Domestic extremists killed at least 25 people in the United States last year and all of them had ties to forms of right-wing extremism, including white supremacy, anti-government extremism and right-wing conspiracy theorists, according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League.
Domestic extremist-related mass killings have increased in the past 12 years with most of them being tied to right-wing extremists, the ADL found. Researchers say the most concerning incidents are shootings inspired by white supremacist “accelerationist” propaganda urging such attacks.
“White supremacists who consider themselves accelerationist believe that there’s no way they will ever be able to reform or change society to reflect what white supremacists want [and] the only option really is to actually destroy society and from the ashes, build a new white-dominated or white only society,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the ADL.
Due to this extremist belief, accelerationist white supremacists often encourage acts of violence, like shooting sprees that target minority communities so that they can destabilize or weaken groups they view as a threat, he added.
The report highlighted that while white supremacists have committed the greatest number of domestic extremist-related murders in most years, the percentage increased in 2022 – with 21 of the 25 murders being linked to white supremacists.
This is primarily due to mass shootings. Almost all the killings in 2022 (93%) were committed with firearms, according to the report.
Five extremist-related murders were committed by members or associates of white supremacist prison gangs such as the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, the United Aryan Brotherhood or the Nazi Low Riders
“For many years while we were battling Islamic extremists… we took our eye off the ball on the domestic scene, in particular, white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.
While these efforts shifted under the Obama administration, Beirich added, once Donald Trump took office, programs focused on combatting white supremacy and far-right extremism were undercut once again.
“He made light of white nationalism,” Beirich said of the former president. “The government itself has essentially allowed this situation to metastasize regardless of the warnings.”
One of the main factors motivating white supremacist violence is related to demographic change, Beirich said. This threatens extremists who worry that white Americans will become a minority by the 2040s.
When this prediction first came to light, the number of hate groups started to rise, she added. What made it even worse was when “the Trump era very much emboldened these actors, mainstreamed racism [and] bigotry against various populations [and] was rapidly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim,” Beirich said.
She added that “all of this was fuel for the fire for these groups.”
The ADL report found that only a few of the 2022 extremist-related murders did not involve white supremacists, which included a QAnon adherent in Michigan who killed his wife, then died in a subsequent shootout with police.
Another incident involved a convicted Capitol riot defendant who reportedly killed a woman by crashing into her car in what authorities described as a suicide attempt by the person to avoid serving time in prison
The most serious of the non-white supremacist killings took place in Portland, Oregon, where Benjamin Jeffrey Smith allegedly opened fire on a group of left-wing activists gathering outside his home to go to a protest at a nearby park. He shot six people, killing one, before one of the activists was able to disable him with return fire.
Smith’s online activity revealed extreme hostility towards individuals on the left and “communists,” whom he claimed weren’t human beings. In one post he said that “extreme violence” is the “only thing they give any attention to,” and in another, he mentioned that “the only way to win a civil war, and we are in a civil war, is to be the most violent.”
“In any extremist movement, only a minority of the people in said movement, ever actually engage in violence,” Pitcavage said. “A lot of extremists have histories of domestic violence and sometimes extremists engage in domestic violence murders.”
Some extremists can also engage in acts of terrorism, which could include anything from a bombing, mass shooting, assassination, kidnapping or a type of armed robbery that supports their cause Pitcavage added.
Only one of the murders in 2022 was committed by a right-wing anti-government extremist — the lowest number since 2017, the report found.
The two most serious incidents were deadly shooting sprees: the attack on Club Q, an LGBTQ+ bar in Colorado Springs in November 2022 and the attack on the Tops supermarket in Buffalo in May 2022.
Internal ideological factors, external ideological pressures, and stressors are influencing extremists to engage in acts of violence, Pitcavage pointed out.
Some extremists feel internal pressure from the way they interpret their ideology to commit violence while others are encouraged by their movements to commit violence.
Finally, external stressors are factors that are unrelated to the movement, but can have a major psychological impact on someone. This includes people who run into relationship problems, experience financial instability or lose their jobs, that are at risk of becoming unbalanced and resorting to violence as a result of being unable to process their frustrations.
“You really have to look at all the indicators that this accelerationist ideology has taken hold,” said Jill Garvey, chief of staff at Western States Center. “When we look at all those indicators, like the number of plots that have been foiled, or how many people have been radicalized online, or how many different groups or networks pop up – like Proud Boys, Patriot Front, Oath Keepers and Boogaloo – that tells a very troubling story about how much bandwidth these ideologies have and that they are rooted in this idea that through violence, they can build political power.”
The embrace of the accelerationist ideology has resulted in creating more acts of violence, Garvey said. People associated with this movement believe that through violence, they will be able to undermine democratic structures and build political support.
Social media has also played a key role in recruiting for these groups and pushing out ideas supported by these movements.
Pitcavage, who has been researching extremist-related murders, started compiling data on domestic extremists in 2008. He found that a majority of the recruitment from the alt-right started happening through social media. By 2010, social media was having “a very important effect on extremist movements because it allowed the spread and transmission of ideas, conspiracy theories to spread very far very quickly,” he said.
To this day, Pitcavage added, social media allows the spread of conspiracy theories, disinformation and misinformation, which creates a space for different extremists to work together.
This has given way to newer movements that have formed in the last few years like QAnon and the Boogaloo movement.
What’s changing with far-right extremist movements now is the “shedding of shame,” Garvey said, referencing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“January 6 certainly was a sort of milestone in the far-right extremist narrative and actually from that point forward, I would say this form of extremism has increased, has gained more momentum,” Garvey said.
Even if there were fewer domestic extremist-related killings in 2022 compared with previous years, violent extremism has become more prevalent, she added. “It doesn’t actually point to the full picture of the harm or threat that may be present.”
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