to commit or have already committed an act of political violence. Importantly, this requires coordination and trust among several stakeholders, especially at the local level. The perpetrators of the deadliest violence of the far-right movement have primarily been lone-wolf actors. In many of these cases, there was little evidence beforehand of an impending terrorist attack. After years of discriminatory application of CVE policies and rampant distrust of authority, some communities may be reluctant to flag at-risk individuals. Community members must have confidence that an at-risk individual will receive appropriate intervention, not be needlessly criminalized or locked away. Therefore, interventions at this tertiary level should attend to individuals’ basic needs—for instance, for identity and belonging, for a sense of purpose, for gainful employment, for mental health support—the non-fulfillment of which may have drawn these individuals into extremist groups in the first place.
Applying a public health lens to countering violent extremism is not a new thought—as early as 2016 there were reports outlining this framework. Yet, as the author suggests, the necessity of its adoption is just as pertinent. A public health framework facilitates the development of a more nuanced approach to addressing a range of causes and risk factors at the societal and individual levels. Crucially, this approach would shift the focus away from radical ideologies to violence prevention based on evidence-based risk factors. Ideology is undoubtedly a factor in far-right violence, however long-term vulnerabilities, such as a history of mental illness, and short-term instabilities, play a more significant role in radicalization. [KH]
- What are some barriers that have prevented the adoption of a public health approach to confronting domestic terrorism?
Zerkel, M. (2019, June 28). Stopping Islamophobia. American Friends Service Committee. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://www.afsc.org/story/stopping-islamophobia
Garcia, M. (2019, April 3). A public-health approach to countering violent extremism. Just Security. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://www.justsecurity.org/63455/a-public-health-approach-to-countering-violent-extremism/
Beauchamp, Z. (2019, November 18). Accelerationism: The obscure idea inspiring white supremacist killers around the world. Vox. Retrieved July 12, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/11/20882005/accelerationism-white-supremacy-christchurch
National Security Critical Issues Task Force. (2016). Countering violent extremism: Applying a public health model. Georgetown University Center for Security Studies. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/NSCITF-Report-on-Countering-Violent-Extremism.pdf
Parents for Peace: https://www.parents4peace.org/
Keywords: Atomwaffen Division, violent extremism, countering violent extremism, United States, far-right terrorism
Photo credit: Robert P. Alvarez