Let us run a headline by you.
“White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States.”
That was the headline of an article we published in late June about a new study that found non-Muslim extremists in the United States had killed nearly twice as many Americans since 9/11 as Muslim “jihadists.” Many of the non-Muslim extremists — whom we’ll just call terrorists from now on — were motivated by right-wing anti-government beliefs or white supremacist ideologies. Nearly all of them were white US citizens.
Some readers saw what we were trying to do and applauded it. We were stating one of the study’s key findings about who was actually committing deadly acts of terrorism on US soil. We chose to describe those terrorists as “white Americans” not just because they were Americans and they were white, but because we were highlighting how the study unraveled a common post-9/11 assumption about terrorism in the United States — that it’s mainly the work of Muslims and foreigners. It’s not.
Other readers were mad. Really mad.
Some of them objected to our decision to call the terrorists “white Americans” instead of “some white Americans” or “white American extremists.” Without qualifying the term, they argued, we were claiming that ALL white Americans were a terror threat. Other readers worried that the headline, though correct, was unnecessarily divisive. Some thought it was unfair to focus on racial data when the study's summary didn't call attention to it.
Other readers reported us to Facebook for posting hate speech. They called us racists and race-baiters. They said we were ignoring “white genocide.” They asked why were weren’t talking about “black-on-white crime.” One person threatened to file a discrimination lawsuit.
When you start looking at the actual human beings lumped into these categories, two things become obvious.
It was a powerful reaction, and one we thought merited more discussion. So let’s take a closer look at the study and why we framed our story the way we did.
What does the study tell us about terrorism?
The New America study, which defines "extremist violence" or terrorism as "the use of violence in pursuit of any political ideology," drew on court documents and news reports to compile a database of information about individuals who had either carried out acts of terrorism in the United States or had been charged with a terrorism-related crime since 9/11.
The study split the terrorists into two categories. There were the "jihadists" — people who "worked with or were inspired by Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups" — and the "non-jihadists," who were "motivated by other ideologies that are non-Jihadist in character, for example right wing, left wing, or idiosyncratic beliefs." The vast majority of the non-jihadists were anti-government extremists and/or white supremacists.
New America identified 479 people who had been arrested or charged with plotting or carrying out an act of terrorism, or who had died while committing the act. The number included 296 jihadists and 183 non-jihadists. Looking at deadly terror attacks, the study found seven were carried out by "jihadists," killing a total of 26 people. There were 19 attacks by non-jihadists, which killed 48 people. (These were the statistics when we published our article on June 24, 2015. New America has been updating the database.)
Like many other news organizations, GlobalPost chose to highlight in our report the finding that, since 9/11, terrorists motivated by anti-government or white supremacist ideologies have killed nearly twice as many people in the United States as terrorists motivated by radical Islamic beliefs.
When you start looking at the actual human beings lumped into "jihadist" and "non-jihadist" categories, two things become obvious.
First, the jihadists are all Muslims. You already knew that, of course, because the category implies it. But it's quite a diverse group, actually, in terms of race, ethnicity and nationality. It's likely these individuals also have a range of beliefs and motivations that end up getting reduced to an abstract notion of Islamic "jihad."
Just as clear is the fact that most of the non-jihadists are white — 166 out of 183 of them. If religion is the thing that unites the racially and ethnically diverse group of "jihadists," then it's race that unites the cohort of "non-jihadist" terrorists.
It makes sense that white people would be responsible for violent acts motivated by white supremacist beliefs. Take Wade Michael Page, who shot and killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Aug. 5, 2012. Before the shooting, he publicly associated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, and was vocal about his beliefs. It shouldn't come as a shock, then, to learn that Page was white.
But consider the case of Andrew Joseph Stack. He was an anti-government, anti-tax extremist who flew a small plane into the IRS building in February 2010, killing himself and an IRS employee. He was white, too. But unlike white supremacist violence, there's nothing that necessarily links anti-government violence with whiteness — except that nearly all the people who have carried out deadly attacks motivated by anti-government ideologies have been white, and many of them shared both anti-government views and racist ones.
These findings aren't surprising to people who study extremist violence.
"There's an acceptance now of the idea that the threat from jihadi terrorism in the United States has been overblown," John Horgan, a terrorism expert at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told The New York Times. "And there's a belief that the threat of right-wing, antigovernment violence has been underestimated."
The Department of Homeland Security released an intelligence assessment in February warning about the violent threat of "sovereign citizen" extremists — anti-government radicals who consider any form of government encroachment into their lives, including things as routine as traffic stops, a violation of individual liberty.
The DHS warned that law enforcement would be the main target of sovereign citizen violence, which was most likely to occur "during routine law enforcement encounters at a suspect's home, during enforcement stops and at government offices."
Keep in mind, these aren't people who become violent during police encounters because they're trying to escape capture — they're people committing acts of violence rooted in ideology. They're committing acts of terrorism.
The DHS wasn't saying anything that state and local law enforcement didn't already know. According to a DHS-funded survey published in 2014 by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), law enforcement agencies considered sovereign citizen extremists the most dangerous terror threats in the United States — ahead of foreign Islamic extremists.
How many people associate themselves with a movement that law enforcement agencies consider the most dangerous terror threat in the United States? The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are as many as 300,000 people affiliated with the sovereign citizen movement living in the United States, although it's hard to know for sure, since it's a very diffuse movement without centralized leadership and organizations.
According to the SPLC, the movement has roots in white supremacy and anti-Semitism, although it's recently attracted people of color, too, and its anti-government ideology is a big tent that can fit people of all regions, classes, and races. That said, New America's data show that the vast majority of lethal terrorist attacks carried out by sovereign citizens were carried out by white Americans.
So if sovereign citizens are the biggest terror threat facing the United States, in the view of law enforcement, then it's worth acknowledging that the most deadly members of that cohort, thus far, have been white Americans.
Non-jihadist terrorists have killed more people in the United States than jihadists have since 9/11.
Consider all these findings together:
Non-jihadist terrorists, nearly all of them white Americans, have killed more people in the United States than jihadists have since 9/11.
Non-jihadist terrorists, including those who failed to kill or who were arrested before committing an act of terrorism, were nearly all white Americans.
The deadliest of the country's sovereign citizen extremists, whom some in law enforcement consider the most dangerous terror threat facing the United States, have been white Americans.
Terror threats posed by violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups can only, by the logic of their own ideology, be made up of white Americans.
It's fair to contend, then, that white Americans are the biggest terror threat facing the United States.
This is just one way of measuring terror "threat," of course. If you decide to include the extraordinary attacks on 9/11, which New America did not, then everything changes. If you decide to focus just on arrests for terrorism-related crimes, everything changes, too. An attack could happen in the future that changes everything.
But if, as we have done, you're choosing to define "terror threat" in terms of the number of terrorists who have killed people since 9/11, in terms of the threat posed by ideologies that motivated them, and in terms of racial demographics — then the terrorist you're looking for is much more likely to be a white American than anybody else.
Why say 'white Americans' are the terror threat?
Most importantly, it's what the numbers say. It also runs counter to the accepted wisdom that we've gotten from law enforcement, news media, and popular culture that Muslims and foreigners are the main practitioners of terrorism and the gravest terror threat facing the United States.
It's easy to see how that happened. Al Qaeda killed almost 3,000 people on 9/11. The United States' subsequent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq — and more limited counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — have meant the US public has spent over a decade imagining the enemy to be a foreign Muslim man with an AK-47 or a suicide vest. Combine that with a 24-hour news cycle that privileges simple narratives over nuance, and with policymakers who have too often shown a lack of knowledge about the history, politics, and cultures of the places where the US wages war and sees threats — and you're looking at some entrenched, perpetually reinforced stereotypes about Muslims, Islam, and terrorism.
These stereotypes have shaped how we understand terrorism in the United States, including how we defend against it and how we talk about it.
Take domestic counterterrorism policy. Even though law enforcement acknowledges the terror threat posed by sovereign citizen groups and white supremacists, it's Muslim Americans who have been the primary targets of post-9/11 surveillance.
As a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Associated Press showed, the New York Police Department worked with the FBI and CIA to create a secret “Demographics Unit” tasked with monitoring and infiltrating mosques, spying on Muslim students and collecting data on Muslims living in the city. There was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. This was profiling, pure and simple. After six years, the NYPD closed the unit. It had never produced a lead or an arrest.
That NYPD unit was just one part of a counterterrorism strategy focused on Muslim Americans. Law enforcement agencies have developed networks of informants in mosques that help them monitor community members for radicalization. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been given legal latitude when it comes to using racial and religious profiling to screen airline passengers. And there's evidence in the documents leaked by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency (NSA) spied on the communications of prominent Muslim Americans.
We've also seen how Muslim stereotypes influence America's public conversations about ideological violence.
Let's look back again at Andrew Joseph Stack's suicide attack on the IRS building. That was an act of ideological violence. It would be reasonable to call it terrorism. But news media and state officials didn't just neglect to call it that — they specifically suggested in early reports that it was not terrorism.
"Two F-16 fighter jets were sent from Houston as a precaution," CNN reported, "but federal authorities said preliminary information did not indicate any terrorist connection."
The DHS released an early statement to the public that, whatever else the attack might have been, it probably wasn't terrorism.
"We do not yet know the cause of the plane crash," it read. "At this time, we have no reason to believe there is a nexus to terrorist activity. We continue to gather more information, and are aware there is additional information about the pilot's history."
You could say officials and journalists were doing the responsible thing not jumping to conclusions. But doesn't it seem possible the attack wasn't immediately suspected as terrorism because the man flying the plane didn't fit the profile of a terrorist?
A similar thing is happening in the aftermath of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof's internet paper trail has lead journalists and hate group monitors to his website "The Last Rhodesian," a racist manifesto; photos of him posing with the Confederate battle flag and a gun; and comment threads on a neo-Nazi website called the Daily Stormer. Witnesses also heard Roof make racist statements during his rampage. And yet, Americans can't seem to agree on whether what he did was "terrorism," in addition to being a "hate crime."
Roof's mass shooting sparked renewed controversy over the continued importance of the Confederate battle flag to some white Southerners. While that debate has gone on, eight historic black churches have burned. At least two of the fires have already been ruled arson.
If it is what it seems to be, will we call it terrorism? Will we call the people who did it terrorists?
What the data collectors think
So what did New America think of how we framed our story about their work?
To find out, GlobalPost spoke with David Sterman, a program associate in New America's International Security Program who works on the database.
“It certainly gets at one striking aspect of the data," Sterman told GlobalPost: "That many, or almost all, of the right-wing extremists we look at who have committed deadly attacks are white men, whereas looking at jihadist extremists more broadly, jihadist extremists tend to be a much more diverse grouping."
He did see some problems, though. He said our choice to highlight race as a category created a racial "binary" that didn't account for the racial diversity among jihadists.
"Also, things change over time," he noted. "Prioritizing a frame along racial lines can potentially miss that change."
Sterman also thought our choice of focusing on deadly attacks might have meant we missed other stories in the data.
"Tracking deadly attacks is important and provides critical information," he said. "But you can't really judge either the total threat from different groups or the character of the movement from the subset of deadly attacks."
In the end, GlobalPost was making a decision about how to interpret, frame, categorize, and label New America's data, and that's a process Sterman knows well himself.
“There are certainly lots of questions over how to label ideologies," he said when explaining how New America chose to categorize their own findings. "The study of this form of extremism is really underdeveloped. There’s plenty of room for other ways of tallying up these counts and trying to determine what political ideology ties them together, whether the ideologies are all similar, whether they change over time. Certainly, there’s a question there.”
“White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States" is one of many reasonable ways to frame an interpretation of New America's data. It's the one we chose at GlobalPost.
And Sterman is right. By prioritizing race, we limited the stories we could tell about the data. There are many stories that the data could help tell — about law enforcement, gender, guns, and other important things.
But that was the story we told, and we hope this article explains the facts underlying the frame — and why it was an important, if provocative, response to the stereotypes and assumptions about terrorism that saturate American news, culture, and policy.