Washington Must Treat White Supremacist Terrorism as a Transnational Threat

After the Capitol attack, the U.S. government needs to recognize racist extremists as a national security risk and create a high-level counterterrorism czar to disrupt their financing and dismantle their networks.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate Chamber after breaching the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump holds a Confederate flag outside the Senate Chamber after breaching the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The explosion of white supremacist violence displayed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. Before Donald Trump and the QAnon-inspired crowd of seditious conspiracy theorists that backs him arrived, there was the so-called Michigan Militia, which in the mid-1990s inspired Timothy McVeigh to murder 168 people by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And before that, for nearly a century, Southern white supremacists, organized into terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, murdered and terrorized Black Americans. This happened because, in an eerie echo of today’s events, the legitimate results of the 1876 presidential election were overturned, prematurely ending Reconstruction and advancing white power while betraying the promise of equality for Black Americans.

White supremacist terrorism has been a feature, not an outlier, of American life.

And as the national security community is well aware, terrorism is multidimensional in nature. It therefore requires a multidimensional response, one that does not yet exist in the fight against white supremacist terrorism.

One needs to look no further than QAnon, the violent, anti-Semitic conspiratorial movement that has metastasized in dozens of countries. It is a hydra-headed beast whose inspiration is Trump, a man believed to be the savior of white people everywhere.

Despite this history, and despite the fact that Trump has been pouring gasoline on the still burning embers of white supremacy in the United States, the U.S. government is not properly equipped to counter the threat. Something structural needs to urgently change in the national security bureaucracy to deal with right-wing violence.

Washington therefore needs to treat white supremacist violence as the transnational threat that it is. This means officially designating it as terrorism and restructuring the government’s counterterrorism agencies to comprehensively counter it as a transnational threat.

In a recent report produced by my organization, the American Jewish Congress, we identified the links between white supremacist terrorism and the Capitol insurrectionists, highlighting their online mobilization against the U.S. government and efforts to subvert a democratic election. In an analysis of 24,000 right-wing Twitter accounts on the day of and day after the Capitol invasion, we found that 6 percent were engaged in insurrectionist discussion and 40 percent of those accounts were associated with QAnon.

Because QAnon knows no national boundaries, it’s clear that  Washington has an international terrorist problem on its hands. White supremacist terrorist attacks that have occurred abroad in recent years, such as the Christchurch mosque shootings, have been globally inspired by attacks in Norway, the United States, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that such inspiration across national boundaries can only accelerate in the age of social media.

Yet instead of labeling white supremacy and its allied movements as terrorists, the U.S. government has historically described them as hate groups. While their actions do of course demonstrate hate, their attacks are quintessentially political, manifesting themselves in acts of terrorism meant to impact and disrupt democratic political life.

White supremacists focus on targeting and terrorizing people of color, Jews, and religious minorities, and they do so for maximum political impact, just as international terrorists do. Just ask the families of the nine Black Americans murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston if they were victims of terrorism or the Latino Americans targeted in the El Paso Walmart shooting or the 11 Jewish Americans murdered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The common thread among the killers was their attempt to achieve the political objective of white supremacy by terrorizing specific groups in locations where those groups convened. The killers embraced the white supremacist symbols of the Confederacy, anti-immigrant ideologies, and the racist great replacement and acceleration theories. Similarly, on Jan. 6, the terrorists also targeted a specific group—lawmakers carrying out their constitutional duties. Likewise, the terrorists also sought to achieve their political objective of white supremacy by attempting to block the certification of an election winner who was significantly backed by minority groups.

Yet as the world witnessed the U.S. Capitol attack, the response to the white rioters was remarkably restrained. Ask a person of color about whether they could march into the Capitol, break windows, sit in the House speaker’s chair, and take photos for sharing on social media, and they would laugh in your face. Everyone knows they would have likely faced the same fate as George Floyd.

So now, as the United States has once again experienced a violent white riot, the question is, will the Biden administration recognize the failure of how Washington confronts white supremacist terrorism at home, and if so, will it change it?

In recent years, structures to combat white supremacist terrorism have been weakened to the point of irrelevance. Real organizational change is needed to ensure that this threat is countered effectively.

For starters, white supremacist terrorism should be viewed as a quintessentially transnational threat, one that requires holistic thinking and that breaks through the domestic versus foreign policy firewalls that the stovepiped U.S. government bureaucracy has trouble breaking down.

This is where the Biden administration has an opportunity to plant a flag in the fight against white supremacy.

Traditionally, the U.S. government takes on so-called transnational threats by seeking to lead an international effort to fix things, in partnership with U.S. allies abroad, so that the problem doesn’t affect Americans negatively at home.

Think of a classic transnational threat: climate change. The national security community is organized to view this as a danger to the U.S. way of life, regardless of the fact that Americans pose perhaps the greatest environmental danger to the planet, belching out a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gasses despite having only 4 percent of the world’s population. Only in the past decade has it been also viewed as a national security issue, largely spurred by the U.S. Defense Department and intelligence community’s interest in it.

But for the national security community, U.S. culpability in accelerating climate calamity is not its responsibility. It views mitigation as a job for the domestic policy people at the Environmental Protection Agency to figure out, while the national security people can instead focus on adaptation.

Terrorism has been treated as a foreign-policy issue for decades—excluding domestic terrorist groups with international links from the target list.

But for those of us who inhabit this planet, that’s just not good enough. The United States cannot stop climate-driven instability overseas if it does not clamp down on its disastrous climate policy at home. A sound policy to counter climate change, one that reduces instability around the globe that weakens U.S. security, requires an integrated strategy between domestic and foreign policy to succeed. It is a transnational threat that requires a transnational response.

The same goes for white supremacist terrorism, which is intrinsically transnational. Terrorism has been treated as a foreign-policy issue for decades. The National Security Council, State Department, Treasury Department, intelligence community, and other agencies attempt to stamp it out “over there,” excluding domestic terrorist groups with international links from the target list.

But what about the white supremacist terrorists who are conducting attacks at home? What about their co-conspirators in Europe, the political parties of Italy, Hungary, and France that traffic in the same hate-think that QAnon, the Boogaloo movement, the Proud Boys, and others engage in? There is already ample evidence of far-right white supremacist terrorist groups overseas spreading their message to similar groups in other countries, as the terrorist Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) has into Scandinavia and appears to have in the United States as well.

And what about the terrorism that U.S.-based white supremacists export abroad? The Justice and Treasury departments rightly shut down terrorist financing operations from U.S.-based financiers of Hamas. Unfortunately, the same fervor doesn’t seem to exist for shutting down the financing of European terrorist groups. After all, the U.S. government has yet to announce the shutting down of financial support for RIM, despite the potential likelihood that it is taking place due to its U.S. connections. This suggests that there are two tracks of treatment for white and non-white terrorism financiers; that disparity must end, and all financial backers of all forms of terrorism must be held accountable.

Nationalism and white supremacy are not new to international relations. The Nazis had many sympathizers and supporters in the United States who attempted to undermine America’s resolve to stop fascism in Europe. For example, America Firsters almost succeeded in winning the pro-isolationist argument, losing it only after the Pearl Harbor attacks motivated the United States to join the war. If they had been successful, it would have delivered all of Europe (and likely much more) to the Nazis. Similarly, today’s alt-right white supremacists echo the same themes of white power used back in the 1920s and ’30s—and they have supporters abroad.

Indeed, white supremacy was perhaps the first global terrorist network of the modern era. And it has crisscrossed the globe without brakes for decades.

U.S. officials therefore need to open the aperture and confront white supremacist terrorism as a true transnational threat by identifying, disrupting, and destroying the links between these terrorists at home and abroad.

The Biden administration needs to create the position of a special presidential coordinator to counter white supremacist terrorism.

To do this, the Biden administration needs to create the position of a special presidential coordinator to counter white supremacist terrorism. This individual would be responsible for managing the entities within both the foreign and domestic agencies currently charged with countering terrorism. It would be analogous to the director of national intelligence, a post created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks because the U.S. government had failed to close intelligence gaps, leading to that calamitous day. Doing so would elevate the issue’s importance inside the government and ensure that actions to counter this unique form of terrorism are coordinated, integrated, and effective.

A special presidential coordinator should work across all the relevant agencies—Justice, State, Treasury, Defense, Homeland Security, and the intelligence community. They should report directly to the president and have a seat on both the National Security and Homeland Security councils.

Their goal should be to seek out the links between international backers of domestic white supremacist terrorist groups and vice versa, disrupting the ties between them. This individual would take with them the mindset that U.S. officials have been using for years to disrupt state sponsors of terrorism and their clients. Such an approach has worked on foreign threats. Now it’s time to apply these lessons learned to domestic ones.

For the past four years, the Trump administration not only turned a blind eye to this threat, but it often encouraged it for its own political benefit, as evidenced by the Jan. 6 riot. It is time to rectify this situation—and not by reverting to the failed approaches of the past.

The online radicalization of Americans is not limited to internal affairs. Technology is global. Online communications are global. The U.S. response must finally confront the threat as it is.

Having a special presidential coordinator will achieve this by ensuring that punishment of key figures will be targeted and swift. It will enable the Biden administration to cut through government red tape and the stovepipes that exist between agencies to quickly get to the bottom line to combat this radicalization. Gaps that these terrorists exploit will be closed.

The global nature of the white supremacist terrorist threat to the United States has finally grabbed the world’s attention like never before, despite being in front of our noses for decades. White supremacist groups have held politicians hostage for years, intimidating them, particularly Republicans, into silence. This needs to change.

Just as white supremacist terrorist groups know no national boundaries, the Biden administration should not be bound by past structures when it comes to confronting this existential menace.

Now is the time to create new official structures at the highest levels of the U.S. government to combat white supremacist terrorism. Doing so will ensure that the U.S. government can swiftly implement justice and root out this transnational extremist threat, liberating the country from the fear that these extremists attempt to foster.

Joel Rubin is the executive director of the American Jewish Congress and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state. Twitter: @joelmartinrubin