Nicholas Rasmussen, a leading counter-terror expert, said there were “remarkably similar” parallels between right-wing and Islamic extremism, and said the same tools used to stamp out ISIS and al-Qaeda terrorists could be used to crack down on white supremacist criminals.
Rasmussen, the director of the American National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) between 2014 and 2017, said he was “almost embarrassed” to admit right-wing terror was not firmly enough on the radar of the government agency when he led it, due to its laser focus on international — rather than domestic — threats.
“I do suspect we are playing a bit of catch-up,” he told 10 daily, voicing fears some current tactics in the fight against far-right terror were “woefully passive”.
Rasmussen, now a Senior Director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, is in Australia this month as a Distinguished Visitor at the National Security College at the Australian National University.
His visit will see him support teaching and training of government officials on security and terrorism — including the threat of right-wing terror, now more squarely in the spotlight after a string of recent attacks across the world.
With incidents in recent years including Anders Breivik — who killed 77 people in a 2011 massacre in Norway — and the Australian-born man who cited Breivik as an influence on his massacre of 51 people in mosques in Christchurch, law enforcement is paying more attention to far-right extremism, which is often linked to criticisms of immigration and multiculturalism.
More recently, the man accused of shooting dead 21 people in El Paso, Texas on August 3, and the man accused of shooting inside a Norwegian mosque last week, have been linked to this type of violence.
Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray recently testified to U.S. Congress that the “majority” of domestic terrorism cases the FBI has investigated this year “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
In March, U.S. President Donald Trump was asked if he saw white nationalism as a rising threat around the world in the aftermath of the Christchurch shooting. He responded “I don’t really”.
“I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” Trump said.
A 2017 FBI report found white supremacists were behind more murders between 2000-16 than any other domestic movement.
“We live in a world where the neo-Nazis and white supremacists are taking lives in many places,” Senator Dick Durbin said during Wray’s testimony, claiming the issue “is not being taken as seriously as it should be”.
Rasmussen said domestic white supremacist and far-right violence may be even harder to track than that perpetrated by international terror groups, as they often act alone.
“They may have connections to other individuals, and exchange ideas or engage in sympathetic dialogue with other like-minded people, but they don’t seem to operate in that same kind of cell structure [as international terrorists],” Rasmussen said.
He said the “right-wing supremacist networks” could “prove to be a harder target to map and understand”.
It’s a different model, so in some ways, more challenging for law enforcement.
Rasmussen said it was important to distinguish between people who merely hold far-right views — for example, supporting hardline politicians — and those who act on those views in violent ways. The challenge for law enforcement, he said, was in determining who poses a physical threat and who does not.
He outlined the threat of “reciprocal radicalisation”, a concept he believes has seen far-right supporters become extreme themselves, due to what they perceive as threats of international terrorism.
“This is the way some members of white communities could become so exercised by what they perceived to be the threat of Islamic terrorism, that that caused them to radicalise in their own way and become dangerous and violent,” Rasmussen said.
“The way in which these individuals become radicalised looks remarkably similar, whether they’re buying into ISIS-linked ideologies or buying into this identitarian white supremacist view,” he continnued.
“In both of those cases, the idea develops that there is existential threat and a requirement to act, to save your community. Some of the same tools we’d use to deal with countering extremism of the Islamic sort, we should be able to use in countering extremism of the white supremacist sort.”
“I’m hopeful we will be able to use some of these same tools, of community engagement mostly, and beyond just law enforcement work.”
Rasmussen said he did not want to cast criticism on law enforcement including the FBI, saying the right-wing threat — while bubbling for some years — has fast swelled in “volume” in recent years, and agencies were working to catch up.
“As [FBI director Wray] pointed out, these have been the cases which have resulted in the most deaths in recent years. It seems hard to argue with the data here. We are facing a problem,” he said.
The Head of ANU’s National Security College, Professor Rory Medcalf, said Rasmussen’s work on right-wing terror was world-leading.
“Nick Rasmussen was one of the first voices in the American national security community to alert the world to right-wing terrorism, and his concerns have tragically been borne out,” Medcalf said.
“His work with the National Security College will focus on the threat of white supremacist violence, in the wake of terrorist attacks this year in Christchurch, New Zealand, and recently in the United States.”
While the recent headline-grabbing massacres seem to be “lone wolf”-style attacks, with one perpetrator working essentially solo, Rasmussen said tendrils did snake between some alleged attackers.
Breivik is said to have influenced the Christchurch shooter, while that shooter is said to be in turn influencing a number of other white supremacist followers. Certain websites, internet forums and literature are also common links between the assailants.
Rasmussen and a number of former counter-terror colleagues had issued a call after the El Paso shooting, calling for the U.S. government to “bring the same level of energy, effort and resources to the problem of domestic terrorism which we brought to the domain of international terrorism since 9/11.”
“Post-Christchurch, one of the questions was, is there an international dimension to this ideological movement of white supremacists and far-right wing political activists?” he said.
“Those links need to be explored better, and I’d argue our intelligence agencies could benefit from deeper and more frequent exchanges.”