In light of recent reporting addressing the prevalence of right-wing extremism in Germany’s top special operations unit, the Kommando Spezialkrafte (KSK), it is useful to examine the radicalization profiles of individuals in the United States. While not framed for comparison here, the discussion of individual extremism in the U.S. does offer value as various online-derived extremist movements gain more notoriety.
Indeed, last year, the FBI refocused its efforts on so-called “home-grown” domestic violent extremists. It noted that domestic terrorism cases relate to a range of different ideologies in the form of “racially motivated extremism, anti-government attacks, animal-rights related attacks, anti-abortion attacks,” and others.
One timely and relevant example can be found in the so-called Boogaloo movement, a right-wing extremist movement recently cited by an Air Force sergeant after his late May murder of two officers in Santa Cruz County, California. The Boogaloo movement and the specifics surrounding the online radicalization of the accused present a compelling and fascinating narrative that led a well-trained service member to commit murder.
However, the scope of this article does not seek to explore specific radicalization instances of individuals. It will instead share valuable research that provides greater context for our understanding of individual extremism in the U.S. writ large. Indeed, research from the University of Maryland’s Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) offers the reader such context in the form of a database profiling 2,226 extremists who radicalized to both violent and non-violent extremism from 1948 to 2018.
This full dataset illustrates important differences that exist across the ideological spectrum and offers insights into right-wing, left-wing, and Islamist ideologies. Notably, far-right extremists comprise the largest ideological group in the START database, followed by Islamist extremists (the number thereof peaked following 9/11; it has since been trending downwards). The remaining individuals in the data are far-left extremists or people who subscribe to “single-issue” ideology (e.g. anti-abortion extremists, members of the Jewish Defense League, etc.).
Far-right extremists tended to be “older, have lower rates of college experience, and higher rates of pre-radicalization crime than their far-left and Islamist counterparts.” Indeed, the mean age for right-wing extremists at the time of “public exposure” is just shy of 38 years old. This characterization contrasts starkly with far-left extremists, who tended to be “younger (mean age 29.7), well educated, and are significantly more likely to be female than far-right or Islamist extremists.”
In right-wing extremism, the majority demonstrated some expression of White supremacism, which holds that “people of European descent (typically Christians and especially men) are inherently superior to others and should, therefore, dominate social, political, and cultural institutions.” Also integrated into White supremacy views are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim beliefs, which fit White supremacists’ “racialized definitions of religion, ethnicity, and nationality.” Indeed, data from 2015-2018 demonstrated that nearly 30 percent of all right-wing extremists were motivated by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views, compared to 8 percent from 2006-2015. Finally, nearly 30 percent of right-wing extremists in the database are or were members of the “Sovereign Citizen movement, anti-government militias, and/or express anti-government views.”
When analyzing left-wing extremists, it was noted that far-left ideologies in the U.S. have typically rallied around opposition to capitalism and racial, gender, and other inequalities. While Black nationalists and “new left” movements dominated the far-left, some members of these groups “advocated for violence and other illegal activities to advance specific political agendas, including opposition to the Vietnam War and support for Black separatism.” However, in the 1980s, left-wing extremists became increasingly motivated by environmental issues and animal rights, which surprisingly (or not) characterize the largest left-wing extremist group in the database.
Finally, anarchist movements — which argue that state power is oppressive and who instead advocate for social communes — only made up 8.3 percent of the total left-wing extremist cases in the database. However, this number rapidly expanded to 50 percent of all far-left cases in 2018.
Arguably, this data is most useful when it can be analyzed to better explore which factors present concerns for populations that are at-risk of online radicalization. In doing so, the START database identifies that individuals who are female, older, married, have children, and stable employment histories are “significantly less likely to plan, prepare for, or engage in acts of violence” than those who are male, younger, unmarried, unemployed, or under-employed.
Said differently, individuals who have “engaged in pre-radicalization crime, show evidence of mental illness, substance abuse, or trauma, and act alone are more likely to engage in extremist violence.” In reference to the Air Force sergeant mentioned above, this database does not appear to present a strong relationship between military experience, online radicalization, or affiliation with extremist groups. However, a significant number — 23 percent — of right-wing extremists did have military experience, compared to under 10 percent for left-wing extremists.
While correlation does not prove causation, this database offers valuable insights into individual extremism and domestic terrorism cases in the U.S. It is said that “terrorism moves at the speed of the internet,” a difficult truth when assessing and seeking to disrupt both domestic and international terrorism. Certainly, online radicalization is the primary means through which individuals radicalize, with over 86 percent of right-wing extremists and over 94 percent of left-wing extremists in this dataset being radicalized online.
Thanks for listening.