Report: Rise in ‘lone wolf’ domestic terrorists remains ‘substantial threat’

Jason Sickles
Las Vegas police on the scene of the June 2014 deadly rampage carried out by extremists Jared and Amanda Miller. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, Eric Verduzco)

As U.S. officials scramble to suppress the pace of foreign fighters flocking to join extremists in Syria and Iraq, a national watchdog group is imploring the federal government not to overlook terrorist threats at home.

According to a study released Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center — a nonprofit organization that tracks hate activity — on average, a terrorist attack or foiled encounter took place every 34 days in the United States from April 1, 2009, through Feb. 1, 2015.

“We are not in any way trying to diminish the very real jihadist threat,” said Mark Potok, SLPC senior fellow and editor of the report. “But we have known since Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995 that there is a very real and very substantial threat in terms of terrorism from our fellow Americans.”

Click image to read the Southern Poverty Law Center's study on lone wolf domestic terrorism.

The study, which included violence by people who identified with radical-right ideologies, as well as homegrown jihadists, identified 63 incidents — attacks, foiled plots and 14 unplanned situations, such as traffic stops, where extremists were confronted by police and reacted with major violence. In six years, 63 victims of terrorist attacks were killed, scores injured and 16 assailants died.

Among the attacks: an IRS manager killed in 2010, when a man who had attended a radical anti-tax group meeting crashed his single-engine plane into an Austin, Texas, tax office; the 2012 mass shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple by a longtime neo-Nazi; and a couple with anti-government views fatally shooting two police officers and a bystander in Las Vegas last summer.

The White House will host a summit next week on countering violent extremism, stating in a press release that the efforts are “made even more imperative in light of recent, tragic attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris.”

“While the Summit will address contemporary challenges, it will not focus on any particular religion, ideology, or political movement and will, instead, seek to draw lessons that are applicable to the full spectrum of violent extremists,” spokesman Ned Price said in an email to Yahoo News. “The Summit will include discussions of opportunities for prevention and intervention at the local level, recognizing the importance of communities — whether at home or overseas.”

Potok said the White House summit sounds all-encompassing on paper, but that history has proven otherwise.

“We’re concerned that this meeting may very well end up focusing too heavily on the threat of Islamist terrorism,” he said. “The government, at least in our view, has at least fallen down in many ways … with respect to dealing with domestic terrorism.”

The 43-year-old civil rights organization is not immune to its own controversy. Conservative politicians and others have long questioned the criteria for placement on the group's hate list. This week the SPLC issued a public apology to Dr. Ben Carson — a potential 2016 presidential candidate — for lumping him in with the likes of KKK members. He has since been removed from their "Extremist File.”

[Related: Obama to encourage companies to share cyber threat data]

In 2009, a team of Department of Homeland Security analysts tried to issue a confidential report to law enforcement agencies on how the economic crisis and the election of the first black president were fueling rightwing extremism. But political backlash over the report forced then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to renounce her team’s findings.

“The report was remarkably accurate in its analysis and warnings (which included the assertion that the threat of lone wolves and small cells was growing),” the SPLC authors write in their report.

Of the terrorist incidents since April 2009, the study found that 74 percent were carried out, or planned, by a single person. Ninety percent of the more than 60 attacks were the work of no more than two people — a couple, two brothers, a pair of friends and a father and son among them.

“People are increasingly, it seems, getting away from groups and are essentially hiding themselves in the anonymity and safety of the Internet,” Potok said.

In the wake of last month’s rampage at offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Attorney General Eric Holder admitted on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that small-scale attacks in the United States were a possibility.

“It's something that frankly keeps me up at night. Worrying about the lone wolf or a group of people, a very small group of people, who decide to get arms on their own and do what we saw in France,” Holder said. “It’s the kind of thing that our government is focused on doing all that we can, in conjunction with our state and local counterparts, to try to make sure that it does not happen.”

Recalling the Oklahoma City bombing, a security analyst says, “We’re long overdue for a much greater attack from the far right,” (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

This week’s fatal shooting of three American-born Muslim college students by a middle-aged white man near the University of North Carolina has not been ruled a hate crime. Police say their preliminary investigation indicates that a dispute over a parking space sparked the violence, but the deaths were condemned by civil liberties groups and created allegations of anti-Muslim bias on Twitter.

“We certainly hope that the three victims in Chapel Hill were not the victims of Islamic-phobic violence, but it certainly seems possible,” Potok said. “And if not them, then I think sadly we can look forward to more of that violence.”

Asked if “ISIS a true indication of what Islam looks like when it controls a society,” about half of 1,000 U.S. Protestant pastors agreed, according to poll results released this week by LifeWay Research.

Those kinds of numbers are troubling to Potok, who worries that recent world events could motivate some extremists to act.

“Muslims in this country are clearly under fire, and it is very likely to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Department of Justice formed a task force dedicated to domestic terrorism. That committee disbanded not long after 9/11, but Holder announced last summer that the group was being revived.

“It had held no meetings, however, as of press time,” the SPLC writes in its report.

Before the Oklahoma City bombing, only four people were reportedly aware it was being planned. Daryl Johnson, the former security analyst who led the 2009 DHS study, warns that the trend in "lone wolf" extremism is ominous.

“We’re long overdue for a much greater attack from the far right,” Johnson told the SPLC.

(This story has been updated since it was originally published.)

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).