In the category of "claims to fame nobody wants," the United States can now add "exporter of white supremacist ideology" to its repertoire. Super.
Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, made this claim in a briefing at The Washington Institute in Washington, D.C. "For almost two decades, the United States has pointed abroad at countries who are exporters of extreme Islamist ideology," Travers said. "We are now being seen as the exporter of white supremacist ideology. That's a reality with which we are going to have to deal."
Travers described a global movement of "racially motivated violent extremism," or RMVE (pronounced "rem-vee") and explained some of the challenges in dealing with such threats. The movement has largely been pushed through social media and other online channels of communication, but it lacks the clear organization and hierarchy that Islamist extremism usually entails.
"We don't fully understand how attackers are influenced and or what constitutes meaningful relationships between extremists," Travers said. Such loose connections make finding and mitigating white supremacist terror threats difficult, as does the fine line between white supremacist ideology and right-wing politics.
One thing that's clear is that despite typically "lone wolf" style attacks, violent white supremacists are kind of obsessed with one another. "A large percentage of RMVE attackers in recent years have either displayed outreach to like-minded individuals or groups or referenced early attackers as sources of inspiration" Travers said, pointing to Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011; Dylann Roof, an American white supremacist who shot and killed nine black worshipers in a Bible study in Charleston in 2015; and Brenton Tarrant, the New Zealand mosque shooter who killed 51 people in March.
Travers did express a concern about "painting with too broad a brush and impinging on legitimate right-wing political activity and free speech" while trying to counter violent racially-motivated terror. He pointed out that in the battle against violent religious extremism, counterterrorism experts "lost some control of the narrative" to Islamist extremists, who were able to convince vulnerable parts of the Islamic world that "the West is conducting a war against Islam."
Apparently, Travers is hoping to avoid a similar problem by being careful about equating white supremacist ideology with right-wing American politics. That gets a little tricky when people like Stephen Miller, right-wing adviser to the right-wing President, are exposed as racist white nationalists by their own emails. Such folks in high positions of power and influence may not be plotting to bomb mosques or shoot up black churches, but their ability to inflict racially motivated terror is arguably much more insidious and potentially harmful than the average militant supremacist whack job.
However, the racist-with-a-rifle-next-door is a dominant threat to our nation's security, and the fact that our country is being viewed as the primary outsourcer of white supremacy should be alarming to all of us. As Travers said, we have to deal with this reality, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.