Domestic Extremism in the US

On the first of March, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released an unclassified report, stating that domestic extremism poses an ‘elevated risk’ in 2021 – the result of a volatile political landscape and COVID-19.


Domestic violent extremists (DVEs), according to the report, may be broken down into multiple groups: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs), animal rights and environmental violent extremists, abortion-related violent extremists, and anti-government violent extremists. The intelligence community’s (IC) assessment posits that anti-government extremists and RMVEs pose the most significant risk to the American civilian population. Projections show lone-wolf attackers identifying with these two groups will target law enforcement and civilians for mass-casualty style attacks.


The outcome of fluctuating sociopolitical developments, including allegations of fraud in the US general election of 2020, the Capitol Hill breach, and Qanon conspiracy theories, have allowed perceptions of government and minorities to regress among ideological groups, including white supremacy organizations. The transnational nature of this ideology allows white supremacy groups, both within and external to the US, to bolster each other’s legitimacy and belief system. Growing perceptions of government overreach, ‘unfair’ promotion of minority groups, and a growing movement against gun ownership, are likely factors mobilizing these groups to violence.


Social media platforms create a space for the dissemination of materials meant to influence or rally support from new adherents. Encrypted chat rooms and smaller websites allow for lone-wolf actors, who identify closely with the cause, to go undetected. In addition to the ease of access to firearms, discrete mobilization, and independent radicalization, these actors pose a significant detection and disruption challenge to the intelligence community.


In just the past two weeks, as America began to open up again, eight shootings, two of them resulting in mass casualties, have rocked the country right back to pre-pandemic levels of violence. Beginning in Atlanta, Georgia, eight people were killed when a white gunman sprayed bullets through three spas, targeting the Asian and female community. Just a few days later, ten people were killed in a shooting in Boulder, Colorado, when a 21-year-old male opened fire inside a grocery store. The shooter, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, armed himself with an AR-15 style rifle, which just days before had its legality reinforced by a judge’s ruling on semiautomatic pistols.


These actions are congruent with reports from the IC, as well as advisory bulletins published by the Department of Homeland Security. While the rate of crime in the US has dropped during the period of lockdown from COVID-19, as the country begins to reopen, threats festering from recent political upheaval, coupled by economic strain, may embolden actors to take action in the coming weeks, as the public begins to resume normal day-to-day habits once again.


Robert Pape, professor at the University of Chicago and an expert in studying political violence, has conducted research on 193 people who were arrested at the attack on Capitol Hill. According to his findings, the Capital riot suggests a new and emerging type of political violence that poses a far greater threat: a mass movement in which ‘normal’ participants – middle-class people with no real connection to the far-right – join extremists to battle the American government. A large majority of those arrested or suspected of participating in the capital riots had no connection at all to far-right militias nor white nationalist gangs, such as the Proud Boys; 89 percent of the arrestees had no affiliation with any of these organizations.



Figure 1. Data on Capitol arrestees. Credit: Chicago Project on Security and Threats.

According to Pape’s research, connections to extremists groups were far more common among those arrested for incidents of deadly violence from 2015 to 2020. During this time, 26 percent of those arrested were members of white-nationalist gangs and 22 percent were participants in militias or other gangs. Additionally, he added that most of the participants from the Capital riots did not come from Republican stronghold regions as one might expect. More than half of those involved in the riot hailed from counties that Biden secured, with only one sixth of participants coming from regions where Trump won with a slim majority of the vote.


These statistics are troubling at best. The US IC will need to identify the ideology of those involved in this new direction of political violence. Without understanding its origin, security officials will be unable to revert or target the root of their inspiration. As violence continues to increase, it will be critical to the IC to study the changes Pape identified to successfully counteract this violence in the future.