Jun. 29--The U.S. is facing a growing terrorism problem, and the threat will likely escalate as anger and polarization intensify over the upcoming presidential election, police brutality and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, experts on extremism say.
"Both the anti-quarantine protests that the far-right orchestrated in April and May and the recent civil unrest have accelerated the potential for more violence," said Daryl Johnson, a former terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. "I think it will pick up over the summer and especially into the fall as we head into the election.
"We should all be on guard and vigilant, reporting suspicious activity, contacting legislators and forming or joining citizens organizations against hate. This is all hands on deck."
The escalation of violence, Johnson said, is driven by fear: of looting, protests, the coronavirus, stay-at-home orders and job loss.
"The fear is just feeding this radicalization and recruitment," he said. "And that's why they're booming."
While anarchists and religious extremists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda also could pose serious threats, the greatest danger will likely be from the far right, said a report released June 17 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
"Right-wing terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators," the report said. "Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years."
Such growth has not been seen since the buildup to the Oklahoma City bombing in the 1990s, said the report, "The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States."
In 2019, it said, right-wing extremists committed two-thirds of the terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. And from Jan. 1 to May 8 of this year, more than 90 percent of the attacks were committed by right-wing extremists.
Incidents of terrorism will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors, including the upcoming presidential election, the coronavirus pandemic and protests over the killing of George Floyd, the report said.
"These factors are not the cause of terrorism, but they are events and developments likely to fuel anger and be co-opted by a small minority of extremists as a pretext for violence," it said.
The November election will most certainly be a major source of polarization and anger that could escalate into violence, the report said.
"As U.S. Department of Justice documents have highlighted, some far-right extremists have referred to themselves as 'Trumpenkriegers' -- or 'fighters for Trump,'" it said. "If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe -- however incorrectly -- that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives."
On the other hand, the report said, there's also potential for terrorism from some on the far left if Trump is re-elected. It cited the June 14, 2017, incident in which a left-wing extremist shot and wounded four people, including U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, as Republican members of Congress practiced for their annual charity baseball game against House Democrats in Alexandria, Virginia.
Seth Jones, the report's lead author, told The Star that pre-election rhetoric is already at an alarming level.
"The rhetoric I'm hearing and seeing is that the elections themselves, depending on which way they go, will send our country into very different directions," he said. "The wording being used -- if Trump wins, it's the apocalypse; if Biden wins, it's going to be a communist state and they're gong to take our guns -- this kind of incendiary talk involving well-armed individuals is definitely concerning, especially with the uptick in violence."
Other issues that could increase the potential for far-right terrorism, according to the report, are those related to COVID-19, such as governments ordering non-essential businesses to close again or mandating that everyone wear masks in response to a new wave of the virus -- actions seen as attacks on personal liberties.
The number of groups formed to protest such government orders has escalated rapidly in the past two months.
Since April, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights has been tracking the growth of so-called "reopen" groups protesting COVID-19 stay-at-home directives. In an update released Thursday, the organization said it has now counted 834 of the groups on Facebook, with a total membership of nearly 2.5 million nationwide. Kansas has seven "reopen" groups with a total of 18,775 members, the IREHR said, and Missouri has nine groups with 25,516 members.
The CSIS study analyzed 893 terrorist plots and attacks in the U.S. between January 1994 and May 2020. Overall, it found, right-wing terrorists committed the majority of all attacks and plots during that period -- 57 percent. That was compared to 25 percent perpetrated by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.
Most of the right-wing attacks in the 1990s targeted abortion clinics, the report said, while those since 2014 have focused on individuals and religious institutions.
The rise in right-wing terror attacks and plots isn't confined to any one region of the country, the report said. Over the past six years, incidents have occurred in 42 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
The increase is reminiscent of the wave of activity in the early 1990s that peaked with 45 right-wing incidents in 1995, the report said. Among them: the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the deadliest act of domestic terrorism on American soil.
"In three recent years -- 2016, 2017 and 2019 -- the number of right-wing terrorist events matched or exceeded the number in 1995, including a recent high of 53 right-wing terrorist incidents in 2017," the report said.
Another recent report, released this month by the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism, shows a sharp increase in a specific kind of right-wing extremist violence: shootouts with police.
The center found that extremist-related shootouts with law enforcement have soared in the first half of 2020, with nine incidents that have killed four officers. That's the average number of shootouts that typically occur in a year, the ADL said.
From 2010 through 2019, the ADL counted 95 shootouts involving extremists and police. In those incidents, 98 police officers were shot, and 26 of those shootings were fatal. Of those, 83 percent involved right-wing extremists.
This year's shootouts have all involved right-wing extremists, the ADL said, including three white supremacists and five people who hold anti-government views.
The most recent incidents were in California, where U.S. Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo is accused of shooting to death a federal security officer and wounding his partner outside a U.S. courthouse in Oakland on May 29, then ambushing and killing a sheriff's deputy and injuring four other officers in Santa Cruz County on June 6.
Federal authorities said Carrillo, 32, has tied to the anti-government Boogaloo movement and that he and an accomplice used a nearby protest of the police killing of George Floyd as cover for the courthouse shooting.
One of this year's shootouts was a Missouri case.
In March, a 36-year-old Raymore man died in a gun battle with FBI agents who were serving an arrest warrant on him in Belton. Timothy Wilson, who investigators said was plotting to bomb a Kansas City-area hospital, was upset at the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic and motivated by racial, religious and anti-government beliefs, according to court documents.
Wilson told an undercover agent that he wanted to give his kids a good Thanksgiving and Christmas before going "full-time with operation boogaloo," the documents said. In May, the FBI said an autopsy revealed that Wilson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head as agents attempted to arrest him.
Don Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas political science professor and expert on extremism, has been closely monitoring the uptick in activity.
"There's reason to be concerned," he said. "Extremist groups always see any kind of social unrest or chaos, whether it be economic or political, or because of a pandemic, as an opportunity."
While it's possible that violence could come from either the far-right or far-left, Haider-Markel said, there appears to be a greater willingness by the far-right to resort to such acts.
"On the left, that just hasn't been there," he said. "I'm sure there will be incidents that will occur, but it doesn't seem to be as widespread."
His biggest concern, Haider-Markel said, is attacks using vehicles.
On June 7, a man who authorities said was an "admitted leader of the Ku Klux Klan" in Virginia and "a propagandist for Confederate ideology" was accused of driving his pickup into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters who were occupying a roadway. No one was seriously injured in the incident. Harry Rogers, 36, was charged with attempted malicious wounding felony vandalism and assault and battery.
On a positive note, Haider-Markel said, authorities have gotten better at stopping the smaller, more organized terrorist cells.
"The feds and some state police seem to be on top of these groups pretty quickly, at least tracking what they're doing," he said.
Just last week, prosecutors in New York announced charges against a U.S. Army private for allegedly planning an attack on his unit by sending sensitive information about the unit to members of what they called "an occult-based neo-Nazi and racially motivated violent extremist group." Ethan Melzer, 22, of Louisville, Kentucky, intended for the organization -- called Order of the Nine Angles, or O9A -- to convey the information to jihadist terrorists in a plot to cause a "mass casualty" event targeting his fellow service members, prosecutors said.
The FBI and U.S. Army worked together to thwart the plot in late May, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss called Melzer "the enemy within."
"Ethan Melzer plotted a deadly ambush on his fellow soldiers in the service of a diabolical cocktail of ideologies laced with hate and violence," Strauss said.
To counter terrorism, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, politicians must stop using incendiary language, social media companies need to be more vigilant in weeding out hate and violence on their platforms and people must be more careful to double-check their sources so they don't fall victim to disinformation.
"Terrorism feeds off lies, conspiracies, disinformation and hatred," it said. "The struggle will only get more difficult as the United States approaches the November 2020 presidential election -- and even in its aftermath."
(c)2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.