A new study on domestic terrorism, conducted by New America's David Sterman and Peter Bergen, found that right-wing terrorism in the United States has killed 48 people since September 2001. Those include attacks by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-government radicals.
By comparison, the study found that jihadist attacks killed 26 people in the same time period. That number only includes wholly domestic attacks, and does not include terrorism committed against Americans or American service members abroad. So these statistics alone should not be read as a holistic comparison of the threats posed by right-wing terrorism versus jihadist terrorism. But they are a reminder that the threat from right-wing terrorism, though we don't talk about it much, is real.
"There's an acceptance now [among scholars] of the idea that the threat from jihadi terrorism in the United States has been overblown," John Horgan, a University of Massachusetts Lowell scholar, told the New York Times's Scott Shane. "And there's a belief that the threat of right-wing, antigovernment violence has been underestimated."
Some analysts have gone further. "Law enforcement agencies around the country have told us the threat from Muslim extremists is not as great as the threat from right-wing extremists," Charles Kurzman, a University of North Carolina professor and an author of a forthcoming survey on police attitudes toward extremism, told Shane.
Why this data matters
The US government, in its focus on jihadist terrorism, may have let its attention on racist or otherwise right-wing attackers lapse.
Since 9/11, "the government has focused very heavily on jihadists, sometimes to the exclusion of violence from various forms of domestic extremists," the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote in a February 2015 report.
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning that the threat from homegrown right-wing extremists was growing — a report that mainstream conservatives took as an attack on right-wing ideas writ large, rather than fringe extremism.
"As a result [of the controversy]," the SPLC writes, "then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for it, and the DHS intelligence team that wrote it has since virtually disbanded."
Daryl Johnson, the analyst who wrote the report, was fired. In 2012, Johnson told Wired that "his former team now consists of a single analyst tasked with tracking all domestic non-Islamic extremism. His database has been shuttered."
Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, of course, are far better organized and resourced than are relatively small right-wing extremists. And the US has poured stunning amounts of money into fighting those groups and preventing them from reaching US soil. But it spends very little, in relative terms, to fight right-wing domestic terrorists.
Regardless of whether the enormous size of the counterterrorism budget dedicated to fighting jihadists is merited or necessary (and it may not be), this new data should raise a distinct question: Could Americans afford to pay at least a little bit more attention to the threat in their own backyard?