Congressional Hearing Dedicated to “Countering Left-Wing Organized Violence” Is Misguided



 Written Statement by
Heidi L. Beirich, Ph.D.
Co-Founder // Executive Vice President
Global Project Against Hate and Extremism

Before the
Congress of the United States
House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee
Oversight, Investigations, and Accountability Subcommittee

“’Mostly Peaceful’: Countering Left-Wing Organized Violence.”
May 16, 2023

Chairman Dan Bishop, Ranking member Glenn Ivey, and esteemed members of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Oversight, Investigations, and Accountability Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit a written statement. My name is Heidi Beirich. I hold a Ph.D. in political science from Purdue University and am the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE). I am an expert on white supremacist and far-right extremist movements, having served as an advisory board member of the International Network for Hate Studies, a co-founder and co-chair of the Change the Terms Coalition, which advocates for solutions to online extremism, and the author of numerous academic studies on extremism as well as co-editor of Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction.

My organization is a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network, an international body created by the governments of France and New Zealand after the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks, which the U.S. joined in 2021, that advises on the handling of online terrorist content and activity and is also a member of President Biden’s Summit for Democracy. I have testified in front of congressional committees on extremist threats to the military and veterans and the dangers posed by accelerationist neo-Nazi and militia movements. I also submitted solicited testimony to the January 6 Select Committee on the role of the white supremacist Proud Boys in the Capitol insurrection and, co-written with my colleague Wendy Via, testimony on how rising far-right extremism threatens democracy. My research has been cited in hundreds of academic pieces and news reports and I have served as an expert witness on far-right extremist groups in legal proceedings. I am honored to submit this statement.

This hearing is dedicated to “Countering Left-Wing Organized Violence” and though all political violence is deplorable and must be countered, I believe the focus is misguided as it does not align with what political violence data tells us is most threatening to our nation. In announcing this hearing, the chairman’s media advisory said, “The left-wing lawlessness Americans experienced during the summer of 2020 was, unfortunately, only the beginning of a long season of political violence and intimidation…This increasing political violence cannot remain unchecked.” The advisory specifically points to violence against law enforcement and other Americans from an organized left-wing movement. However, political violence from an “organized left” is not the real threat that Americans and law enforcement are facing. Data on acts of political violence clearly shows that it is the far right that is driving terrorism in the U.S., including targeting and, in certain cases, murdering law enforcement. That is not to say there is no violence from far-left actors, it is just simply not on the scale or as deadly as what is coming from far-right actors. Indeed, organized far-right actors have recently been convicted of seditious conspiracy for involvement in an insurrection against our democracy, surely something that directly threatens all of us.

For some time now, the main threats to our country in the form of “organized violence,” specifically domestic terrorism, have come from the far right. This is not only my assessment. The FBI, DHS, and the National Counterterrorism Center have all come to this same conclusion in recent years, citing white supremacist and antigovernment extremism as the main threats. And the U.S. is not alone in facing rising terrorism and violence from the far right. In June 2020, the State Department announced that white supremacist terrorism is “a serious challenge for the global community” and in 2020 added the neo-Nazi Russian Imperial Movement and some of its leadership to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist list.

Some very recent examples of far-right extremist violence or attempted violence are illustrative of the threat. Less than two weeks ago, a neo-Nazi and misogynist killed eight people at a mall outside of Dallas in a shooting spree. In early March, members of the LGBTQ+ community holding a Drag Queen story hour were attacked by white supremacists shouting “Heil Hitler.” In mid-March, a leader in the neo-Nazi Feuerkrieg Division was arrested for threatening to kill a journalist. And in late March, a self-identified White Lives Matter member was arrested for trying to burn down an Ohio church that was hosting an LGBTQ+ event. In February, a founder of the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division was arrested in a plot to destroy Baltimore’s power grid (he had served time in prison for possession of illegal weapons and bomb making materials and may have been targeting a Florida nuclear power station in 2017). Last October, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was viciously attacked in his home by a man steeped in far-right conspiracy theories such as QAnon and who believed former President Donald Trump’s lies that the 2020 election had been stolen. In June 2022, masked members of the white supremacist Patriot Front were arrested near an Idaho Pride event for conspiracy to riot and found to have smoke grenades, riot shields, and other concerning materials in their possession. The police who handled the arrests received multiple death threats. This is far from a comprehensive list of far-right violent incidents over the last year.

Additionally, the most serious mass terrorist attacks in recent years have been perpetrated by white supremacists. In May 2021, a shooter targeted Black shoppers in a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., killing ten people. He was motivated by the most dangerous white supremacist conspiracy theory, the “Great Replacement,” which argues falsely that white countries are being “invaded” and white people “replaced” by people of color and immigrants, a process they lay at the feet of “globalists” or Jews. That same idea motivated terrorist attacks at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, and others both in the U.S. and abroad. It is the most violence-inspiring idea circulating on the far right.

We should not forget that far-right extremists have also targeted our most fundamental political institution, our democracy. The January 6 insurrection, which attempted to stop a peaceful transfer of power, was the deadliest attack on the Capitol ever and killed five people and injured 140 police officers. Members of two far-right organized extremist groups—the antigovernment Oath Keepers and the white supremacist Proud Boys—have been convicted for seditious conspiracy, meaning they were found responsible for acts to “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.” And members of another far-right extremist group, the Three Percenter militia, have been indicted for conspiracy for their acts on January 6, with at least one having pleaded guilty. Far-right extremists have also killed law enforcement officers and extremist members of the military have engaged in plots to kill their fellow soldiers. Just this year, an Air Guard member with extremist views leaked sensitive national security documents. These examples show that far-right activities are multifaceted and threaten our national security.

This is the real extremist political violence that Americans are facing. And that threat has been escalating in recent years and needs the most attention and resources to counter. This assessment does not make light of violence coming from the left, and in past eras there was significant terrorism and violence including murders by left-wing groups in the 1970s and threats and property destruction by anarchist, environmental, and animal rights extremists in the 2000s. But it is simply a fact that in recent years, the left is less connected to deadly acts, and when engaged in criminality, is more prone to property destruction and street-violence (which far-right groups also engage in with deadly results) than murder. To counteract these real threats to Americans, it is imperative that data drives the decision making.

Additionally, as it is a focus of this hearing, it is important to note that a significant amount of far-right violence was perpetrated or attempted against racial justice protesters in 2020. On June 3, 2020, federal authorities arrested three individuals allegedly associated with the Boogaloo Bois, a loosely-organized group of far-right extremists preparing for a civil war, for conspiring to cause violence during Las Vegas Black Lives Matter protests using incendiary devices. Less than a week later, law enforcement officials near Richmond, Virginia, arrested a Ku Klux Klan leader for driving a vehicle into peaceful protesters. And two law enforcement officers were killed in California by members of the Boogaloo Bois. In 2020, far-right extremists also used cars as weapons against racial justice protesters, with reports of at least 50 vehicle-ramming incidents starting in May 2000. At least 18 were categorized as deliberate. None of this excuses the violence that sometimes accompanied the protests, including officers injured and blinded, police cars set on fire, and property destruction, but there is no evidence these events were caused by left-wing actors or members of antifa, as Trump so often exclaimed. An AP analysis of hundreds of arrests for illegal activities during the protests including arson, assault, rioting and other charges, found most arrested weren’t “leftist radicals.” Additionally, an analysis of racial justices protests in 2020 and 2021 found that “94% of protests involved no participant arrests, 97.9% involved no participant injuries, 98.6% involved no injuries to police, and 96.7% involved no property damage.” Describing these events as lawless is simply false.

Terrorism Data Proves Far-Right Extremists Top Threat

Several analyses of political violence substantiate what the FBI and other federal agencies have asserted, that the most lethal form of terrorism today is coming from the far right, particularly from white supremacists and antigovernment militias, but also inspired by other bigoted far-right ideologies such as male supremacy.

In the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) assessment of ideological motivation based on data on terrorist attacks and plots from 1994 to May 2020, they found, “right-wing attacks and plots were predominant from 1994 to 1999 and accounted for more than half of all incidents in 2008 as well as every year since 2011, with the exception of 2013. Most right-wing attacks in the 1990s targeted abortion clinics, while most right-wing attacks since 2014 focused on individuals (often targeted because of religion, race, or ethnicity) and religious institutions. Facilities and individuals related to the government and police have also been consistent right-wing targets, particularly for attacks by militia and sovereign citizen groups.”

CSIS also found that the number of incidents had increased since 2014: “This increase is reminiscent of the wave of right-wing activity in the 1990s that peaked with 43 right-wing incidents in 1995. The Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred on April 19, 1995, was the second-most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history, after September 11, 2001. In three recent years—2016, 2017, and 2019—the number of right-wing terrorist events matched or exceeded the number in 1995, including a recent high of 53 right-wing terrorist incidents in 2017. Despite a moderate decrease in 2018 to 29 incidents, right-wing activity again increased in 2019 to 44 incidents.” In eight of the years from 1994 to 2019, all fatalities were caused by right-wing attackers, and in three more, including 2018 and 2019, these actors caused more than 90 percent of annual fatalities. CSIS found that while religious terrorists caused the largest number of total fatalities because of 9/11, right-wing perpetrators were “most likely to cause more deaths in a given year.”

CSIS also documented 25 left-wing attacks in 2020. Those incidents included attempts to derail trains in efforts to stop pipeline construction and at least seven incidents in which police and their facilities were attacked with incendiary devices and weapons fire. The incidents included the burning of a Minneapolis police precinct during the racial justice protests in 2020 and the killing of a  Trump supporter in Oregon by a suspected gunman who was a self-described antifa supporter, the only death that year connected to far-left violence. In 2020, CSIS made the following conclusions: far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, such as far-left or Islamic extremists, right-wing attacks and plots are the majority of all terrorist incidents since 1994, right-wing attacks and plots have grown significantly, and finally, right-wing extremists perpetrated over 90 percent of these incidents between January 1 and May 8, 2020. In 2021, CSIS further found that violent far-right attacks and plots remained the most frequent type of domestic terrorism, and they were responsible for 28 of 30 fatalities from terrorism in 2021. As a Washington Post analysis of CSIS data concluded, “The surge [of terrorist violence] reflects a growing threat from homegrown terrorism not seen in a quarter-century, with right-wing extremist attacks and plots greatly eclipsing those from the far left and causing more deaths.”

It is notable that CSIS found that far-left perpetrators motivated by anarchism, anti-fascism, or anti-law enforcement beliefs committed a growing percentage of attacks in 2021. Although these actors were behind a higher than usual number of terrorist attacks and plots in 2021, only one committed by a Black nationalist and anti-police activist resulted in a fatality. In 2021, violent far-right attackers primarily used highly lethal weapons, such as firearms, while far-left attackers mainly used weapons such as knives or bludgeons, leading to a higher number of deaths by far-right actors.

Data from other sources supports CSIS’ analysis that far-right terrorism is the most frequent and deadly. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that over the prior decade, there were about 450 U.S. murders committed by political extremists. Of these murders far-right extremists were responsible for about 75 percent, Islamic extremists for about 20 percent, and left-wing extremists for four percent. White supremacists committed nearly half of the murders. In 2022, the ADL identified 62 extremist-connected mass casualty incidents since 1970, with 46 of them being far-right ideologically motivated, more than half having occurred in the prior 12 years. All of the extremist-related murders in 2022 were committed by far-right extremists. Left-wing extremists engaged in violence ranging from assaults to fire-bombings and arsons, but since the late 1980s, have rarely targeted people with deadly violence.

Government Analyses Concur

Government analyses agree with CSIS and the ADL. In an October 2022 threat assessment from the FBI and DHS, it was reported that, “In 2021, the FBI and DHS assessed RMVEs [Racially-Motivated Violent Extremists] advocating the superiority of the white race and anti-authority or antigovernment violent extremists, specifically militia violent extremists, presented the most lethal threat categories.” The assessment also pointed out that these far- right extremists, “were most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians, and militia violent extremists would typically target law enforcement and government personnel and facilities.” A March 2023 GAO report assessing data on the threat notes, “According to DHS, there were 231 domestic terrorism incidents between 2010 and 2021. Of these, about 35% (the largest category) were classified as racially- or ethnically-motivated. These attacks were also the most lethal.” The report further notes that, “Antigovernment or anti-authority motivated violent extremism was the second largest category of incidents, and resulted in 15 deaths over the same time period.” On left-wing animal rights extremism the report says, “There were also domestic terrorism incidents linked to animal rights extremists and abortion-related violent extremists, among other motivations. Animal rights-related incidents did not result in any deaths during this time period; incidents related to abortion-related violent extremists led to 3 deaths.”

Academic research studying worldwide data on terrorism substantiates that left-wing extremism is less deadly. An analysis published in 2022 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at far-right, far-left, and Islamist extremism found that “radical acts perpetrated by individuals associated with left-wing causes are less likely to be violent.”

Given this data it is unsurprising that in May 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas both told a Senate committee that the greatest domestic threat facing the United States came from what they called “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” meaning far-right actors. Garland emphasized that the greatest threat is from “those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.” In February 2022, DHS issued a bulletin saying of the domestic terrorism threat, “The convergence of violent extremist ideologies, false or misleading narratives, and conspiracy theories have and will continue to contribute to a heightened threat of violence in the United States.”

The rising tide of far-right domestic terrorism is also reflected in the FBI’s caseload as the lead agency investigating terrorism and political violence. In January 2022, FBI officials reported that their domestic terrorism investigation caseload had more than doubled from 1,000 to 2,700 over the prior 18 months, leading to a 260 percent increase in personnel. The agency also reported that of its 2,700 open cases, where an individual or group of individuals has been designated domestic terrorists, almost a third were involved in the January 6 insurrection and subsequent political activity connected to it. To help manage the surge in far-right extremism cases, the DOJ created a new domestic terrorism unit in 2022. “January 6 was not an isolated event,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 2, 2021. “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

It is relevant that hate crimes, which are predominantly motivated by the same hatreds white supremacists hold and can be considered mini-domestic terrorist attacks for their targeting of specific protected classes, have also been on the rise. The FBI reported in March that hate crimes rose from more than 8,000 in 2020 to nearly 11,000 in 2021, the eighth year in a row that the numbers have gone up. This is particularly troubling given that we know from multiple Bureau of Justice Statistics analyses that hate crimes are underreported by around ninety percent.

The data is clear. Terrorism from the far-right is more frequent, deadlier, and has been increasing in recent years. There is left-wing violence, but it does not in any way compare with the volume and deadliness of far-right violence. These numbers justify the conclusions reached by federal agencies that countering far-right domestic terrorism must be the priority in law enforcement and other efforts, such as those outlined in President Joe Biden’s 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. There is no evidence to conclude that left-wing organizations and individuals or their associated violence should be a priority in the battle against political violence.

Importance of Assessing the Threat of Political Violence Accurately

For policy reasons, it is critical that responses to political violence line up with the available evidence of where the threat is most dire. Through administrations of both parties after the 9/11 attacks, far-right violence was ignored as the focus moved entirely to Islamist extremism, obviously also a very serious threat, but not the only one. Just six years prior to 9/11, Timothy McVeigh, inspired by a neo-Nazi race war novel and antigovernment militias, committed the largest domestic terrorist attack in American history up to that time. But the reality of such violence was forgotten in the wake of 9/11. Taking our eye off far-right violence meant that agencies that protect us from political violence were understaffed and lacking in expertise as far-right attacks began to metastasize during the Obama administration.

But there was a deeper problem in this reluctance to accept rising far-right violence as a growing threat. Emblematic of this was the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw a DHS report in 2009 that correctly anticipated that this type of violence would be on the rise. In the wake of multiple attacks on the DHS report by conservatives, the Washington Postreported that DHS “cut the number of personnel studying domestic terrorism unrelated to Islam, canceled numerous state and local law enforcement briefings, and held up dissemination of nearly a dozen reports on extremist groups.” Obama officials also did not seem to understand the new landscape they were facing. During its February 2015 White House summit on countering violent extremism, Obama only mentioned one far-right attack, Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing. Just a few months later, white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine in a Black church in Charleston, S.C. And shockingly, just two weeks after the Charleston massacre, the House Committee on Homeland Security released a Terror Threat Snapshot that contained no mention of Charleston or the threat of far-right terrorism.

Because of a politicized refusal to confront the available data on the source of the threat, federal agencies were completely unprepared for the mass attacks and far-right violence that has exploded in recent years. And today, the head in the sand attitude towards far-right extremism continues to be a problem. A 2022 report from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee determined that although DHS and FBI have identified white supremacist and other far-right violence as “the most persistent and lethal terrorist threat,” the federal government has continued to prioritize Islamist terrorist threats when allocating resources. Facts must be the basis of analysis and lead policies that can protect the American people from the actual threats they face.

Officials, predominantly Republican, who refuse to accept that data shows far-right extremism is most connected to terrorism are misleading the public. Research has shown that most Americans understand extremist violence inaccurately, largely along partisan lines. For example, a May 2022 YouGov poll measured whom Americans blame for extremist murders. The poll asked people to assess whether extremist murders were committed by left-wing or right-wing extremists and found that only a fraction of Americans viewed one side as more likely to engage in such violence. Most 2020 Trump voters said that more than half of murders linked to extremism were committed by left-wing actors, a view likely shaped by such things as Trump falsely claiming antifascist groups stormed the Capitol on January 6, have been responsible for considerable violence, and “antifa” should be labeled a terrorist organization. Most Democrats and Biden voters were better informed, saying right-wing extremists were more likely to commit extremist murders. In total, only 18 percent of respondents agreed with what facts tell us, that almost all extremist murders were a function of far-right actors. Another 21 percent said that more than half were. Given the relevant data, many Americans, particularly those on the right, have been seriously misinformed about the nature of political violence and the fact that it is mostly perpetrated by those on the far right.

This obfuscation and disinformation about the real threats our country faces from the far right comes with a price. It has hampered efforts to address extremism in the military, misinformed the public on what happened on January 6, the most serious attack on our democracy, and impeded bipartisan efforts to investigate the attack, and thus how to prevent further such situations, and left communities targeted by the far right vulnerable to violence. The latter is particularly inflamed by politicians and far-right activists who endorse the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, a shameful fact considering how this idea has spawned terrorist attacks against Jews, Latinos, Black people, and others in the US and abroad.

Accurately and honestly assessing terrorist threats is of vital importance to protecting the safety of our communities, our national security, and our democracy. If the subcommittee’s Republicans cared about keeping Americans and our law enforcement professionals safe from extremist violence, this hearing would address the significant threat from the far right. Hearings designed to fuel disinformation are unworthy of our elected leaders, a waste of taxpayer resources, and dangerous.

Statement also available in PDF.

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