Following the Capitol riots, authorities in Germany tightened security around their parliament in case German far-right groups became inspired. An analysis by the New York Times also illustrates that one-third of white extremist attacks across the globe were inspired by similar attacks. Given that the spread of white supremacy is increasing through the internet, how do you think the government or social media companies should respond?
The good news is that social media companies have been much more aggressive in recent years. The deplatforming of President Trump is one very notable example. In terms of the most extreme groups, we have seen a lot of them kicked off Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on. There has been real progress in how these companies treat these groups compared to four or five years ago.
That said, it is extremely hard. If you look at, for example, the Christchurch attack, where fifty-one people were killed when extremists attacked two mosques, Facebook was really aggressive and trying to take content down—it really responded quickly. But the internet is the internet; the manifesto, the video, and the attack were widely viewed, and it was very hard to stop. I think that [stopping the spread of extremist content] is going to be a constant struggle. But the good news is that technology companies are much more willing to engage in this than they were three or four years ago.
There have also been reports of Americans traveling to far-right camps in Ukraine, German neo-nazis traveling to the United States, and so forth. How dangerous do you think these cross-national ties are, and how should the United States and its allies respond?
The cross-national ties are pretty dangerous; when someone goes to a warzone, like Ukraine, to train, they can become more lethal and become connected to a lot of other individuals they might not otherwise know. They can become more diehard in their beliefs, so there are a lot of concerns.
However, if you are watching for this, there are a lot of ways you can stop it. Global intelligence and law enforcement cooperation are very important. Sometimes these people commit crimes when they are [traveling], so there are a lot of opportunities to disrupt this activity. If you look at the jihadist side of this twenty-five years ago, people traveling abroad to fight was a huge problem and a huge source of terrorism. It still is a concern, but counterterrorism has become so much better that when people go abroad to fight, they are much more likely to be caught. In fact, when they travel abroad, they are much more likely to reveal the existence of many other people that the government does not know about. So it is a potential danger, but it is also a potential vulnerability for the group if the government is aggressive.
Do you believe the Biden administration and its allies are switching gears and taking some of these approaches? Are they taking the right steps so far?
It has not really begun. For example, Merrick Garland is going through confirmation hearings for attorney general, and that will be one of the most important positions for this. He has said, “One of my priorities is going to be domestic terrorism,” so that is encouraging. It is relatively early in the administration, so I think it is too early to tell. But I would say that the rhetoric is very encouraging. If you look at what they are saying, that is promising, but they have to follow that up.
If you were to nail down a couple of policy recommendations for the administration to combat domestic terrorism, what would you recommend that past governments have not done before?
Resourcing: several of these groups are very vulnerable, but you need Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, law enforcement, and a whole host of people willing to go after [these groups]. Part of it is resourcing, but part of it is also treating it very seriously. Right now, a lot of these groups commit low-level crimes. They are kind of ignored, because [law enforcement] is so focused on high-level violence. But if you are trying to go after a network, you can go after the low-level crimes and start to put pressure on the movement as a whole. There is a lot that you can do if you treat them more aggressively.
What is the composition of white supremacists? It seems that there are some loners, and then there are some more organized units. How should we think of this?
There certainly are a few more organized groups, but most of the organized, violent groups have been shut down or are relatively small. It tends to be lots of individuals operating as networks, often via social media. [They] encouraged other people, and some of those people turned violent. If you look at the people who [were involved in] the Walmart shooting, the Tree of Life shooting, and the black church in Charleston [shooting], those were all inspired individuals, not people who were a part of groups. I think that is where the real danger is, and in some ways, it is a harder challenge. Groups can achieve a lot more; they tend to be more capable and more dangerous. But, they are also easier to detect. The individuals are really hard to find, and as a result, hard to stop.
. . .
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Daniel Byman is a professor at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, and a foreign policy editor at Lawfare. Byman previously served as a staff member with the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States (“The 9/11 Commission”) and the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. He is the author of numerous books on counterterrorism, and his latest is “Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad”(Oxford University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @dbyman.
Image Credit: Paul Morigi (Creative Commons)