How Far-Right Terrorists Choose Their Enemies

Debates over which targets to prioritize aren’t exclusive to jihadi groups.

By , the research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and , the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
A masked man carrying an upside-down U.S. flag stands in front of a marble building where police look out a window.
A masked man carrying an upside-down U.S. flag stands in front of a marble building where police look out a window.
An armed member of the Boogaloo Boys stands in front of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on Jan. 17, 2021. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Terrorist groups’ internal communications frequently reveal infighting over a range of issues, from how to allocate resources to disagreements about personnel and finances. One area where terrorists commonly diverge is target selection, an issue that plagues groups across the ideological spectrum.

Salafi-jihadi groups have long debated the most prudent way to achieve their goals of expelling “imperialist” Western powers such as the United States and Israel from the Middle East and reestablishing the lost caliphate. This debate has traditionally broken down according to a “near enemy” versus “far enemy” paradigm.

The concept was originally laid out by the Islamist theorist Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, who sought to convince fellow jihadis, including fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, to prioritize overthrowing the despotic Arab regimes that ruled their everyday lives—whom Faraj labeled the “near enemy”—before trying to take on the “far enemy” of “imperialist” powers such as the United States and Israel. Faraj argued that these (usually pro-Western) Arab rulers had allowed “infidels” to intervene in local affairs, facilitating foreign powers’ manipulative machinations in Middle Eastern culture and politics. Toppling these leaders and replacing them with true Muslim rulers was therefore key to ending imperialism.

Terrorist groups’ internal communications frequently reveal infighting over a range of issues, from how to allocate resources to disagreements about personnel and finances. One area where terrorists commonly diverge is target selection, an issue that plagues groups across the ideological spectrum.

Salafi-jihadi groups have long debated the most prudent way to achieve their goals of expelling “imperialist” Western powers such as the United States and Israel from the Middle East and reestablishing the lost caliphate. This debate has traditionally broken down according to a “near enemy” versus “far enemy” paradigm.

The concept was originally laid out by the Islamist theorist Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, who sought to convince fellow jihadis, including fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, to prioritize overthrowing the despotic Arab regimes that ruled their everyday lives—whom Faraj labeled the “near enemy”—before trying to take on the “far enemy” of “imperialist” powers such as the United States and Israel. Faraj argued that these (usually pro-Western) Arab rulers had allowed “infidels” to intervene in local affairs, facilitating foreign powers’ manipulative machinations in Middle Eastern culture and politics. Toppling these leaders and replacing them with true Muslim rulers was therefore key to ending imperialism.

Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden would later flip the emphasis, arguing instead that the “far enemy” was the real source of strife in the Arab and Islamic world, directly responsible for a cultural, religious, and economic crusade against his people. Bin Laden, who was particularly angered by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, believed it was futile to try to unseat local dictators while they enjoyed the backing of powerful Western countries. He therefore countered that jihadis should prioritize attacking the United States, Europe, and Israel to convince them to withdraw that support. Once they did, the local regimes, bereft of grassroots support, would be much easier to overthrow.

This wasn’t just a theoretical debate, but one with very real—and very bloody—consequences. Faraj’s view led him to play an instrumental role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, for which Faraj was executed the following year. And, as the world now knows all too well, bin Laden’s preference for attacking the far enemy saw him launch devastating attacks on U.S. embassies in two African capitals in 1998, on USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in 2000, and on New York City and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the near enemy and far enemy paradigm is not exclusive to jihadi groups. On the contrary, far-right terrorists and extremists have also begun to think along similar lines. As occurred within jihadi circles, the debate between members of the far right over which enemy, near or far, should be considered the more serious threat is dividing extremist ideologues and leading to disputes over target selection, tactics, and strategy. And identifying which of the movement’s factions are more likely to attack a given site might help counterterrorism professionals interdict the next plot or at least help likely targets erect defenses.


The concept of the “Great Replacement”—the idea that native-born white people in the United States and Europe are being deliberately replaced by nonwhite immigrants—has been the driving ideological force motivating most modern acts of far-right violence. Like the similar “white genocide” theory, this idea is notable because it explicitly defines both an internal and external enemy of those who “invade” as well as those allegedly orchestrating the “invasion.” Regardless of physical location, then, the far enemy for both jihadis and far-right extremists is the perceived invader, and the near enemy is anyone allowing or facilitating the invasion.

In many ways, this concept is similar to the message that bin Laden and al Qaeda’s chief propagandists pushed to their followers: The West is at war with Islam and it is your duty to fight back against an existential threat. In other words, terrorism is the only way to save your people (for bin Laden, this meant Muslims worldwide, or the ummah, and for far-right extremists, it’s the white race) from extinction. Crucially, in both cases, the near and far distinction is not geographic. Rather, it is symbolic, referring not to the extremist’s proximity to their perceived oppressor but to that oppressor’s role in the cultural, religious, economic, or demographic “replacement” of the extremist’s clan.

The Great Replacement has been referenced by some of the most notorious far-right terrorists of recent years, including Anders Breivik, Brenton Tarrant, and Patrick Crusius—who, respectively, attacked a government building and youth camp in Norway, a mosque in New Zealand, and a Walmart in Texas—among others. The manifestos these extremists left build upon and reference one another, seeking to advance these ideas and socialize them throughout the movement. Yet their target selection differs, a testament to how far-right terrorists, like their jihadi counterparts, develop varying perceptions of the foremost enemy of their cause.

Maybe the most haunting volley in the present wave of far-right terrorism afflicting the Western world occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. The gunman, a white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant, entered two mosques and opened fire, murdering 51 innocent worshippers, and livestreaming the first attack on Facebook. Tarrant’s manifesto, itself titled the “Great Replacement,” was a testament to far-enemy plotting: “We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history,” he declared, a blithe attempt to justify his mass murder.

Far-enemy targeting focuses violence against real or perceived immigrants, including Muslims, Asians, and Hispanics but also, perhaps counterintuitively, African Americans. Despite their centuries-long presence in the United States and the West, African Americans are still usually depicted by white supremacists as cultural and social invaders. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 murdered nine churchgoers at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, reportedly told his victims during the rampage, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Similar language, referencing an ethnic or racial replacement, is often used against immigrant communities.

Attacks targeting the far-enemy are often the most obviously “far-right” in that they very clearly target an ethnic or religious “other.” In fact, far-enemy terrorists are often so blindly hateful to perceived outsiders that they sometimes fail to correctly identify their victims. In one attack in a bar in Olathe, Kansas, in 2017, an Indian immigrant was killed by an attacker who thought he was targeting Iranians. Of course, the order he gave his victims—“get out of my country”—was not specific to their race or national origin: Being nonwhite was sufficient to merit their death. Far-enemy attacks, thus, fit neatly into the symbolic hero image that white supremacists love to convey of white soldiers taking up arms against the horde of invaders, the “barbarians at the gates.”

That said, despite the no doubt understandable perception that far-right terrorism primarily targets ethnic and religious minorities, the deadliest far-right incidents over the past 30 years have largely targeted racial compatriots, with near-enemy targeting often transcending “Great Replacement” thinking to involve a broader defense against a perceived assault on the rights of the attacker.

Timothy McVeigh’s assault on Oklahoma City in 1995 was aimed at federal law enforcement agencies who maintained a presence in the Alfred Murrah Federal Building. That bombing remains the deadliest modern far-right terrorist attack in the West, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 more. In 2011, Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik killed 77 at twin attacks on Oslo’s government quarter and a summer camp hosted by the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. And the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol targeted politicians of both parties, perhaps most notably Republican Vice President Mike Pence, who narrowly escaped a crowd baying for his hanging.

Breivik’s near-enemy plotting was actually so detailed that he meticulously outlined his categorization in his manifesto: enemy categories A, B, and C, ranging from political and media leaders to more peripheral figures in the political space but, crucially, all were domestic. Moreover, Breivik implored his followers not to directly attack the very immigrant communities he felt were eradicating the European project: “We will never have a chance at overthrowing the cultural Marxist if we waste our energy and efforts on fighting Muslims.” Ironically, his decree was ignored by his foremost disciple, Brenton Tarrant, despite the latter writing in his own manifesto that he “only really took true inspiration from Knight Justiciar Breivik.”

There is a significant nonracial element to near-enemy targeting, particularly when aimed at the government. In those cases, the government is seen as facilitating a broader assault on the assailant’s most cherished “rights”—such as gun rights, religion, or in the case of January 6, the reelection of Donald Trump. The near-enemy terrorist, then, will select one of a range of possible targets. Politicians are often targeted for their controversial policies. Jews similarly find themselves in the crosshairs because of the myriad far-right conspiracies obsessing over their alleged control of society. Or extremists might focus their vitriol against whites perceived as indifferent or complacent, particularly what they see as “race traitors” in interracial relationships. Others, including newer neo-Nazi collaboratives like the Atomwaffen Division and the Base, have displayed a willingness to target infrastructure in their aim to “accelerate” the destabilization of society.

Near-enemy terrorists, though, are still often motivated by “Great Replacement” thinking. There is perhaps no clearer example than Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. Bowers targeted a synagogue because he felt they were participating in the import of so-called “migrant caravans” from Latin America. Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers wrote on the far-right social media site Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Such self-aggrandizing messages hint at his image of himself as a martyr for a greater cause.

The Pittsburgh case illustrates that the lines between the two categories are fluid: The ideology, as well as its underlying grievances, transcend both groupings, and targeting decisions are usually very personal. The near enemy of the far right, then, is the same as that of Salafi-jihadis: the local regimes and political movements that allow for, if not deliberately encourage, the infiltration of the “invader”—in this case, usually immigrants—or the erosion of the ultra-conservative extremist’s rights or values. The framing, in other words, is the same, differentiating between local near enemies who facilitate the cultural damage wreaked by an outside force, in this case represented by the invading far enemy.

Or, as one member of the now largely defunct Atomwaffen Division stated, “The Jews were the virus, the people of color and the homosexuals, they were the symptoms.” Both enemies are seen as evil and the question for terrorists is not which enemy should live and which should die—both must eventually be eliminated—but rather sequencing, thus, which enemy should be targeted first.


As an academic exercise, comparing the “near enemy” and “far enemy” paradigm across ideologies is fascinating. But from a practical sense, what does it actually mean for law enforcement and intelligence services? Can it help inform the way counterterrorism practitioners and policymakers approach this issue?

When terrorist groups differ on target selection, it can lead to a broader schism. Again, al Qaeda is instructive in this regard. In the mid-2000s, a fissure emerged between al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and al Qaeda in Iraq, where its branch was led at the time by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. While bin Laden and other senior leaders wanted to continue prioritizing attacks on the West, Zarqawi was primarily focused on the near enemy, working to exploit sectarianism in Iraq, highlighting differences between Sunni Arabs and the predominantly Shiite leadership in Baghdad. The differing target priorities were an important factor contributing to the crisis within jihadism and the subsequent emergence of the Islamic State just a few years later.

On the far right, differences exist less between groups and more between factions, with different categories attacking different targets. An anti-government extremist would be far more likely to attack the near enemy of federal overlords responsible for apparently repressive and tyrannical policies limiting gun rights and civil liberties. Neo-Nazis, too, would seemingly prioritize the elimination of near enemies in their case the all-seeing Jewish political and economic class.

But racists, xenophobes, and neo-Confederates, motivated more by ethnic grievances than any perceived political slight, may prefer the far enemy, delivering a more tangible blow to those they feel threaten their privileged position as whites. Since the far-right is more decentralized, the differences in targeting might have a less detrimental impact, as different nodes in the broader network are accustomed to functioning independently of one another, a phenomenon that holds true at both the tactical and strategic levels.

As a practical matter, the differing target selection may also impact how we should react to attacks in the immediate aftermath. After the horror at Christchurch, New Zealanders rallied around the Muslim community. “Racism exists, but it is not welcome here. An assault on the freedom of any one of us who practices their faith or religion is not welcome here,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proclaimed. But near-enemy violence often slithers along political divides, as evidenced painfully by the inability of the United States to rally as one around the police officer killed and the more than 100 officers injured during and after January 6. The latter format might require more nuanced reactions, appealing less to national values than to moral sensibility.

The United States and its allies have spent the better part of the past two decades focusing almost exclusively on the threat posed by jihadi groups, even as far-right extremism metastasized within its midst. As a result, there has been a steep learning curve in understanding the expanse of the far-right extremist movement and the important ideological differences within its various strands. Furthermore, looking at the threat through the lens of the “near enemy” and “far enemy” paradigm offers important insight into the far-right’s target selection and operational tempo, assisting counterterrorism forces’ allocation of resources and prioritization of defensive measures.

Jacob Ware is the research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @Jacob_A_Ware

Colin P. Clarke is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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