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The Link Between White Supremacists and Islamic Terrorism

White supremacist groups have long presented homegrown domestic threat and, in many ways, their operations, tactics, and terrorist recruitment processes bear a striking similarity to those used by jihadist groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda.

April 20, 2017

Cross-posted from The Cipher.

The process of radic­al­iz­a­tion, by which disaf­fected members of soci­ety are convinced to embrace viol­ent means to pursue the goals of a terror­ist ideo­logy, has been intensely stud­ied since the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, the threat of inter­na­tional terror­ism has become one of the main foci of U.S. national secur­ity policy. Simil­arly, the ques­tion of how to inter­rupt the radic­al­iz­a­tion process of jihadist groups has become the subject of intense research. However, terror­ism against the United States is not a new threat, nor one limited to extrem­ist Islam­ist groups. White suprem­acist groups have long presen­ted homegrown domestic threat and, in many ways, their oper­a­tions, tactics, and terror­ist recruit­ment processes bear a strik­ing simil­ar­ity to those used by jihadist groups such as ISIS or al Qaeda. The Cipher Brief spoke with Michael German, a former under­cover agent for the FBI and current Fellow at the Bren­nan Center for Justice, about the path to terror.

The Cipher Brief: You worked for 16 years at the FBI and, during that time, you infilt­rated several viol­ent white nation­al­ist organ­iz­a­tions. Can you tell me a bit about your time under­cover, and talk about the groups that you infilt­rated?

Michael German: When a colleague came to me with the proposal to go under­cover it seemed like an inter­est­ing case. In the after­math of riots after the acquit­tals of four LAPD police officers involved in the Rodney King beat­ing, the white suprem­acists that the agent was invest­ig­at­ing were talk­ing about accu­mu­lat­ing and amass­ing signi­fic­ant weaponry in anti­cip­a­tion of a second set of riots. In that period of turmoil, I held myself out for recruit­ing as a crim­inal and they were look­ing for the crim­inal skills that I claimed to possess.

One of the things that we had discovered through our inform­ant was that the vari­ous white suprem­acist groups – then the biggest ones were the Church of the Creator, the White Aryan Resist­ance, the Aryan Nations, the National Alli­ance, etc. – did not get along with each other, and in fact hated each other in many cases. Thus, if you actu­ally joined one group, your abil­ity to inter­act with the other groups was seri­ously dimin­ished. Luck­ily, we knew to avoid join­ing the groups, which also was help­ful because it worked against what their profile of an FBI infilt­rator would look like, which was some­body who is very eager to join.

Initially we were focused on the manu­fac­ture and accu­mu­la­tion of illegal machine guns, but during the course of the invest­ig­a­tion we were intro­duced to a group that had been engaged in a number of bomb­ings and we managed to recover several more explos­ives, as well as prevent some of the plots they were plan­ning.

TCB: Can you tell me more about the recruit­ment and radic­al­iz­a­tion process of these groups, specific­ally as it related to you and what you saw happen to other entry-level recruits coming into these organ­iz­a­tions?

MG: This is an area where there is a tremend­ous amount of misun­der­stand­ing, this concept of radic­al­iz­a­tion. One of the things that I did to prepare for my under­cover stint was to look at the research on what makes some­body a terror­ist so that I could craft my persona around that model.

At the time, there were two schools of terror­ism research. One, led primar­ily by psycho­lo­gists, argued that only some sort of mental defect would allow someone to engage in such a horrific activ­ity – one that harms inno­cent civil­ians who don’t have anything to do with the person’s griev­ances. The other school was made up of polit­ical scient­ists who argued that terror­ism is just one type of polit­ical viol­ence involved in a polit­ical, social, economic scheme, and you can’t under­stand that one thin slice of viol­ence without under­stand­ing the context of the broader polit­ical viol­ence taking place.

What the science showed was that there really isn’t a lot of evid­ence for a mental defect, and what I discovered once I joined these groups is they are very prac­tical and not partic­u­larly ideo­lo­gical, because too much ideo­logy causes conflict in groups that have similar goals. All the white suprem­acists basic­ally agreed on the goal of achiev­ing an all-white nation, but they disagreed on why that was neces­sary. Some were Chris­ti­ans who believed that white people were the Israel­ites referred to in the Bible. They were very reli­gious, went to church services, carried Bibles with them, etc. Then there were other groups, like the White Aryan Resist­ance, who were athe­istic and believed that reli­gion was a Jewish creation designed to make the white nation submissive. So you can imagine that those two groups would not get along.

What I found was that the crim­inal under­ground recog­nized this prob­lem and endeavored not to be very ideo­lo­gical in order to inter­act with these dispar­ate groups. In addi­tion, they considered them­selves to be the vanguard of the move­ment and, in the same way that you would­n’t expect a 19– or 20-year-old Marine recruit to under­stand the geopol­it­ical strategy involved in their deploy­ment, you would­n’t really expect these people – who were much more prac­tic­ally oriented towards oper­a­tional activ­it­ies – to engage too heav­ily in the ideo­logy. So what they were look­ing for was some­body who I presen­ted, some­body who had been a success­ful crim­inal and was able to smuggle mater­i­als without getting caught, that’s why they wanted me around. Of course, I preten­ded to be very inter­ested in their ideo­logy, but it was really my crim­inal skills that they were inter­ested in.

TCB: So there were two arms of the organ­iz­a­tions, the ideo­lo­gical pros­elyt­iz­ing wing and the prac­tical oper­a­tional arm, is that right?

MG: Right. And I think what surprised me most was that the ideo­lo­gical side of it was not directly inves­ted in the viol­ent wing of the move­ment. The idea at the time was that the ideo­lo­gical side of the move­ment was in favor of the viol­ence but was just trying not to go to jail, so they kept it at an arm’s distance. I’m sure this was true in some cases but, on the whole, they were opposed to viol­ence because they thought viol­ence would be harm­ful to their abil­ity to pros­elyt­ize. They thought that the value of their ideas would win out.

When I was at events with some of these groups some­body would always come up to me and say, “Why are you hanging out with those losers? You seem like a sharp kid, some­body that isn’t covered in Nazi tattoos. We could clean you up, put a suit on you, and run you for office. You could do a lot more to further our ideo­logy that way than doing some­thing where your path is the grave or jail.” This really taught me that focus­ing on the crim­inal element was the way to engage in effect­ive, proact­ive coun­terter­ror­ism. But unfor­tu­nately, after 9/11, the FBI resus­cit­ated this idea of radic­al­iz­a­tion.

This is inter­est­ing if you know the history because basic­ally, by the late 1990s, the psycho­lo­gical theory that terror­ism is some kind of mental defect had been debunked. In fact, there’s very little mental illness in terror­ist groups, which makes sense if you’re in a clandes­tine war against a govern­ment much more power­ful than your­self; you can’t risk having people with mental illness in your group, that’s not a recipe for success. However, rather than acknow­ledge that, “ok this isn’t a mental defect,” the govern­ment resur­rec­ted this idea of radic­al­iz­a­tion, the idea that the prob­lem is in the head of the people that are doing harm. This allowed them to refrain from explor­ing the idea that this is part of a wider conflict that govern­ment policies have some influ­ence on, that it’s a push- and-pull reac­tion to what’s going on in soci­ety.

There are good reas­ons why the govern­ment does­n’t like this context model, because then you would have to talk about how govern­ment policies inter­act with the world. If the govern­ment can convince every­one that this is really just a prob­lem of bad ideas and bad people, then you don’t have to look at the bigger picture.

TCB: When you look at these kinds of white nation­al­ist groups and you look at a group like ISIS or al Qaeda, their ideo­lo­gies are very differ­ent but many of their tactics are the same. When you look at these groups, what are the biggest simil­ar­it­ies and what are the biggest differ­ences?

MG: Abso­lutely. When I left the FBI I wrote a book about this called “Think­ing Like a Terror­ist” in which I tried to explain that terror­ism is a meth­od­o­logy and that all the groups that use terror­ism tend to follow the same strategies.

One of the things that surprised me when I went under­cover was how much these groups published about their meth­ods and motives. I expec­ted aimless viol­ence, anger, and hatred. Instead, they were hand­ing me pamph­lets and liter­at­ure, and sign­ing me up for news­let­ters. And all this stuff was open-source, partly because these organ­iz­a­tions are clandes­tine. They can’t directly commu­nic­ate with one another so the way they commu­nic­ate is through public­a­tion. They promote broadly the meth­od­o­lo­gies they expect people to use.

A former Klans­man named Louis Beam published a piece arguing that groups could no longer afford to be hier­arch­ical because police had gotten good at tracing those hier­arch­ies, no matter what secret meth­ods they tried to use. Instead, people should follow a model of lead­er­less resist­ance where groups of like­minded people just come together without direct orders and parti­cip­ate in attacks that they expect would help further the cause.

After 9/11, when there was a focus on al Qaeda, every­one was pretend­ing these things were brand new, but if you knew the tactics you could predict exactly each step they were going to make. And again, all this is published. If you look at the al Qaeda manual it’s really not that differ­ent from the Irish Repub­lican Army green book or a lot of the white suprem­acist docu­ments. There’s even a Brazilian Commun­ist, Carlos Marighella, who was one of the first to put all of this on paper in the Mini­m­anual of the Urban Guer­illa.

So it was very frus­trat­ing to me in the three years after 9/11 before I left the FBI that we weren’t paying atten­tion to those manu­als, paying atten­tion to what those tactics were, and trying to get in front of their tactics. Instead, we did what they wanted us to, which was respond emotion­ally in a very broad way. This helped them to expand the conflict and, as we can see almost 16 years later, we are continu­ing to expand that conflict across the globe, where it would have been better to respond in a much more narrowly focused way.