US struggles to deal with far-right threat

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Washington (AFP)

The violent attack on the United States Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump has underscored how unwilling the United States is to face its growing far-right threat, despite years of warnings.

The FBI recognized only three years ago, after several mass shootings, that the far right posed a much greater terrorist danger than the Islamic jihadists.

Yet law enforcement was unprepared when a group of groups of staunch Trump supporters, QAnon conspirators and white supremacists stormed the seat of Congress on January 6, spurred on by the president and his political buddies.

After the attack, members of Congress called them “terrorists” and “insurgents”.

But many lawmakers have cultivated the same people as supporters for years, making it difficult to treat them as a continuing threat like the Islamic State group is, said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who is now managing director. of the Soufan group.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the political will to proactively prosecute these individuals,” Soufan told AFP.

“We wait for them to do something, then we react. ”

– Watching 20 million people –

There is no number to assign to the size of the far right, as there are many groups across a broad spectrum – benevolent activists, conspirators, and violent neo-Nazis.

But they count on significant support from the American people. A Quinnipiac poll released on Monday said 10% of voters believed people who stormed Congress “defended democracy.”

This makes it more difficult to track threats, compared to monitoring jihadist sentiment among a relatively small Muslim population.

“What if you look for revolutionary right-wing terrorists among 30% of the population? Said Matthew Feldman of the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right in Britain.

Even though profilers have restricted this to white males of a certain age range, he said, “You’re looking at 20 million people.”

This places would-be extremists in all walks of life – including, as the attack on Capitol Hill showed, among the police themselves. And all of them are potentially dangerous, given the widespread possession of firearms in the United States.

A second problem, Feldman said, is that jihadist ideology clearly stands out, while right-wing extremism “sits beside the mainstream in American discourse,” even openly touted in popular conservative media.

– High attack success rate –

Extremism expert William Braniff says the government still under-allocates resources to monitor and investigate the domestic extremist threat, compared to what it does for international threats.

And that doesn’t make sense because domestic extremist attacks have a 60% success rate, said Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

Additionally, law enforcement does not have the legal powers to stop a national plot in advance, while those powers exist for international threats.

A white supremacist can freely express his views on social media and recruit others and at the same time stockpile weapons, Braniff said.

“These are all legally protected behaviors. And there is no tool to disrupt these violent plots, really, until a law is broken, for example, someone has illegally obtained a gun, ”he said. he says.

– National terrorism law –

Braniff says a crucial step is finally being taken, which is to drive extremists away from social media. On Monday, for example, Twitter announced the closure of 70,000 QAnon accounts.

“We must prevent the integration of violent extremist ideologies and conspiracies,” he said.

“Because if it gets mainstream, in the direction it’s heading right now, it will be really impossible to relax. ”

A more controversial decision would be to start formally designating extremist groups, the way in which global terrorist groups are stigmatized, or pass a national terrorist law to eliminate them.

Soufan points out that European countries have named and banned far-right groups.

And Washington took a step in that direction last April by designating the Russian Imperial Movement, made up of extremists with sympathizers in the United States, as a terrorist threat.

He says it could be done here with a national terrorism law.

But others warn it would become a widely used political tool to attack groups that don’t deserve the label.

“You start giving these powers to the police and you will find that the Black Lives Matter protests… are going to be slapped with domestic terrorism,” Feldman said.

Some hope that with Trump’s exit from the White House, the problem will go away. But Braniff says it’s wishful thinking.

“Many of these ideas are not unique or new to the Trump administration,” he said.

“You have never finished marginalizing these (extremist) narratives. You can’t really let your guard down as they resurface when allowed.

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