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Should the U.S. designate racial violence as terrorism?

White supremacist violence in the U.S. is on the rise with deadly incidents increasing sharply over the last five years, according to new figures from the University of Maryland’s Start center. It’s part of a global trend that has led to increased scrutiny of what the United States defines as terrorism. Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports, as part of our recurring series, Exploring Hate.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In the wake of George Floyd's killing and mass protests across the country, President Trump tweeted that he wants to designate the anti-fascist movement, or Antifa, as a terrorist organization. A designation he has not called for with right-wing extremist groups.

    But according to new figures from the University of Maryland's Start center, white supremacist violence in the U.S. is on the rise, with a sharp increase in deadly incidents over the last five years. It's part of a global trend that has led to increased scrutiny of what the United States defines as terrorism. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has our report which is part of our recurring series, Exploring Hate.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    These men are fighters in the Russian Imperial Movement, armed volunteers sent to Ukraine to further their goal of creating a Russian-ethnostate within Russia's historical borders.

  • RIM Fighter:

    Beautiful!

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    You may have never heard of the group, but it made history earlier this year by becoming the first white supremacist movement to be declared by the United States as a terrorist organization.

  • Nathan Sales:

    Since 2015 the world has seen a surge in white supremacist terrorism. Today, the State Department is designating the Russian Imperial Movement.

    With white supremacist violence surging around the globe, Washington's stance on who is and isn't a terrorist has acquired renewed urgency.

  • Mike German:

    The criticism of the Foreign Terrorist Organization list was that it was predominantly Muslim groups. So it seems very symbolic and symbols are often important. And I welcome that they are acknowledging that white supremacist violence is an international concern.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Mike German is a retired FBI special agent who worked undercover to disrupt violent white-supremacists in California in the 1990s. He told NewsHour Weekend the designation of a white supremacist group set an important precedent but worried it was being overshadowed by louder messaging from the US President more recently about the protests and riots that have swept parts of the country.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I want the organizers of this terror to be on notice that you will face severe criminal penalties and lengthy sentences in jail. This includes Antifa and others who are leading instigators of this violence.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This is one of the many protests that have rocked America since the killing of George Floyd and while this protest is peaceful, some haven't been. Donald Trump has tried to focus his anger at leftist organisations like Antifa, which he describes as terrorists. But his law enforcement agencies say America's resources should be pointed in another direction.

  • Christopher Wray:

    We elevated to the top level priority racially motivated violent extremism so it's on the same footing in terms of our national threat banding as ISIS and homegrown violent extremism.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    That was the director of the FBI speaking in February, telling Congress that his agency now considers racially motivated terrorism as big a threat as Islamist terror.

    Law enforcement officials are concerned by the rising number of far-right attacks that have resulted in homicides over the last several years, figures tracked closely by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

  • Bill Braniff:

    Historically most violent, far-right attacks were not mass casualty. Unfortunately, that story is changing. And in recent years, we've seen the adoption of mass casualty attacks among the violent far-right.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In fact the university found that in the years since 9/11 the far-right has killed 201 people compared to just 140 killed by Islamists. And at the same time…

  • Mike German:

    There are no U.S. deaths associated with any action that could be accurately described as antifascist.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This dichotomy has contributed to the perception that the government isn't taking the threat of white supremacist violence seriously.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This is the FBI's Baltimore field office and I've sent them a question asking about the resources they allocate to domestic terrorism versus international and I'm really curious to hear what they have to say.

    Shawn Devroud is the Assistant Special Agent in charge of the field office and its counterterrorism branch.

  • Shawn Devroud:

    We don't treat international terrorism any more important or any more of a threat than domestic. But there has been infrastructure in place, international terrorism for, you know, obviously a couple of decades now. And there's just more trip wires.

    The other part of that on the domestic terrorism side. That's usually an American citizen who's exercising, at least in the beginning First Amendment rights. Again, you have the right to hate. Because now we have to wait until we see that there is some propensity to commit an act of violence to do with that ideology.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In international cases, you don't have to wait. And it's all because of a statute known as "material support" which mostly can't be used for domestic terrorism. Under this broadly defined charge, anyone declaring support for an organization named in the foreign terrorists organizations list can be prosecuted, even before attempting to perpetrate violence, which means they can be taken in long before a violent plan is hatched. This same sort of declaration is protected by the first amendment when dealing with domestic suspects.

    Case in point, the story of Christopher Hasson, an officer in the US Coast Guard who had planned to use this arsenal to perpetrate a mass casualty attack in furtherance of his goal of creating a white ethnostate within the United States.

  • Shawn Devroude:

    Mr. Hasson was a former Marine. He was a current officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was an individual that had tactical training, proficient in the use of firearms, proficient in the use of deadly force.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Hasson had amassed a stockpile of registered weapons and carefully studied the manifesto of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. He'd even written down a detailed plan for his own attack. That on its own wasn't enough for authorities to bring him in.

  • Shawn Devroude:

    So there's indication that he's going to mobilize. We have to have him in our sights because at the time, the only criminal, federal violation that we have seen from him that we could possibly take him off the battlefield is Tramadol purchases. Right. That's certainly, it's a Schedule Four narcotic. It's a federal felony. But it's a drug offense, right? It's not an attempted act of violence.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Fearful he was about to go on a killing spree the FBI went ahead with the arrest on the drug charge and then subsequently found plenty of evidence to convince a court that Hasson was indeed planning a terror attack. The Coast Guard officer was sentenced to 13 years in prison. But the case doesn't just illustrate why it's harder to stop domestic terrorists than so-called international ones.

  • Amer Sinan Alhaggi:

    I was thinking about just burning the hills, 'cause there's a lot of trees and a lot of homes over there.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Take the case of Amer Sinan Alhaggagi, a California-born 23-year-old of Yemeni descent who the FBI arrested in 2016.

  • Daria Vaisman:

    It was discovered that he had opened seven Facebook and Twitter accounts for people he believed to be members of ISIS.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Daria Vaisman teaches statistics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and collects sentencing data.

    So for opening the Facebook and Twitter accounts, he was charged with Material Support. And then he was also charged with identity fraud. And he received a 16-year sentence. So when you compare that to someone like Hasson, it's really glaring.

    His declarations of support for ISIS, a group named on the foreign terrorist organizations list, made it possible to categorize this American citizen as an "international terrorist" and to charge him under the statute.

    No such list exists for domestic terrorism prompting some to call for the creation of a domestic terrorism law to even the odds of arrest by banning groups like the KKK or neo-Nazis. but according to Vaisman that would open the door to banning movements like Black Lives Matter or antifa, which the president has said he would like to do.

  • Daria Vaisman:

    It's already a really bad idea, like if you create a law that's as broad as in domestic situations as material support, then it's going to be back into like the way that they prosecuted communists for, you know, guilt by association. It's gonna be like a legally sanctioned police state.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    So how does the government strike a balance where it can avoid looking soft on white supremacists while still protecting us from both jihadists and right-wing extremists? According to Mike German, the former FBI agent, law enforcement should make its focus violent intent for both kinds of terror, rather than association with banned groups.

  • Mike German:

    That's why it's very important that the enforcement is done in a completely transparent way so it can reassure society that a rule of law does exist that applies to everyone.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    That means less reliance on lists like the one that the Russian Imperial Movement was added to and more traditional police work, no matter what a violent perpetrators' ideology may be.

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