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Defeating home-grown American terrorism – an Italian lesson

August 3, 2018 – CSPS Visiting Research Fellow Simon Clark looks at the rise of American right-wing extremism in the last decade and highlights similarities as well as differences with 1970’s Italy.

By Simon Clark, August 3, 2018

[Originally published on the Hill]

Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Joshua J. Hines

The threat from domestic terrorist groups in the US is curiously absent from mainstream political debate.  In an eerie echo of the years before 9/11, a failure of imagination makes it hard to connect what look like random acts of violence in the service of a crackpot set of beliefs, and to develop a serious understanding of this growing danger to our society.

A few scholars and researchers have been raising the alarm: the Anti-Defamation League’s 2017 report catalogued 274 murders by American right-wing extremists in the last decade, making up 71 percent of all domestic extremist killings, compared to 26 percent by Islamists. Peter Singer wrote an article in February 2018 about the threat, quoting New America’s research showing that attacks by right-wing extremists outnumber those by left-wing groups by 17 to 1. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the rise of alt-right inspired attacks that have resulted in 43 deaths and 67 injuries since the emergence of the movement in 2014.  Disturbingly, nine of these thirteen attacks occurred in 2017, a harbinger of worse to come.

To someone like me who grew up in Italy during the 1970s, when terrorist violence engulfed the country, this seems dreadfully familiar.  As the left- and right-wing terrorist groups grew in the early part of the decade, politicians badly underestimated the threat they posed.  It took hundreds of deaths and the kidnapping and murder of a former Prime Minister to shake the country out of its lethargy.  The good news from the Italian experience is that the country ultimately defeated the terrorists; the warning is that letting the problem fester made that a bloody and expensive achievement.

There are, of course, differences between Italy in the 1970s and the US today, not all of them comforting – after all, Italian terrorists struggled to purchase guns that worked, not a problem that faces an American extremist today.  Also, in Italy, shootings from left wing extremists were matched by bombings and beatings from right wing ones.  So far, most of the US violence has come from the right, with Antifa and other left-wing groups causing the occasional street brawl in Portland, Berkeley and Atlanta but not, yet, much more despite some of their more blood curdling claims.  Even so, the perception of two opposed violent groups can quickly lead to radicalization and tit-for-tat escalation.

The parallels, though, are striking. Italy’s Red Brigades drew inspiration from communist ideas with deep roots in the nation’s history, while right-wing groups in the US take their cue from white supremacist ideas dating back to the Civil War. The current Administration has on occasion given the impression of appeasing right-wing extremist groups, with statements like the President’s “good people on many sides,” (subsequently walked back after fierce criticism), just as weak Italian governments avoided facing the reality of domestic terrorism until it was almost too late.

The Italian experience raises another warning.  After voters rejected the parties of the extreme left in 1977, some of their activists gave up on democracy, joining terrorist groups and stoking greater violence. US voters in 2018 seem ready to reject white nationalist candidates, which may motivate some to consider violent tactics instead.

We have to do more than hope there will not be a major attack before the American public will take the threat seriously again. After the Oklahoma City bombing, the FBI penetrated and disrupted militias and other right-wing extremist groups, using many of the same techniques that the Italians had found so effective: infiltration, surveillance and network analysis.  Italy also developed a devastatingly effective tool the US should consider: the repentance laws. These offered shorter sentences to terrorists who renounced violence, prompting many to defect, wrecking the cohesion of the terrorist groups.

Even as the Trump Administration stokes the danger from right-wing extremism with reckless language about “enemies of the people,” Congress has an opportunity to head off the danger by acting now.  The Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees should hold hearings to highlight the risks from violent domestic extremists, to ensure that the leadership at the FBI and DHS are focusing on their domestic counter-terrorism missions, and to consider new legislation, including a repentance law.  There is still time to head off this threat before it becomes critical, but that will take wisdom and leadership. The time to act is now.

Simon Clark is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of “Terror Vanquished: The Italian Approach to Defeating Terrorism.”

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