Countering Racially or Ethnically Motivated Terrorism

6 minutes read time
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg (bottom left corner) addresses other local government leaders from Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States at a Strong Cities Network workshop in January 2018.  (State Department photo)
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg (bottom left corner) addresses other local government leaders from Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States at a Strong Cities Network workshop in January 2018. (State Department photo)

Countering Racially or Ethnically Motivated Terrorism

From Christchurch to El Paso, racially or ethnically motivated terrorists have targeted people with violence because of the color of their skin or the religion they practice. Similar to Islamist terrorism, this movement is inspired by a hateful, supremacist, and intolerant ideology. To defeat this movement, we must defeat its ideology.

Countering racially or ethnically motivated terrorism – including white supremacist terrorism – is a top national security priority for the United States. The Trump Administration’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released last fall, identifies a broad range of “terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology but are instead motivated by other forms of violent extremism, such as racially motivated extremism.” This was the first U.S. national counterterrorism strategy ever to specifically address this particular threat. In the strategy’s section on countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment, it further stresses the need to focus on “violence across all violent extremist ideologies.”

The entire U.S. government is mobilizing to combat racially or ethnically motivated terrorists who seek to wreak havoc on our communities. On the homefront, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and U.S. Department of Justice have led efforts to address these threats, investigating, disrupting, and prosecuting aspiring terrorists who are intent on carrying out attacks. The Department of Homeland Security likewise leads multiple lines of effort to counter targeted violence and terrorism, and also provides strong support to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces.

At the State Department, we know that countering violent extremism, or CVE, is an important part of any counterterrorism effort. To effectively combat racially or ethnically motivated terrorism, we must confront the ideology that drives it – both online and offline. We also know that terrorist ideology doesn’t stop at the border. Many of our allies face the same threats we do, and it is imperative that we learn from each other to face common enemies in our communities. 

A great example of this work in action is the State Department-created and funded Strong Cities Network (SCN) – a global network of mayors, local government leaders, and frontline practitioners dedicated to countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment in all its forms. More than 125 local governments across six continents are part of SCN, including members such as Berlin, Edmonton, Helsinki, Oslo, and San Diego, facing terrorist threats from across the ideological spectrum.

In January 2018, the State Department supported an SCN workshop, hosted by the German Marshall Fund in Washington, to share information and coordinate action against these threats. Mayor John Tecklenburg of Charleston, South Carolina, provided an emotional account of the murder of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015 by a white supremacist. Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume also spoke about the murder of six worshipers at the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec City by a white supremacist in January 2017. 

Public diplomacy is another key tool the State Department uses against racially or ethnically motivated terrorism. Our embassies have sent former extremists who now work on CVE efforts on speaker programs around the world. Their knowledge of the recruitment tactics of racially or ethnically motivated terrorists has helped better equip foreign governments, NGOs, parents, and educators about this threat.

The State Department also employs the City Pair CVE Partnership Program as another tool in its effort to address the full spectrum of terrorist ideologies. In April 2019, a delegation from the German cities of Bonn, Cologne, and Dusseldorf visited Anaheim and San Diego for one of these two-way exchanges. While there, they met with officials from both cities, the San Diego chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, and former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, who spoke out against a Ku Klux Klan march in Anaheim in February 2016. The German delegation’s visit happened a few weeks before a white supremacist allegedly killed one person and injured three others at the Chabad of Poway synagogue just outside of San Diego, underscoring the critical need for this work.

A few weeks after the synagogue attack, a delegation from Anaheim and San Diego traveled to Germany for the second leg of this program. While in Cologne, the delegation visited Keupstrasse, a busy commercial street in the center of an ethnic Turkish neighborhood, where in June 2004 a bomb injured 22 members of Cologne’s Turkish community. The U.S. delegation also learned about educational programs that the German government founded and supports to inform the public about the atrocities of the Nazi era, which continues to be an inspiration for many of Germany’s white supremacist groups.

Finally, we know that terrorist groups continue to use the internet to radicalize, recruit, and inspire others to violence. The Christchurch attacker and other terrorists have used live video streaming services to broadcast their atrocities, while others have used online message and image boards to anonymously post toxic manifestos. 

Of course, the internet is not the problem, and censorship is not the solution. At the State Department, we work closely with social media companies to build a comprehensive whole-of-society approach that includes developing positive narratives and building resilience to these hateful messages.

A number of companies are responding. For example, Facebook is redirecting users who search for terms associated with racially or ethnically motivated terrorism to resources that help people disassociate from hate groups. People searching for these terms will be directed to Life After Hate, an organization founded by former extremists, which provides support in the form of education, interventions, academic research and outreach.  Facebook, Google/YouTube, and other companies are also developing crisis communications protocols to ensure that terrorists cannot use their platforms to livestream attacks in the future. 

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States and our partners have developed a broad range of tools, good practices, and platforms to deal with threats from foreign terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS. With attacks from racially or ethnically motivated terrorists on the rise, the State Department will continue to leverage existing CVE and other tools to confront their poisonous ideology.

About the Author: Nathan A. Sales is Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State