U.S. seen as 'exporter of white supremacist ideology,' says counterterrorism official

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON — After an upsurge in racially motivated attacks around the world, other countries are beginning to regard the United States as an exporter of white supremacism, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said Friday. 

“For almost two decades, the United States has pointed abroad at countries who are exporters of extreme Islamist ideology,” Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told an audience in Washington, D.C. “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 said there is now a global movement of what he termed “racially motivated violent extremism,” or RMVE (pronounced “rem-vee”), fueled by a wide variety of motivations and facilitated by social media and other online communications.  

“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,” he said.

Jeff Schoep, former chairman of the National Socialist Movement, speaks during a rally at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Nov. 10, 2018. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Travers cited as examples Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in two attacks in Norway in 2011; Dylann Roof, an American white supremacist who killed African-Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015; and Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 people in attacks on two mosques in New Zealand in March. The three attackers “have gained international reverence and are serving as an inspiration” for many like-minded white supremacists, “including those looking to plan or conduct attacks,” he said.

Having spent the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, honing their skills at combating Islamist groups, U.S. counterterrorism officials are playing catch-up when it comes to the burgeoning white supremacist threat, according to Travers. 

“We don’t fully understand how attackers are influenced and or what constitutes meaningful relationships between extremists,” he said. Unlike “relatively large, hierarchical” Islamist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, racially motivated violent extremism “does not feature authoritative or structured organizations or a monolithic ideology,” he added. “Instead, it is dominated by lone actors and small cells who use the online space as a borderless safe haven.”

But there was one important lesson the U.S. officials learned in their fight against Islamist terrorism that they must bear in mind as they work to defeat white supremacism, according to Travers.

“In the case of the Islamist terrorist threat, we lost some control of the narrative” by allowing the idea to take among vulnerable Sunni populations “that the West is conducting a war against Islam,” he said. In dealing with racially motivated violent extremism, U.S. officials and their partners must “disaggregate,” Travers said, “appropriately dealing with violent white supremacist activity while not being perceived as painting with too broad a brush and impinging on legitimate right-wing political activity and free speech.”

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