The arrests earlier this month of two people charged with plotting to attack the Baltimore-area power grid weren't just a one-off incident, but one of many signs of the growing threat of racially motivated, right-wing domestic terrorism, former FBI Special Agent Michael German said in a webinar hosted Feb. 16 by the Washington Post.
German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program and a critic of the post-9/11 FBI, also discussed how to combat white supremacist efforts that are socially disruptive and create national upheaval.
German said the recent case against Sarah Beth Clendaniel and Brandon Clint Russell opens a window onto an international web of terrorists.
Russell has known connections to a terroristic neo-Nazi organization called Atomwaffen, created in 2013, which was responsible for violent plots, weapon violations and even murders, German said. This group participates in domestic terrorism, German said, and its reach crosses national borders.
"The white supremacist ideas that animate their plots are not bound by any national borders, and are international in scope," German said.
German shared that those involved with domestic terrorism do it based on the ideology of cleansing the world, in what they call a race war, and that groups need "just a small action that might tip things into chaos, that will spark the race war starting."
Since a majority of plots are hard to accomplish and require difficult tasks, infrastructure targets are key. If the alleged Baltimore plot had succeeded, it would have caused a ripple effect throughout the community, in part because the suspects believed "something as small as the lights going out will start people killing one another," German said.
Ultimately, German said, the goal of domestic terrorism is to create a "white nation" and such groups are convinced they will be "victorious in securing the existence of white people."
When compared to other movements on the left such as Black Lives Matter or antifa, white supremacy is still the most deadly and violently persistent, German said. He admits that while there are moments of sporadic incidences of violence among other groups, domestic terrorists engage at higher rates and are more likely to be increasingly lethal.
German also shared that cases of racist hate crimes are underreported, "The media often doesn't cover white supremacist violence as much as it occurs," he said, "and not just media. The federal government, the FBI today can't tell you how many people white supremacists killed last year because they don't collect what we refer to as domestic terrorist incident data."
German said law enforcement should stop looking at the ideologies of supremacists who are hopeful for a white nation and instead shift focus to criminal acts and those who perpetuate them. Instead, he argued, it is common in law enforcement to deny the problem of white supremacy infiltration. The FBI has reassured Congress that there was no issue with recruitment within law enforcement by domestic terrorists even though many officers were involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, German said.
"When an authority figure embraces these groups or these ideologies, they become much more dangerous," German said. "They can do a lot more if they have a patina of legitimacy given to them by a person of authority."