Trump’s Focus on ‘Radical Islam’ Downplays Growing Risk From Right-Wing Extremism, Experts Fear

The administration’s plans to focus on countering only one sort of extremism could imperil the broader fight against terrorism.


The Trump administration’s focus on fighting “radical Islamic terrorism” could not only hamper counterterrorism efforts, but it could even embolden right-wing and anti-government extremists, experts and former government officials say.

Donald Trump’s transition team made clear to officials at the Department of Homeland Security after the election that it wants to reorient programs meant to counter violent extremism so that they focus almost exclusively on the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism rather than other forms of extremism.

The inference was unmistakable, says a former U.S. counterterrorism official who worked on programs to counter extremism and who is familiar with those transition meetings. “We’re seen as too politically correct and that we are not taking the threat head on by ‘calling it what is,’” the official said. A focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism also underpinned the administration’s now frozen travel ban for individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries.

So far, in the administration’s chaotic early days, no big changes have been made to the DHS program. A DHS official told Foreign Policy that no decision had been reached as to whether this change in focus would actually be put in place. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has not commented on the matter.

But the proposal is meeting plenty of pushback, both because it could undermine government efforts to counter radicalization within the Muslim community and because it ignores a big and growing threat from far-right and anti-government groups. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) warned in a Feb. 13 letter to Kelly that such a shift could “continue to give rise to the false narrative that Western Civilization is at war with Islam.”

Focusing solely on Islamic extremism “would be a huge mistake,” said David Schanzer, the director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He said programs meant to counter extremism “were a hard sell for the Muslim community even before” the election and that Muslim communities see them “as a form of surveillance.” Four schools have turned down federal CVE funding citing such concerns. In all, 20 percent of a total of $10 million in DHS funds for countering extremism have been rejected.

Such a shift would also downplay the threat from other forms of terrorism. Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and civil rights. On Wednesday, SPLC released its latest “Hate Map,” which shows that there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States, such as the Crusaders, which counts among its membership three men in Kansas who plotted in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex where Somalis live. The SPLC noted an increase in hate crimes in the month following Trump’s election.

And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-government groups have racked up a death toll on par with that of Islamist extremists, according to New America, a think tank, which keeps a database on terrorist incidents. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, in which a New York man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, far-right extremism caused more deaths in the United States than did jihad.

“The trend lines look very similar,” David Sterman, a terrorism analyst with New America, told FP.

According to a 2015 survey of nearly 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, authorities considered anti-government violent extremists, rather than radicalized Muslims, to be “the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”

And that threat may be growing. The former U.S. counterterrorism official said recent intelligence briefings showed an uptick in domestic threats associated with white nationalists and anti-government groups. Police officers are being threatened by these groups as well, the official said — and are even being infiltrated by them, according to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide from April 2015.

“There’s a more regular occurrence of this kind of reporting obviously than with ISIS-inspired threats,” the official said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.

In many respects, the Trump administration is merely trying to further a yearslong effort by conservatives to narrow U.S. counterterrorism strategy to focus on the threat from Islamist radicals. In 2009, DHS reportedly disowned a paper on “right-wing extremism” under political pressure from conservatives. During former President Barack Obama’s administration, DHS had already cut analysts and funding and lessened intelligence sharing with state and local authorities dedicated to the issue, according to another former senior counterterrorism official.

That official told FP that the day-to-day focus on right-wing extremism functionally disappeared years ago. “Since then, law enforcement and intelligence work by the department has not looked at right-wing extremism in any substantive way,” the official said.

And while the debate over extremism plays out in Washington, refugees continue to bear the cost. The official said the Trump team is using language around the refugee vetting process that was once reserved for terrorism and extremism.

“[The] refugee vetting process is as close to a security scrub as getting a higher-degree, secret-level clearance in the U.S. government,” the official said. White House charges that there’s not enough scrutiny for refugees, including mothers and young children, is a “bit more than insane — that’s a little unhinged.”

Update, Feb. 15 2017, 4:22 pm ET: This piece was updated to include the latest Hate Map from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Photo credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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