On a Tuesday morning in September 2001, the American experience with terrorism was fundamentally altered. Two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six people were murdered in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Thousands more, including many first responders, lost their lives to health complications from working at or being near Ground Zero.
The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Islamist extremists, resulting in nearly 18 times more deaths than America’s second most devastating terrorist attack – the Oklahoma City bombing. More than any other terrorist event in U.S. history, 9/11 drives Americans’ perspectives on who and what ideologies are associated with violent extremism.
But focusing solely on Islamist extremism when investigating, researching and developing counterterrorism policies goes against what the numbers tell us. Far-right extremism also poses a significant threat to the lives and well-being of Americans. This risk is often ignored or underestimated because of the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
We have spent more than 10 years collecting and analyzing empirical data that show us how these ideologies vary in important ways that can inform policy decisions. Our conclusion is that a “one size fits all” approach to countering violent extremism may not be effective.
By the numbers
Historically, the U.S. has been home to adherents of many types of extremist ideologies. The two current most prominent threats are motivated by Islamist extremism and far-right extremism.
To help assess these threats, the Department of Homeland Security and recently the Department of Justice have funded the Extremist Crime Database to collect data on crimes committed by ideologically motivated extremists in the United States. The results of our analyses are published in peer-reviewed journals and on the website for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism.
The ECDB includes data on ideologically motivated homicides committed by both Islamist extremists and far-right extremists going back more than 25 years.
Between 1990 and 2014, the ECDB has identified 38 homicide events motivated by Islamist extremism that killed 62 people. When you include 9/11, those numbers jump dramatically to 39 homicide events and 3,058 killed.
The database also identified 177 homicide events motivated by far-right extremism, with 245 killed. And when you include the Oklahoma City bombing, it rises to 178 homicide events and 413 killed.
Although our data for 2015 through 2017 are still being verified, we counted five homicide events perpetrated by Islamist extremists that resulted in the murders of 74 people. This includes the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, which killed 49 people. In the same time period, there were eight homicide events committed by far-right extremists that killed 27 people.
These data reveal that far-right extremists tend to be more active in committing homicides, yet Islamist extremists tend to be more deadly.
Our research has also identified violent Islamist extremist plots against 272 targets that were either foiled or failed between 2001 and 2014. We are in the process of compiling similar data on far-right plots. Although data collection is only about 50 percent complete, we have already identified 213 far-right targets from the same time period.
The locations of violent extremist activity also differ by ideology. Our data show that between 1990 and 2014, most Islamist extremist attacks occurred in the South (56.5 percent), and most far-right extremist attacks occurred in the West (34.7 percent). Both forms of violence were least likely to occur in the Midwest, with only three incidents committed by Islamist extremists (4.8 percent) and 33 events committed by far-right extremists (13.5 percent).
Targets of violence also vary across the two ideologies. For example, 63 percent of the Islamist extremism victims were targeted for no apparent reason. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often visiting symbolic locations or crowded venues such as the World Trade Center or military installations.
In contrast, 53 percent of victims killed by far-right extremists were targeted for their actual or perceived race or ethnicity. Far-right extremists, such as neo-Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists, often target religious, racial and ethnic, and sexual orientation and gender identity minorities.
Motives and methods
There are also differences in violent extremists across demographics, motives and methods. For instance, data show that guns were the weapon of choice in approximately 73 percent of Islamist extremist homicides and in only 63 percent of far-right extremist homicides. We attribute these differences to far-right extremists using more personal forms of violence, such as beating or stabbing victims to death.
We have also found that suicide missions are not unique to Islamist extremists.
From 1990 to 2014, we identified three suicide missions in which at least one person was killed connected to Islamist extremism, including the 9/11 attacks as one event. In contrast, there were 15 suicide missions committed by far-right extremists.
Our analyses found that compared to Islamist extremists, far-right extremists were significantly more likely to be economically deprived, have served in the military and have a higher level of commitment to their ideology. Far-right extremists were also significantly more likely to be less educated, single, young and to have participated in training by a group associated with their extremist ideology.
Threat to law enforcement and military
Terrorists associated with Islamist and far-right extremist ideologies do not only attack civilians. They also pose a deadly threat to law enforcement and military personnel. During the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 72 law enforcement officers and 55 military personnel were killed by members of Al-Qaida. On April 19, 1995, 13 law enforcement officers and four military personnel were killed when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed by an anti-government far-right extremist in Oklahoma City.
Outside of these two events, Islamist extremists are responsible for the murders of 18 military personnel in three incidents, and seven law enforcement officers were killed in five incidents between 1990 and 2015. Far-right extremists have murdered 57 law enforcement officers in 46 incidents, but have never directly targeted military personnel.
Far-right extremists, who typically harbor anti-government sentiments, have a higher likelihood of escalating routine law enforcement contacts into fatal encounters. These homicides pose unique challenges to local law enforcement officers who are disproportionately targeted by the far right.
The events of 9/11 will continue to skew both our real and perceived risks of violent extremism in the United States. To focus solely on Islamist extremism is to ignore the murders perpetrated by the extreme far right and their place in a constantly changing threat environment.
Focusing on national counterterrorism efforts against both Islamist and far-right extremism acknowledges that there are differences between these two violent movements. Focusing solely on one, while ignoring the other, will increase the risk of domestic terrorism and future acts of violence.
Both ideologies continue to pose real, unique threats to all Americans. Evidence shows far-right violent extremism poses a particular threat to law enforcement and racial, ethnic, religious and other minorities. Islamist violent extremism is a specific danger to military members, law enforcement, certain minorities and society at large. It remains imperative to support policies, programs and research aimed at countering all forms of violent extremism.
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Seattle University