The white jihadist peril is with us
After the thwarted gun attack August 10 on a mosque in Norway, an American cartoon from a few days earlier seems acutely perceptive and seriously unfunny. “Can you step to the side?” asks a man wearing a stars and stripes hat to a gun-toting, heavily muscled giant in a red cap emblazoned with a swastika. “I’m trying to spot Muslim and Mexican terrorists.”
The cartoon appeared in USA Today after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, where the killer allegedly targeted visually distinct Hispanic people he regarded invaders.
It captured the absurdity of the United States’ continuing focus on jihadist terrorism when it is white nationalism that may be the more lethal emerging threat, not just in the United States but across other parts of the Western world. From New Zealand to Norway to North America, white extremism is on the rise.
The seriousness of the threat can be judged from the way it has been described by several former high-ranking American counterterrorism officials. After the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, they issued a statement saying domestic terrorism should be treated “as high a priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11.”
That would make sense. Data compiled by the New America think-tank indicate that Islamist terrorism claimed approximately 104 lives on US soil since 2002. Far-right extremism was responsible for the death of 109 people in the same period.
In other words, the United States and the wider world are faced with not one but two destructive hatreds, each premised on its own perverted logic of a cosmic war for dominance and survival. Both hatreds are converging in terms of toll, their ability to spread terror and online recruiting.
The convergence says something significant. Those who doubt the white nationalist far right is a mortal threat in and to the West or as great a danger as Islamist jihadists must at least accept they are both equally violent.
Both rely on myth-making and historical reinvention. Jihadists say they are fighting to return to a glorious Islamic past. White supremacists reach back into an imagined idea of the Middle Ages, when Europe was wholly white and Christian, had repulsed Muslim efforts to dominate and was thereby a model for 21st-century North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Historian Kathleen Belew, author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” recently noted that it was best not to divide white extremism “into anti-immigrant, racist, anti-Muslim or antisemitic attacks. True, they are these things but they are also connected with one another through a broader white power ideology.”
The jihadists and white extremists differ mainly in terms of area of operation and standard operating procedures. Jihadists operate in locations all over the world and variously employ suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, trucks, knives and guns.
White extremists generally operate in majority-white countries. They use guns to kill those they consider the enemy — Hispanics in El Paso; Muslims in two Christchurch mosques; a Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh; and African-American worshippers in a Charleston church. The man who ploughed his car into a crowd of protesters after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville two years ago was a bit of an aberration. The white extremist’s tool of choice is the gun.
There is one other crucial way in which white nationalism is distinct from jihadism. It may be the stronger of the two. It is seen to be validated by the rhetoric of powerful politicians, not least the US president, Hungary’s prime minister and Italy’s deputy prime minister.
Furthermore, fewer law enforcement resources are devoted to tracking, disrupting and investigating white extremist cells and conspiracies. Punishment is not always easy either, especially in the United States where federal prosecutors are severely limited in how to deal with white nationalist terrorism. Such acts can, at best, be tried as hate crimes because a US statute defines domestic terrorism but carries no penalties.
The white jihadism is a truly terrible force and it is with us.