The U.S. Government Is Finally Getting Tough on White Nationalist Terrorism

By listing a Russian white supremacist group as a terrorist organization, the Trump administration is sending a long overdue signal to Moscow and the global far-right.

Russian ultra-nationalists wave Russian Empire's black-yellow-white flags as they take part in the so-called "Russian March" in central Moscow on November 4, 2012.
Russian ultra-nationalists wave Russian Empire's black-yellow-white flags as they take part in the so-called "Russian March" in central Moscow on November 4, 2012. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. government took an important step on Monday, when it announced it would designate the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), an ultranationalist white supremacist group, as a terrorist group—a move that Nathan Sales, the chief counterterrorism official at the State Department, correctly called “unprecedented.” The designation of RIM is a welcome departure for the Trump administration. The president himself has shown a disturbing sympathy toward white nationalists and an equally disturbing complaisance with regard to Russian meddling in Western politics. Targeting RIM is a step in the right direction on both issues.

RIM is an excellent candidate for designation, both because of its own murderous activities and because of its attempts to build an international movement—part of a broader Russian effort to cultivate violent white supremacists. RIM has trained neo-Nazis, particularly those from Scandinavia, and recruited volunteers to fight on the Russian side in the Ukraine war.

A formal designation is an important step to stop groups like RIM. Under U.S. law, the State Department designates  foreign groups that pose a terrorism risk to Americans or to U.S. national security. This designation, in turn, comes with financial and travel restrictions, among other punishments. The reason the duty falls on the State Department is that the terrorist groups in question are meant to be foreign, not domestic like the Ku Klux Klan; RIM primarily falls into this foreign category.

The president has shown a disturbing sympathy toward white nationalists and an equally disturbing complaisance with regard to Russian meddling in Western politics. Targeting RIM is a step in the right direction on both issues.

However, a clean foreign versus domestic distinction made more sense in the 1970s, when terrorist groups conducted operations overseas while left-wing radicals carried out attacks on U.S. soil. The 9/11 attacks, however, highlighted that this distinction was breaking down, and subsequent U.S. arrests of Americans who supported groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State showed that radical violence crossed national borders. For today’s white supremacist groups, many of their ideas and models come from overseas. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who murdered 77 people in 2011, mostly left-leaning youths at a summer camp, and Brenton Tarrant, who livestreamed his murder of 51 Muslims in a shooting spree in New Zealand last year, have been celebrated as heroes by white supremacists worldwide.

Recognizing a white nationalist group as a terrorist group sends a message to the white supremacist community that it risks being targeted by intelligence and law enforcement agencies if it does not reject violence, particularly if there is an overseas link. But the decision is far more than just a message. A terrorism designation enables the United States to use one of its most powerful counterterrorism tools, international intelligence sharing, to go after groups and their supporters.

To gain information on a potentially dangerous American who might be linked to RIM, the U.S. government can now reach out to foreign partners and trace financial flows, find incriminating statements, and otherwise disrupt plots and move toward prosecution. It can also prevent white supremacist groups from working in coordination across national borders, making them far less effective as a result. Such cooperation is particularly important in going after a group like RIM.

A terrorism designation is also tied to a very important legal charge: material support for a terrorist group. If Americans have links to RIM, they are legally vulnerable, just as an American with ties to the Islamic State would be. In addition to joining a group like RIM to receive training to kill or otherwise use violence, material support involves providing money, training, or other assistance. Helping to set up a website, for example, is a form of material support.

The U.S. government has charged many of the Americans linked to jihadi groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State with material support. Having the option of charging individuals with material support greatly expands the number of people who are legally at risk. White supremacists include members who know the ins and outs of a high-powered rifle and those who know JavaScript—now both are vulnerable.

Perhaps even more important than the direct effect on groups are the indirect effects on banks, social media companies, and other institutions. Legitimate institutions want to avoid any association, however indirect, with terrorism and are often reluctant to work with even legitimate groups in the Middle East for fear that they might have loose ties to a terrorist group. Many banks, for example, will not engage with the Palestinian Authority because of the perceived difficulty of separating that entity from groups like Hamas.

If banks, social media companies, and others now avoid providing services to white supremacist groups for fear of their links to a designated terrorist group, that will prove a major blow to the ability of these groups to recruit, conduct operations, and sustain their organizations. These companies, some of which are looking for an excuse to act against white supremacists but are fearful of the political blowback, are likely to become more aggressive if they can use the designation as a pretext.

The designation of RIM is also a welcome pushback against Russia, which has engaged in a range of activities that look like state sponsorship of terrorism. As part of its efforts to sow chaos in the West, Moscow has backed an array of nativist voices and causes, ranging from legitimate conservative political parties to extreme fringe groups. A formal designation makes it easier for intelligence and law enforcement officials to ensure international cooperation against Russia and makes it clear that officials in Washington will go after those at home who might assist Moscow.

If banks, social media companies, and others stop providing services to white supremacist groups  it will be a blow to their ability to recruit, conduct operations, and sustain their organizations.

More ineffably, but perhaps most important, listing white supremacists as terrorists sends the right message to Americans, and especially American Muslims, that the U.S. enemy is terrorists, not Muslims. Moreover, it underlines the idea that white nationalist groups can be just as dangerous as groups like the Islamic State. As Tarrant’s massacre in New Zealand showed, Muslims themselves are at risk from white supremacist violence, and this danger can surge when terrorism fears are high. Listing non-Islamist groups indicates that the United States will do better at taking all forms of violence against civilians seriously.

This designation marks a welcome departure from the almost exclusive focus of senior Trump administration officials on Islamist terrorism. Other white supremacist groups, such as Atomwaffen Division and the Base, should also be added to the list and laws beefed up to tackle white supremacists who lack such connections. Such steps might save lives in the United States and around the world and show that regardless of the ideological motivation underlying a terrorist threat, the United States will lead the way in fighting it.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Twitter: @dbyman

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