Former counterterrorism chief: Trump defeat may prompt right-wing terror attacks

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·10 min read

The former head of the National Counterterrorism Center said he would not be surprised if right-wing domestic terrorist groups stage attacks in the United States around this November’s presidential election.

“It certainly wouldn’t surprise me, particularly if the administration loses,” said Russ Travers, who was the center’s acting director when he was fired by President Trump’s hand-picked acting director of national intelligence.

Trump, who is behind in all national polls, has repeatedly claimed that the expected widespread use of mail-in ballots during a national pandemic will lead to “massive fraud and abuse” and an election result that is “rigged” against him. “The political rhetoric is such that you could very easily see some backlash” from white supremacist or other right-wing terror groups, Travers said.

Travers is not alone in his assessment. An Aug. 17 Department of Homeland Security analysis also warns of possible election-related attacks. “We assess ideologically-motivated violent extremists and other violent actors could quickly mobilize to threaten or engage in violence against election or campaign-related targets in response to perceived partisan and policy-based grievances,” says the document, which was obtained by Yahoo News.

While the DHS document appears to indicate that such attacks might come from across the political spectrum, white supremacists are the only group it cites specifically. “We continue to assess lone offender white supremacist extremists and other lone offender domestic terrorist actors with personalized ideologies, including those based on grievances against a target’s perceived or actual political affiliation, policies or worldview, pose the greatest threat of lethal violence,” says the document, which was prepared by DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis in coordination with several other offices, as well as with the National Counterterrorism Center.

Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Threats to the Homeland on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. November 5, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Threats to the Homeland on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. November 5, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Travers, who was interviewed by Yahoo News before the the DHS analysis was issued, said in a subsequent phone call that he had not seen the document and was unaware of its existence.

Despite Trump’s declared intent to designate the left-wing activist movement known as antifa as a domestic terror organization, the threat from right-wing groups dwarfs that of their left-wing counterparts in the United States, according to Travers.

“There absolutely is a left-wing effort that has conducted violent activities,” he said, citing the “small numbers” of such offenses during recent protests in Portland, Ore., “but it is not even in the same ballpark as the extreme right wing.” However, any attempt to designate either type of group would be unlikely to survive a legal challenge, he added.

Indeed, said Travers, the U.S. government likely underestimates the amount of white supremacist domestic terrorism in the United States. But that has not stopped Trump from frequently focusing his rhetorical ire on antifa, which is short for “antifascist.” It was after the start of nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody, that Trump announced on May 31 that he would declare antifa a terrorist organization. Attorney General William Barr issued a similar statement the same day: “The violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”

Donald Trump
Chris Kleponis/Polaris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nonetheless, Travers said the difference between the small number of violent left-wing activists and the larger threat posed by right-wing groups is so significant as to be a case of “night and day,” and was the main reason why, when it came to domestic terrorism, the counterterrorism center decided to focus exclusively on white supremacist groups.

An experienced intelligence officer with 32 years of federal service, Travers was the center’s acting director for most of 2018 and again from August 2019 to March 2020, when he was fired by Trump’s then-acting intelligence chief Richard Grenell, as part of a purge of career officials holding leadership positions at the office of the director of national intelligence, to which the counterterrorism center belongs.

Established in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to analyze all U.S. government intelligence related to terrorism, the center during its early years was overwhelmingly focused on threats from Islamist groups such as al-Qaida, according to Travers. Only when that threat began to subside did the center begin to pay serious attention to white supremacism and similar right-wing movements, a shift that coincided with Travers, who had been the center’s deputy director, taking charge in December 2017.

Travers, who had been at the counterterrorism center since 2003, questioned his staff in early 2018 about what it thought the center should be focusing on. In response, the center’s dozen representatives posted to joint terrorism task forces or FBI field stations around the country reported that among the state and local law enforcement officials with whom they dealt, as well as among academic and private sector experts, there was “a thirst for NCTC to engage in more of the domestic terrorism side, and in particular on the right wing,” Travers said, adding that in its work the center always acts in support of the FBI, which has the lead role in countering terrorism in the U.S.

Armed members of far-right militias and white pride organizations
Members of far-right militias and white pride organizations rally in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Saturday. (Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images)

“In the heartland, they were asking our reps more and more questions on the domestic terrorism side, rather than the Islamist side,” he said. At roughly the same time, Travers said, he was hearing from a wide range of sources, including members of Congress and the leaders of social media firms, “that the domestic terrorism problem — and primarily the right-wing side of the domestic terrorism problem — was a growing concern for people.”

However, a cursory analysis of the links between white supremacist groups in North America, Europe and Australia meant that even the phrase “domestic terrorism” was something of “a misnomer,” Travers said. “It was pretty clear to us that a lot of this right-wing thing was a bit of a global movement. All of my European partners had the very same concerns. … This was a different flavor of international terrorism.”

There was at least one other area in which white supremacist terrorism and Islamic terrorism overlapped, according to Travers: their use of the internet and social media to attract and radicalize followers. “The right-wing thing looks a lot like the Islamist thing in terms of the information that’s out there and the ways in which people radicalize and mobilize to violence,” he said.

White supremacist groups’ use of social media in particular presents challenges to social media companies, which can ban groups like the Islamic State more easily than they can homegrown threats, according to Travers. In addition, most right-wing terrorism is committed by “lone offenders,” and while those individuals might have been inspired by white supremacists’ online screeds, “invariably” that “hate speech” would be protected by the First Amendment, he said.

Travers believes that “there probably is more domestic terrorism out there than we realize,” because in the absence of a domestic terrorism statute, local law enforcement officials tend to treat “any murder that occurs anywhere” as a simple crime. “But what is the motivation behind that crime?” he said. “Was it a white supremacist thing or not? That may not be cataloged or tracked, and in all likelihood it’s not.”

Even the August 2019 attack at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, in which Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white man, used an AK-47-style rifle to kill 23 people, most of whom were Latinos, and wounded another 23, was not immediately classed by local officials as domestic terrorism, Travers said. “It took a few days before that one gravitated from crime to domestic terrorism,” he said. “It helped that Crusius put out a manifesto, basically talked about a Hispanic invasion.”

In this Oct., 10, 2019, file photo, El Paso Walmart mass shooter Patrick Crusius is arraigned in the 409th state District Court in El Paso, Texas, with Judge Sam Medrano presiding. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)
In this Oct., 10, 2019, file photo, El Paso Walmart mass shooter Patrick Crusius is arraigned in the 409th state District Court in El Paso, Texas, with Judge Sam Medrano presiding. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)

Yet the same lack of a domestic terrorism statute that prevents officials from designating some white supremacist attacks as terrorism is one reason why the Trump administration will have difficulty making its effort to designate antifa as a terrorist group stick in court, he said. A second reason is that antifa has neither an organizational structure nor a leader, making it similar to the right-wing “boogaloo” movement, according to Travers. “I don’t think it will pass constitutional muster,” he said of the administration’s intent to designate antifa, “and that would be true both for extreme right movements and extreme left movements.”

The U.S. counterterrorism community has become used to dealing with groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State that were hierarchical in nature, according to Travers. “But that just isn’t the case anymore, so we’ve got to get our heads around what is a movement and how do we deal with it,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure that’s going to befuddle those that want to go after both antifa and boogaloo.”

Indeed, despite its May 31 announcements, the Trump administration has made no public attempt to legally designate antifa a terrorist organization, a fact that does not surprise Travers. “I would be shocked if there is a designation of antifa that survives legal challenge,” he said. “I just don’t see how it happens.”

As acting head of the counterterrorism center, Travers decided that antifa and other left-wing movements or groups did not pose enough of a threat to show much concern about. “It didn’t have the kind of international connections that the right wing had … and I [didn’t] have the resources to do everything,” he said. “There’s no question that in years past, so the late ’60s and early ’70s, left-wing terrorism in the United States was a huge deal, but just not so anymore.”

People march to Columbia University to protest against former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, and against white supremacists in New York, U.S., October 10, 2017.  (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
People march to Columbia University to protest against former leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, and against white supremacists in New York, U.S., October 10, 2017. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

As for right-wing domestic terrorism, Travers believes that the key to reducing the threat is to focus on preventing individuals from becoming violent actors. Just as it became clear that the United States was “never going to kill or arrest” its way to victory over Islamist terrorists, “we as a government need to be thinking a little bit broader than just arresting our way out of the domestic terrorism problem set. We don’t want to make the same kinds of mistakes on the right-wing side that we have made, I think, on the Islamist question.”

While acknowledging the challenges of trying to balance the need to reduce the threat of white-supremacist-inspired terrorism with the First Amendment requirement to permit people to express their “abhorrent but nevertheless constitutionally protected views,” Travers still finds reasons to be optimistic.

“All the Pew research data suggests that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of immigration, and the vast majority of the American public sort of believes that rights and freedoms should be respected for everybody,” he said. “So in my mind, at least, a lot of this, even the right-wing stuff, I think, is still best characterized as a fringe, but it’s a fringe that is pretty loud.”

Jana Winter contributed reporting.

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