The Most Significant Terrorist Threat to the U.S.

With the death of Osama bin Laden nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, American perceptions of terrorism continue to be anchored in concerns about Al Qaeda and the threat posed by Muslim extremists. While the danger posed by international terrorism is great, another threat exists in our own backyard. The Department of Homeland Security…

With the death of Osama bin Laden nearly 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, American perceptions of terrorism continue to be anchored in concerns about Al Qaeda and the threat posed by Muslim extremists. While the danger posed by international terrorism is great, another threat exists in our own backyard. The Department of Homeland Security in 2009 labeled “lone wolves,” or white supremacists not affiliated with white-supremacy groups or organizations, “the most significant domestic terrorist threat.”

While some individuals hold racist views, white supremacists actively pursue policies that would seriously undermine the civil rights of minorities, women, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and some religious minorities including Jews. Neo-Nazis, skinheads, and the Ku Klux Klan are all examples of white-supremacy groups. Beyond differences in appearance, there is a great deal of diversity both within and between these groups with divisions based on religion, ideology, tactics and even what they should call themselves. For example, some reject “supremacist” in favor of “separatist,” as they have the goal of creating a whites-only state, while others prefer “white nationalist” or even “white power.” All of these ideological differences create conflicts as well as motivate attempts to create alliances.

Discomfiting though it may be, understanding the goals and ideologies of white supremacists is crucial for countering the security threat posed by some of these groups. In the late 1990s, my adviser and mentor, Dr. Betty Dobratz of Iowa State University, co-authored a book on white supremacists called White Power, WhitePride! Interested in her research, I began to accompany her as she conducted interviews with both leaders and rank-and-file members of white-supremacist groups, and I even attended some events, including a neo-Nazi book burning held in a St. Paul park in 2007. As a result, we have quantitative and qualitative data from both interviews and questionnaires received from more than 150 white supremacists.

After Betty and I, along with another colleague, wrote a textbook for political sociology students that included a chapter on terrorism, we became interested in the potential threat of domestic terrorism posed by some white supremacists, so we examined ourinterview and questionnaire data to see what we could illuminate regarding the perceptions, ideologies and beliefs of white supremacists. Specifically, we are interested in views toward the use of violence and leaderless resistance to achieve the goal of a whites-only state. We have traveled to three international conferences held in Sweden, Turkey and Greece to present our findings and recommendations for law enforcement and policymakers.1

Lone-Wolf Terrorists

Domestic terrorism experts fear lone-wolf terrorists because they are difficult to detect until after a tragedy occurs. One of the most infamous examples is the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. None of the conspirators was affiliated with a terrorist group, although Timothy McVeigh had ties to militia groups and was angry with the federal government for its handling of the standoff with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the shootout with federal agents on Ruby Ridge that killed three people, including two members of Randy Weaver’s family. While there is no evidence that McVeigh was allied with racist groups, he shared with white supremacists both a distrust of the federal government and a belief that both Waco and Ruby Ridge are tragic examples of federal government overstepping.

Our interview data confirm that white supremacists consider Ruby Ridge and Waco as “trigger” events that reinforced perceptions of government persecution and resulted in greater advocacy for the use of leaderless resistance.

One interviewee described how his experience at Ruby Ridge was a turning point for him: “I didn’t really understand … until then the kind of fight we are up against – the kind of people we were dealing with and how true it really was that our government was corrupt to the point of no return. That changed my life completely.”

Waco and Ruby Ridge are powerful trigger events for white supremacists not only because of the loss of life, but because women and children also were victims. A former member of Aryan Nations told us, “The government proves its tyrannical reign by incidents such as [the] Randy Weaver incident – where the government sieged the man’s family, murdered his wife and his son … incidents … like Waco where they burned women, children and men.”

Interviewees suggest that incidents like these also help them recruit more members. One declared, “It sounds terrible to say but when the federal government goes in and kills Randy Weaver’s wife and son and when they kill these people in Waco and so forth – I mean, you can’t have a better salesman for our cause than the federal government.” Because of these events, some white supremacists have advocated for a two-pronged approach that maintains traditional white-power organizations alongside leaderless resistance.

Leaderless resistance is a lone-wolf strategy that relies on a small group of individuals who share the ideology of an unaffiliated above-ground organization and commit acts of violence that advance organizational goals. Because these individuals do not have formal ties to the organization, it is almost impossible to hold organizations accountable when lone wolves commit crimes. It is also more difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate these groups or coerce individuals into becoming informants.

Leaderless resistance has been popularized by influential white supremacists as a way to deal with the success of the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Center. SPLC pioneered the use of lawsuits and civil penalties to hold several white-supremacist organizations liable for criminal actions committed by members. The resulting civil penalties accompanied by bankruptcy have weakened or ruined several prominent white-supremacist organizations.

Despite increasing calls for using leaderless resistance, some white supremacists question its effectiveness. One interviewee expressed this view when discussing the Oklahoma City bombing: “The stupid leaderless resistance tactics and acts of terrorism that have occurred have, I believe, hurt our struggle. White revolution may be the only solution, but the time has not yet arrived for that kind of struggle. Isolated attacks on our enemies or the government is (sic) fruitless at this point in time. … The U.S. has the best army in the world, [and] a 1,000 or so skinheads and other fanatics are not going to overthrow the government and take over.”

Although support for leaderless resistance seems to be increasing, white supremacists do not support relying exclusively on leaderless resistance at the expense of above-ground organizations, and recognize the value of organizations in providing ideology and potential recruits for leaderless-resistance cells. Our data suggest that the majority of white supremacists prefer pursuing their goals using both leader-led organizations and leaderless resistance.

Benjamin Smith is an example of the potential danger when both strategies are pursued. Smith was a one-time member of the World Church of the Creator. He wrote a letter resigning from WCOTC before going on a killing spree and committing suicide. Smith shot 11 people and killed two, targeting African-Americans, Jews and Asian-Americans. His resignation from WCOTC prevented the type of civil suits that have bankrupted organizations in the past.

We also asked white supremacists about their views toward using violence more generally to advance the cause. Most supported the use of violence under certain circumstances, such as self-defense combined with more conventional strategies including running prowhite candidates for political office. While there is some support forusing violence, this does not mean that all respondents advocate terrorism, but the potential for violence is a concern for both law enforcement and potential targets of these groups.

We believe our findings lend themselves to some recommendations for crafting constructive responses that proactively deal with security threats without further alienating these individuals by reinforcing perceptions of persecution and even higher levels of government distrust.

Our Recommendations

First, we recommend not overestimating the sustainability of leaderless resistance as a strategy. Sociologists note that groups with low levels of hierarchy are difficult to sustain and that leaders are needed to provide direction and coordination. Second, “one size fits all” approaches should be avoided when dealing with these groups. Among all white-supremacist groups, those linked to militias or anti-government groups are most dangerous and deserve extra scrutiny and attention. Because not all members support leaderless resistance, intelligence resources should be strategically used. Third, treating every organization as a militia group with plans to overthrow the government will only legitimize perceptions of oppression, which increases the likelihood of leaderless resistance. While there are some advantages to forcing a group to go underground, too much repression forces groups to adapt, which renders them even more unpredictable. Repression also increases alienation and anti-government sentiments.

Finally, both local and federal law enforcement need to act in ways that reinforce respect for the constitutionally protected rights of all citizens by not using questionable tactics on groups that have abhorrent messages but have broken no laws. A 2010 Department of Justice report criticizes the FBI for its lax oversight and “inappropriate” practices while gathering intelligence under the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. Some of these practices resulted in the downloading of thousands of telephone records that were never certified as relevant to investigating terrorism. This type of behavior does not increase trust in government and reinforces the perceived need for extreme responses, including leaderless resistance.

Any encroachment on civil liberties may push some groups that are not racist toward alliances with white-supremacist groups. Nonracist groups may tolerate racism in exchange for support on guns rights or related issues, which may increase the legitimacy of whitepower groups.

We plan to continue our research by collecting data on white supremacists’ perceptions of the PATRIOT Act and whether they believe it is a tool used by government to repress their movement. We also hope to assess any evolving views on leaderless resistance in order to determine whether these groups are abandoning more conventional strategies in favor of violence.

Stereotypes and Reality of White Supremacists

My interactions with white supremacists combined with interview and questionnaire data suggest a far more complicated picture than what one might assume, given popular stereotypes of these folks as stupid and poorly educated. The reality is that while some white supremacists fit this stereotype, others are articulate and intelligent and can be quite personally engaging. For example, in Toronto I met one individual, despite never having gone to college, who had a better understanding of the finer points of various sociological theories than many sociology Ph.D. students.

Certainly some are attracted to white-power groups because they blame minorities for taking away “their” jobs or are frustrated with the many economic changes taking place because of globalization. Yet, white-power adherents do come from all kinds of different backgrounds and some are highly educated with good-paying jobs.

It is this disconnect between the stereotype and reality that can be uncomfortable for the researcher. Because I disagree with whitesupremacists’ views on race and many other issues, it would be easier for me if I could also dislike them. When not discussing their views toward minorities or Jews, these folks sound like average Americans with the same struggles and worries around raising a family, keeping a job and saving for the future. In that respect, we are more alike than different. Having common concerns does help connect me to those we interviewed, which is important for collecting data.

Yet, in acknowledging this, there is a real danger of sugarcoating their views, when in reality it is exactly those views that mean white supremacists pose a threat to those who are not white, gentile or heterosexual. It is sometimes hard to grasp this fact when you have been in the company of white supremacists for several hours engaged inconversations, not all of which are racial in nature, and have witnessed civil and sometimes even cordial interactions between white supremacists and minorities who work as cashiers at coffee shops or maids in hotels where interviews often took place.

Another source of discomfort is being mistaken for a white supremacist. After I went to a neo-Nazi-sponsored book burning in a St. Paul park, Betty and I drove to a white-power concert that was to take place in the basement of the Roseville VFW. Once VFWmanagers realized what they were hosting, they called the Roseville police, who asked the concert attendees to leave. All of us were marched single file past a line of police officers and their dogs. I was mortified that the police assumed I was a white supremacist. Yet it would have been inappropriate for me to have done anything to correct their perception. I was a guest of the concert hosts and needed to be respectful despite my disagreement with their views.

Finally, while I have felt relatively secure while collecting data, there have been occasions when I was uncertain, including the time I got into a car with Wolfgang Droege of the Heritage Front and his companions who proceeded to take Betty and me on a tour of Toronto. And, in St. Paul, Betty and I spent an entire day with white supremacists, including several hours in a hotel room interviewing a movement leader. We went to dinner with a group at a local Perkins restaurant, attended the book burning, and then the aborted white-power concert. While at a gas station, regrouping after being forced to leave the VFW, one young man suddenly challenged me by asking who I was and who had given me permission to attend. I was stunned because I had been around him all day and he had seemed fine. We quickly calmed the situation, but I was nervous until we finally left.

I would never have gotten involved with this research if it had not been for the encouragement and generosity of my former professor who took me with her and shared her previously collected data. As a professor, the most enduring lesson for me is the importance of mentorship and providing research opportunities for students.

While I have never taken students with me to interviews or white-supremacist events, I have found safer ways for students to be involved in this work and other research, including an analysis of rhetoric that gay skinheads use to justify their involvement in white-supremacist groups.2 The diversity of white supremacists never ceases to surprise me and why some gays are drawn to racist groups that abhor homosexuality is another research question that I hope to pursue.


1 The results are reported in three papers co-authored by Dobratz and Waldner: “Terrorism and White Separatists in the U.S.A.: A Look at Leaderless Resistance” presented at the World Congress of Sociology (2010); “Domestic Terrorism: White Separatist Views on Violence and Leaderless Resistance” presented at the International Political Science Association Armed Forces and Society Conference (2011); and “Ballots and/or Bullets: Strategies of the White Separatist Movement” presented at the International Politics Conference (2011). All papers are under review for publication in professional journals.

2 Lisa Waldner and former students Heather Martin and Lyndsay Capeder published “Ideology of Gay Racialist Skinheads and Stigma Management Techniques” in the Journal of Political and Military Sociology (2006).

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