Despite public perception about the threat of extremists inspired by al-Qaida and the Islamic State, a new study shows that law enforcement officers are more concerned about the homegrown terrorist next door.
In addition, the study said, the violence associated with foreign-inspired extremists has remained low in comparison to domestic terrorism.
“Local law enforcement agencies see the threat of terrorism inspired by al-Qaida and like-minded terrorist organizations as less of a threat than other forms of violent extremism, principally anti-government extremism,” said the study, dated June 25 and published by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University.
The study is part of a larger project on efforts to prevent extremist violence, said David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center. He conducted the study with Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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The project included a survey of law enforcement agencies and what they were doing to prevent terrorism, Schanzer said.
“The first thing we did in our survey was ask them about the threat perception,” he said. “And the results were so interesting that we actually decided to publish something just on the threat perception itself, because it seemed very relevant. And it became incredibly relevant after Charleston.”
On June 17, after the survey already had been completed, nine people were gunned down while participating in an evening Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
The survey of 382 law enforcement agencies, conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum with funding from the National Institute of Justice, found that 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top terrorist threats in their jurisdictions, while 39 percent listed extremism connected with al-Qaida or like-minded terrorist organizations.
Schanzer said he and Kurzman hope to release the findings of their bigger project soon. Its focus, he said, is on how law enforcement agencies around the country are working with communities to prevent extremist violence.
And while they’d like to highlight both Islamic and domestic terrorism, he said, that’s proving to be difficult because so little effort is being directed toward preventing attacks by white supremacists and anti-government extremists. That’s so even though authorities say they are less concerned about the threat from Islamic terrorism.
“We haven’t found a lot of preventive activities on the anti-government and racist side, what the FBI calls domestic terrorism,” he said. “So unfortunately, our project has to focus mostly on what is actually being done,” which, he said, is preventive measures against extremism inspired by al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Those findings mirror those of a project published in April by The Kansas City Star, which found that law enforcement shifted its attention from domestic to foreign terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.
The survey’s definition of “al-Qaida-inspired violent extremism” would include the Fort Hood shootings; the Flight 253 “underwear bomber” case; and the Boston Marathon and Times Square bombings.
While definitions of ideologically motivated violence differ widely, the study said, “right-wing violence appears consistently greater than violence by Muslim extremists in the United States since 9/11.”
The authors noted that the data were collected in early 2014, before the Islamic State began to actively recruit Americans. However, in follow-up interviews conducted after the Islamic State stepped up recruitment, “the officers we spoke with did not modify their initial responses in light of the new threat,” they said.
Tallying the number of fatalities resulting from right-wing violence can be difficult. It’s a subjective process that depends on the definition of what constitutes a domestic extremist attack.
Data compiled by Kurzman found that since 9/11 and through June 22, 2015, an average of nine Muslim-Americans per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most of the plots were disrupted, the study says, but those that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities, an average of four per year.
(However, 17 of those fatalities were attributed to the Beltway snipers in Washington, D.C., in 2002, a case not all experts consider to be violent Islamic extremism.)
Another analysis, by the New America Foundation, reports that since 9/11, terrorists motivated by extreme anti-government views or virulent neo-Nazi/anti-Semitic beliefs have killed more people in the United States than jihadist terrorists motivated by al-Qaida’s ideology. According to the Washington, D.C.-based research center, right-wing extremists have killed 48 people in 19 attacks, while jihadists have killed 26 in seven attacks. The figures include the Charleston slayings.
The Star’s report in April found that 52 had been killed in attacks by domestic extremists, including white nationalists, militias and sovereign citizens. The list followed the definition of domestic terrorism used by the FBI, which does not include attacks on American soil by those who live here but are inspired by violent jihadist groups abroad.
The Charleston attack and a shooting rampage in a Lafayette, La., movie theater bring that total to 63.
In the Charleston killings, prosecutors say the 21-year-old accused shooter, Dylann Roof, had come to the church and sat in on the session for nearly an hour before opening fire on the participants. The massacre was one of the worst acts of violence by domestic extremists in decades, and federal hate crime charges have been filed against Roof.
Thirty-six days later, John Russell Houser opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, killing two and injuring nine others before turning the gun on himself. His digital footprint indicates a complicated mix of government hatred and white supremacist ideologies, including praise of Adolf Hitler and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.