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U.S. sees 300 violent attacks inspired by far right every year

August 13, 2017 at 5:34 PM EDT
Despite the nation’s focus on Islamic terrorism since 9/11, homegrown, right-wing extremists have also killed dozens of Americans. Peter Bergen, the director of the National Security Studies program for New America, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the toll of homegrown terrorism in light of the Charlottesville white nationalist rally car attack.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Despite the nation’s intense national focus on Islamic terrorism since 9/11, homegrown, right wing extremists have also killed dozens of Americans. The groups include white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups and anti-federalists militias. Since 2001, the number of violent attacks on U.S. soil inspired by far-right ideology has spiked to an average of more than 300 a year, according to a study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

A 2015 survey of U.S. law enforcement groups found they consider anti-government violent extremists to be a more severe threat than radicalized Muslims. And while jihadist terrorists have killed 95 people in the U.S. since 9/11, far-right extremists have killed 68 during the same time, including the car attack in Charlottesville. That’s according to data collected by our next guest, Peter Bergen, the director of the national security studies program for New America and a terrorism analyst for CNN.

Peter, I know you focus a lot of jihadists, you know, Islamic terror happening in the United States and happening overseas. But you have also been studying and looking closely at kind of home grown terror, domestic terror threats. When you saw what happened yesterday, what went through your mind?

PETER BERGEN, DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES PROGRAM, NEW AMERICA: Well, clearly, it was an act of domestic terrorism and seems to be an act of extreme right wing terrorism. And it’s one of multiple incidents that we’ve seen in this country, unfortunately. And in fact also, we’re seeing an interesting spike in black nationalist terrorism, there have been eight deaths since 2016 caused by black nationalists and we also, you may recall, of course, the attack on the Republican baseball game by a sort of an extreme anti-Trump person.

So, we’re seeing, you know, political violence comes in all shapes and forms. And I think when we hear word terrorism, a lot of Americans kind of think jihadi terrorism because of the 9/11 attacks but the fact is, is that we have continue to see extreme right wing terrorism, and we have seen a slight uptick in kind of leftist terrorism in the last couple of years.

SREENIVASAN: What are the different causes?

BERGEN: Well, I mean, I mean they scan the political spectrum because you have, you know, black nationalist terrorism which has been spiking. You have a certain amount of anti-Trump terrorism which has sort of had an uptick. You have this extreme right neo-Nazi antigovernment terrorism which has been pretty constant, after all, it was the most lethal attack on American soil before 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people carried out by two right wing — extreme right wing militants.

So, yes, this has been around for a while, this kind of strain of terrorism that we saw in Charlottesville is not new. They don’t tends to kill a large numbers like Islamist terrorist attacks which tend to have a much higher death toll, but it is kind of a constant that’s out there.

SREENIVASAN: When you saw the method of destruction yesterday, the car attack, something we’ve basically been seeing repeatedly overseas in the past year.

BERGEN: Yes. I mean, this is usually the purview of jihadi terrorist tacks. We’ve seen two in London in recent months that killed 13 people. We saw the attack in Nice killed 84 people. We saw the attack in Berlin that killed 12 people, all of those were jihadi terror attacks.

Now, we are seeing this tactic being adopted by people with other ideologies. For instance, in Charlottesville, we saw this, and we also saw an attack like this in London outside a mosque relatively recently in which one person was killed. So, unfortunately, using vehicles as a deadly weapon is a tactic that is kind of been adopted by violent terrorists of all ideological stripes.

SREENIVASAN: How much does the labeling of it matter, calling it terrorism, calling domestic terrorism from the media on to the politicians?

BERGEN: I think it’s important to call things what they are. And, you know, one of the reasons that these domestic terrorist incidents don’t get called terrorism often is because there isn’t a link to an international terrorist organization. So, as a formal matter if you are charging terrorism as a crime, if there is some link to ISIS or al Qaeda, it’s very easy to charge terrorism.

Because of the First Amendment issues in this country, it’s not illegal in this country to be a neo-Nazi. It is illegal to be a neo-Nazi who carries out a violent attack. But when a neo Nazi carries out a violent attack, it’s usually simply treated as murder or sometimes as a hate crime, but not usually as terrorism from a legal point of view because there isn’t an association with an international terrorist organization such as ISIS, such as al Qaeda.

SREENIVASAN: Peter Bergen of New America and analyst for CNN, thanks so much for joining us.

BERGEN: Thank you.

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