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By Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis
Associate Professor of Politics, Intelligence and National Security Studies, Coastal Carolina University
Guest Contributor for In Homeland Security
Americans were rightly shocked by last week’s bloody street battles in Charlottesville, the small Virginia town that was turned into a deadly war zone. Sadly, neither the brutality nor the scale of the far-right violence in Charlottesville is unprecedented in American history.
In its current form, however, the extreme right — a political movement with deep roots in the United States — is morphing into an insurgency, a dangerous armed rebellion against the authority of the state. It poses a serious threat to the security of the nation and must be treated accordingly.
Many of the “alt-right” members who descended upon Charlottesville are the modern-day political descendants of the Ku Klux Klan, a Christian-based white nationalist organization that emerged at the conclusion of the Civil War.
Known as the KKK, or simply the Klan, it operated as the underground armed insurgency of the defeated Confederacy during the post-war Reconstruction era. Although its membership has declined significantly in recent decades, the KKK is responsible for tens of thousands of acts of terrorism. Today, the KKK remains one of the most enduring violent forces in American history.
The Modern Klan, Alt-Right Groups Are Political Descendants of American Nazis and Fascists
Other alt-right members descend politically from American Nazis and fascists, who first appeared in metropolitan areas during the years between World War I and World War II, inspired by the rise of the far-right in Europe. Organizations such as the German American Bund and the Fascist League of North America held massive rallies throughout the United States in the late 1930s, during which both the Nazi and American flags were prominently displayed side by side.
After the defeat of the Axis powers in WWII, American right-wing extremists formed several neo-Nazi organizations, among them the Arlington, Virginia-based American Nazi Party (ANP), founded in 1959 by George Lincoln Rockwell. In November 1979, KKK and ANP members opened fire on leftist civil rights protestors in Greensboro, North Carolina, killing five and injuring dozens.
Sixteen years later, another far-right supporter, Timothy McVeigh, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killing 168 people. It was the deadliest terrorist incident in the United States until the 9/11 attacks.
Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who was convicted of killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, was a studied devotee and admirer of McVeigh.
In comparison to previous acts of violence by supporters of the American extreme right, the events in Charlottesville — bloody as they were — were rather tame. But there is a marked difference in the organizational methodology of today’s far right. That difference makes today’s far right much more dangerous to the security of the nation than at any other time in its existence, with the possible exception of the late 1930s.
One striking difference between the traditional American far right and current right-wing extremists is that the latter do not follow visible leading figures. In the past, far-right groups were invariably led by charismatic and undisputed leaders, men like Ben Klassen, the Christian neo-Nazi who founded the Church of the Creator in 1973; William L. Pierce, the bespectacled, cat-loving white supremacist who wrote the highly successful neo-Nazi novel “The Turner Diaries”; or George Lincoln Rockwell, whose ANP split apart after Rockwell was shot and killed in 1967 by a disgruntled party member. Such figures are no more.
Largest Two White Nationalist Groups Were Dissolved in the Past Decade
During the past decade, we saw the collapse of the two largest white nationalist organizations in the United States, the Idaho-based Aryan Nations and the National Vanguard, a white-collar extremist outfit founded by Pierce in 1974. These organizations were sizeable and geographically concentrated. Their dissolution prompted their supporters to scatter throughout the United States, acting like wandering disciples.
Today, neo-Nazi groups tend to appear and disappear randomly in various urban centers. Their appearances can be explained by the unpredictable whereabouts of dedicated far-right activists, who move around a lot, including in and out of prison. This dispersion makes monitoring the alt-right extremely difficult, given the legal, operational and budgetary constraints of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Far-Right Groups Are Assisted by the Growth of the Internet
The growth of the Internet has also assisted these far-right groups. Their members are mostly young, tech-savvy and extremely mobile. Unlike their 20th century political ancestors, who relied on post office boxes and photocopied typewritten newsletters, alt-right activists use the Internet.
They also employ a variety of music and video game youth subcultures to recruit or train members and to plan operations. As a result, these alt-right activists can synchronize their movements across large distances.
In addition, they cleverly use their newfound critical mass of supporters to descend on small towns like Charlottesville. They effectively take over these towns by overwhelming local law enforcement agencies, which are usually understaffed and unaware of the organizational power of today’s far right.
However, as they gather in large numbers, far-right protesters increasingly attract the unwanted attention of their ideological opponents. These counter-protesters often come together in equally large numbers and are determined to physically oppose the far rights from making public appearances. This physical opposition has the effect of dramatically increasing tension between the two rival groups, and often prompts both sides to engage in physical combat.
Typically, far-right groups, which by nature are militaristic, tend to be better organized than their ideological opponents when fighting street battles. The far-right groups are also more willing to engage in violence and are more brutal when doing so, as recent events demonstrate.
In Charlottesville, we saw alt-right supporters operate not as demonstrators or protestors, but as insurgents. Many of them wore uniforms, marched in formation carrying protective shields and followed instructions from experienced combat leaders. Additionally, many of them were armed.
They also used communications equipment and specially designated vehicles to coordinate their street presence, guard their positions during confrontations with the police or counter-protestors, and — fatally in one case — attack their opponents.
This brings us to the last and most important point. Despite the recent tragic events in Charlottesville, it is important to remember that the American far right is relatively small compared to similar groups in other industrialized countries. Also, the American far right is less experienced and less powerful than its counterparts in Europe. After all, it is from there that Nazism and fascism originated.
Better Organized and Equipped Far-Right Groups Exist in Europe
Today, there are far better organized, more practiced and more established far-right groups in countries like France, Spain, Germany, Hungary or Greece. But there is one fundamental difference that makes the American far right more dangerous than its European counterparts: the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.
American right-wing extremists have access to large quantities of advanced weaponry. And thanks to the “private sale loophole,” which allows private gun sales in 40 states without a federally required background check, far-right advocates can acquire all sorts of weapons, even when they are convicted felons.
In an insightful article published in February 2016 in Newsweek magazine, Kurt Eichenwald, a 20-year veteran of investigative reporting and author of The Informant, argued that far-right radicalism is a bigger threat to American security than Islamic militancy, including the Islamic State. He cited a study by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which was based on surveys from 382 law enforcement groups across the United States.
The study found that U.S. law enforcement agencies “consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence” they face. Recent events in Virginia, South Carolina, Kansas, Montana and many other states give credence to these warnings.
It is time that the alt-right is seen for what it is, not a political movement, but an armed insurgency. It must be treated accordingly by all state agencies whose mission is to safeguard the security of the United States and its citizens.
About the Author
Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is an associate professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. He specializes in intelligence and national security with an emphasis on international espionage. Dr. Fitsankis has taught and written extensively on intelligence policy and practice, intelligence history, communications interception, cyber espionage and transnational criminal networks. His writings have been translated into several languages and referenced in media outlets including The Washington Post, BBC, ABC, NPR, Newsweek, The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Wired magazine.
Before joining Coastal Carolina University, Dr. Fitsanakis built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. At Coastal, he teaches courses on national security, intelligence communications, intelligence analysis, intelligence operations and espionage during the Cold War, among other subjects. Dr. Fitsanakis is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org, an ACI-indexed scholarly blog that is cataloged through the Library of Congress.