In the wake of the awful Charleston Church shootings on June 17th, the description of Dylann Roof as a “lone wolf” terrorist has almost been ubiquitous in the press coverage. The LA Times described Roof as a “classic lone wolf”, while the Washington Post’s Post-Partisan blog went with “White Supremacist Lone Wolf” for a title.
Many have (rightly) pointed to a 2009 Department of Homeland Security report on rightwing extremism and terrorism, and how lone wolf terrorism represented the major domestic security threat in the USA. Overall, the impression is that, while this was predictable to an extent, Roof just “came out of nowhere”, that this sort of violence is the product of the ideology and mental state of the individual in question. Dylann Roof was just another unhinged racist with access to firearms and the willingness to act.
Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s pretty much the terms by which every far-right terrorist has been described. Yet over 60% of lone wolf terrorist attacks since 9/11 were committed by far-right extremists, and 50% of all lone wolf attacks since the 1970s can be attributed to this ideological tendency.
Just in recent years, there has been a plague of “lone wolves”, from James von Brunn’s attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum to Scott Roeder, George Tiller’s assassin, to Kevin Harpham’s attempted bombing of Martin Luther King memorial march, to Michael Page’s murders in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Michigan. And these are just from the top of my head – a trawl of any decent newspaper archive will throw up hundreds more, especially if you don’t use “terrorism” as a search term.
It’s almost like there’s a strategy of promotion of lone wolf terrorism by the far-right, where groups and individuals won’t actually get involved and don’t want to know about any details, but they will create and disseminate an ideological framework designed to support such actions. Actually, it’s not “almost like”, that is exactly what is going on.
The secret history of lone wolf terrorism
It wasn’t always this way. Terrorism is mostly a team sport, and this was as true of the far-right as anyone else. The 70s and 80s in America saw a proliferation of these groups, from the somewhat farcical National Socialist Liberation Front to the quite sinister Silent Brotherhood, almost all of whom relied on the classic cell structure or top-down hierarchical structures to function.
Predictably, this led to significant infiltration from the FBI, leading to spectacular successes. With the addition of the Fort Smith sedition trials, which saw some of the leading lights of the American far-right testifying for the prosecution, the organised and violent far-right started to fall apart. A desperate fatalism gripped the movement, which believed America was fully controlled by the ZOG, “Zionist-Occupied Government”, and that it was fighting for its very survival.
Due to the failure of the organised violence strategy, the far-right began to adopt the principles of what one of its leading lights, Louis Beam, referred to as leaderless resistance. Originally adopted from the writings of a former OSS and CIA officer about how to resist a Soviet occupation, likely intended for Cuban dissidents, these tactics were adapted by Beam and his contemporaries, who saw themselves in an analogous situation. The idea is very simple and, as implied by the name, is that those who wish to oppose the “tyrannical” American/Zionist/New World Order government would be best served by going it alone and “forming a thousand phantom cells” in the words of Beam.
This theme was quickly adopted by the broader far-right, who either explicitly promoted such a strategy, like in the case of Tom Metzger and Alex Curtis, or promoted through popular literature such as The Turner Diaries (and its lesser known but possibly even more explicit sequel, Hunter, which depicted its protagonist as a lone wolf fighting the ZOG).
The benefits were obvious. The FBI couldn’t infiltrate a cell of one, and by not getting drawn into organizational and tactical disagreements, the broader far-right could focus on shared areas of cooperation (the far-right are possibly even more fractious than the far-left…between Neo-Nazis, White Nationalists, Odinists, Christian Identity militias and many more there is plenty of room for disagreement). By taking those issues off the table, the far-right could focus on propagandising and movement building.
Leaderless Resistance in practice
The internet acts as a virtual training ground for potential far-right terrorists, both in terms of ideological instruction and in accessing material to aid in carrying out their attacks. Anders Behring Breivik, as a prominent example, frequented many “counterjihadist” blog sites which were later cited in his manifesto, and he also used the internet in order to teach himself how to create explosives. He is not the only one, and many would-be “lone wolves” are drawn into an online milieu or sphere where they are constantly told they are in a “race war”, that this is a “white genocide” or “Muslim takeover” or any number of other hyperbolic things.
It’s no mistake that the vast majority far-right terrorists who have carried out attacks have had a significant internet presence, at one racist website or another. Indeed, this is often mirrored in their rhetoric which, contra Braxton and Sainato, is not indicative of American structural racism. The use of the swastika, or the Rhodesian flag and language of white genocide are not exactly typical signs of the more socially acceptable American racism, which usually cloaks its racism in terms of “black culture”, “criminality” and so on. The language is unabashedly Neo-Nazi, in the case of far too many of these militants.
From there on in, it only takes a few people who buy into the rhetoric of existential threat and are willing to use violence to bring about terrorist attacks.
Of course, we already have a discourse on terrorism that describes how individuals are recruited and cajoled into action by hands-off actors who deny culpability. However, this discourse is really only used by the media at large when discussing one particular demographic: Muslims.
If you look at websites like Stormfront (and its lesser known clones, which I will not name here) and think about them in terms of “preachers of hate”…well, is there really much difference between Abu Hamza and William L. Pierce? Both put out messages designed to induce the listener into illegal activities and violence, after all.
We have whole industries devoted to explaining how Muslims are uniquely vulnerable to the processes of radicalization and entire government programs ostensibly aimed at preventing that outcome, usually in an extremely paternalistic, arrogant and invasive way (especially in the UK). Even when Islamist terrorists are shown to be acting as “lone wolves” the term is far less often used, and a focus is often placed on a “preacher of hate” “mastermind” behind the whole process, overseas training and so on.
This is not to say that we should treat far-right terrorists in the exact same way, especially in light of the multiple issues of the “prevent strategy” in the UK and the FBI’s deeply problematic fake terrorism plots. Why has this discourse grown around Islamist terrorism when it is far-right terrorism that is the more pressing threat to the USA? And not just in the US, either…Canada and Europe are also at a greater risk from domestic far-right groups than jihadists.
It’s far too easy to write off this kind of terrorism as completely random, undirected violence, mostly because the majority population is not affected by it. When far-right terrorists strike, they usually do so at ethnic minorities or LBGT targets (though law enforcement is also a popular target, especially for “Sovereign Citizens”).
It’s also easy and tempting – especially for left and liberal commentators – to try and pigeonhole such violent acts as evidence of a larger, systemic violence, the “proof” of the inherent racism of the political system, if you will. This is a problem on two fronts: it tries to claim acts of exceptional vigilante violence have similar qualities as state-directed violence, which also ignores the non-violent ways in which the state enables and uses racism. And it also ignores the particular qualities of this racist terrorism that is emanating from the far-right. The temptation to systematize and abstract the question of violence invariably lets the individuals who are promoting and encouraging acts of terrorism off the hook.
Dylann Roof, as far as we can tell, acted alone. But he did not just passively absorb a racist culture around him. He was instructed in an ideology of hatred and violence, which taught him things about Rhodesia, and “white genocide”, and then told him it was his duty to save his race. And then, predictably, he killed. Those preachers of hate who led him down this path need to be made responsible for their part in his crimes. Or this will just keep on happening, again and again.
Source: LA Times, Washington Post
Further Reading: The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues