The Right’s Path to Terrorism

Can we predict when right-wing extremist groups will adopt terrorism?

An Ohio Proud Boys member, by Paul Becker via Flicker

You will not replace us! Right-wing extremists chanted at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where a counter-protester died.[1] Before this moment, Americans were mostly ignorant of the breadth and depth of right-wing extremist groups and their potential and willingness to use violence.

But these groups are not new, and neither is their potential to use violence, including terrorism. Nor did they rise as a direct consequence of Mr Trump’s election — — although they have benefited from the news echo chambers that Mr Trump’s election nationalized. Like other extremist factions, their importance has ebbed and flowed throughout America’s history with some periods of high relevance connected to high levels of violence — sometimes including terrorism. In 2009, DHS assessed that right-wing extremist groups were going to experience a renaissance [2] in the coming years. Recent studies by CSIS’ Transnational Threat Project, an American think tank, [3] and FBI Director testimony [4] to Congress suggest that DHS’s assessment was right.

Anticipating Terrorism

The question facing America today, then, is not how or why these groups resurged. That question has been well-answered and documented in academic literature. Rather, the question — in light of the recent uptick in individual attacks — is can we predict when right-wing extremist groups[5] will exclusively employ terrorism to obtain their political goals?

Della Porta’s research can help answer this question. She pioneered the application of social movement theory to terrorism studies. In general, her research demonstrated seven mechanisms through which non-violent political groups — including ethnic-nationalist, left-right-wing, and religious groups — evolve towards terrorism. [6] These mechanisms underscore Della Porta’s key finding political groups progress towards terrorism; seldomly do they directly arrive at it.

Right-wing groups in America are generally grouped under a loose ideological category. However, they diverge widely in their professed grievances and political objectives. This divergence has caused a “fracture”, in the words of Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism scholar [7] Due to that fractured nature, three of the seven causal mechanisms Della Porta identified will be most applicable to answer the aforementioned question.

A Proud Boy member in Washington D.C. in December 2020, by Elvert Barnes via Flicker

The Road Towards Terrorism

In a nod to Newton’s third law of motion, Della Porta coined “escalating policing” [8] as one of the first causal mechanisms. In this mechanism, political groups, as they mobilize in protest and other non-violent actions, overreact to perceived injustices, aggressions, or actions by the State apparatus or even counter-political groups. In this action and reaction spiral, “repressive transformative events, therefore, produce martyrs and myths; this process justifies violence and pushes groups underground [terrorism].”[9]

Escalating policing can be an important indicator of the future use of terrorism for current anti-government groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and the Boogaloo bois. While there has not been any recent State action or policy that could ignite immediate violent reactions (i.e., violent policing of protests and/or killing of members, etc.), Mr Biden’s presidential election victory, recent FBI infiltrations and arrests of members, and heavy counter-protester presence can increasingly be interpreted as such. Moreover, for the last four years, far-right groups have enjoyed a political channel — through select national media outlets — for their political grievances. Mr Trump’s rhetoric, at times, has aided and abetted this. But the sudden loss of this political outlet, and the “legitimacy” it has enjoyed — due to Mr Biden’s election — can certainly be perceived as a “repressive event.” Lastly, it is worth mentioning that counter-protesters play a significant role in this mechanism. Counter-protester violent actions can be perceived as a proxy for State actions and activate the “martyrs and myths” that justify violent reactions.

In a related but separate second mechanism, Della Porta dubbed the infighting and splintering of political groups as “competitive escalation.”[10] In this mechanism, political groups diverge in response to perceptions that the group’s leadership tactics are too moderate or non-committal in their responses to “perceived repression.” Della Porta explained, “militants who joined the underground [employed terrorism] were socialized to violence during…. competitive relations not only with outsiders [the first mechanism] but also within the social movement family.” [11] As such, it is neither the splintering of the groups that leads to terrorism nor is it a particular ideology — although that helps justify their violent actions. Rather, it is in the process of outbidding each other for resources, recruits, political legitimacy, etc., through which terrorism can become a value-added strategy for the splinter group.

As Hoffman mentioned, America’s right-wing groups are “fractured.” They exist in a loose ecosystem of interconnected ideas and political grievances. Due to that, a key indicator of this mechanism is if/when one starts to observe core ruptures, e.g., Proud Boy cells turning against current leadership or overtly speaking against it. Since these groups are themselves loose collections of networks, it makes core fracturing easier and potentially more successful. [12] As such, the more worrisome indicator is any observation of strategic competition between the splinter groups and the main group — especially in the realm of lesser violence. For example, when a splinter group that has mostly used misdemeanor violence escalates to murder in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage over a more “moderate” group. Moreover, competitive escalation infrequently occurs in isolation, and the actions of the State and or counter-protester can also act as a tinder. For example, if federal law enforcement were to kill a Proud Boy member, splinter groups who advocate for a stronger, more radical reaction, may gain traction and the competitive escalation mechanism is activated.

The third mechanism — perhaps most relevant to America’s far-right extremist groups — is what Della Porta named “ideological encapsulation.” [13] In this mechanism, increasingly excluded political groups pick and choose different narratives (from different sources not exclusively from the groups’ reigning ideology) to explain their political grievances and justify increasingly hostile and isolated actions. It is political groups selectively falling victim to confirmation bias and groupthink. Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism scholar, further explained, “militant organizations [terrorist groups] rarely rely on well-formulated ideology; they more often borrow fragments from various sources.”[14] The danger of this mechanism is not so much on the groups arbitrarily selecting specific narratives. Rather it is that these selective narratives facilitate the further deviation of splinters groups away from the groups’ core, oftentimes more moderate positions or grievances. As the groups move farther away from the core ideology they become “instruments of internal consumption,[15] positively reinforcing their more extreme position with new and old narratives in an endless loop.

Dangerously, this mechanism is already in progress. Select right-wing groups have used traditional right-wing tropes, and extreme conspiracy theories — diffused through select media — — to rationalize progressively more radical actions. For example, in October 2020, 13 men were charged with conspiracy to kidnap the governor of Michigan with the help of a Michigan-based militia group.[16] While most of the right-wing groups were non-violently protesting the Governor’s COVID-19 measures, the 13 men picked and chose current narratives (i.e., Governor’s COVID-19 policies). in addition to traditional narratives of nationalism, blood, honor, etc. to conclude that kidnapping the Governor was the “only solution.” For example, Adam Fox, one of the 13 charged men, stated: “In all honesty right now . . . I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back, we’re just gonna have to everything’s gonna have to be annihilated man. We’re gonna topple it all, dude. It’s what great frickin’ conquerors, man, we’re just gonna conquer every fuckin’ thing man.”[17] In Fox’s exchange, narratives of conquest, nationalism, and anarchism are visible. But once again, it not Fox’s use of these common narratives that led him to consider terrorism. Rather it is that they “helped” him justify his reality, where “[he] was just so sick of it.” It is the continued rationalization through the use of select narratives in support of creating and sustaining this alternate reality that leads to terrorism not the narratives on their own.

Ultimately, predicting a group’s eventual use of terrorism is a possible but hard endeavor. It doesn’t help that America’s far-right extremist groups are not disappearing in 2021. Nor that their potential deployment of terrorism risks plunging America to a devastating era of domestic political violence. As such, effective counter-terrorism (CT) starts with acting without delay at any group demonstrating any three of the aforementioned mechanisms, or else their chants — as horrific as they may be — will be the least of America’s woes.

[1] See https://time.com/charlottesville-white-nationalist-rally-clashes/

[2] See DHS’s Office of Intelligence & Analysis (IA-0257–09); 7 April 2009; Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fuelling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment https://fas.org/irp/eprint/rightwing.pdf

[3] See CSIS In Brief on The War Comes Home: The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States https://www.csis.org/analysis/war-comes-home-evolution-domestic-terrorism-united-states

[4] D/FBI Christopher Wray Statement for The Record to Congress on 17 September 2020 https://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/worldwide-threats-to-the-homeland-091720

[5] This author is concerned with how extremist groups that have not systematically employ terrorism begin to use it. Most “domestic” terrorist attacks have been perpetrated by individuals with loose affiliations to right-wing extremist groups. Studies like the previously cited CSIS have focused on attacks mostly perpetrated by individuals which is why the overall number of fatalities has not been greater than in previous years when groups used dedicated to using terrorism.

[6] See Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, 2013. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS

[7] See Bruce Hoffman in Lawfare https://www.lawfareblog.com/terrorist-threat-fractured-far-right

[8] See Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, 2013. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Chapter 2

[9] See Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, 2013. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Chapter 2 page 50–51

[10] See Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, 2013. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Chapter 3,

[11] See Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, 2013. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Chapter 3, page 82

[12] In potentially good news, we have not observed a further fracturing from within the main anti-government groups.

[13] See Donatella Della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, 2013. CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Chapter 7, pg. 216

[14] See Martha Crenshaw in Explaining Terrorism: Causes, Processes, and Consequences. London. Routledge.

[15] See Maria Mayano in Argentina’s Lost Patrol: Armed Struggle, 1969–1979

[16] See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/us/gretchen-whitmer-michigan-militia.html

[17] See Criminal Complaint Case 1:20-mj-00416-SJB https://www.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.miwd.99213/gov.uscourts.miwd.99213.1.1_1.pdf

I write about foreign affairs & international security.

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