BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

WHITE TERRORISM IN AMERICA

January 15, 2021 Dana Lewis Season 3 Episode 3
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
WHITE TERRORISM IN AMERICA
Chapters
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
WHITE TERRORISM IN AMERICA
Jan 15, 2021 Season 3 Episode 3
Dana Lewis

On this Back Story Dana Lewis interviews Soufan Centre Naureen Chowdhury Fink.

Naureen served as the Senior Policy Adviser on Counterterrorism and Sanctions at the United Kingdom’s Mission to the United Nations. 

There were dozens of white supremacists involved in the riot on The Capitol. They have international links. They are well armed and well organized but under the radar of American law enforcement unless they are declared terrorist groups.

Show Notes Transcript

On this Back Story Dana Lewis interviews Soufan Centre Naureen Chowdhury Fink.

Naureen served as the Senior Policy Adviser on Counterterrorism and Sanctions at the United Kingdom’s Mission to the United Nations. 

There were dozens of white supremacists involved in the riot on The Capitol. They have international links. They are well armed and well organized but under the radar of American law enforcement unless they are declared terrorist groups.

Speaker 1:

My fellow Americans. I want to speak to you tonight about the troubling events of the past week. As I have said, the incursion of the U S Capitol struck at the very heart of our Republic, it angered and appalled millions of Americans across the political spectrum. I want to be very clear. I unequivocally condemn the violence

Speaker 2:

That was president Trump impeached for a second time this week saying he doesn't support violence. And do you believe that after all his calls to fight saying the election result was false and to this moment, refusing to admit he lost his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani called for trial by combat. Hi everyone. I'm Dana Lewis and welcome to this edition of backstory on white terrorism in America. And it shouldn't be called anything, but that I've spent a lifetime as a journalist covering terrorism around the globe. And it all looks a lot like what's developing in America from the middle East to Russia, to Afghanistan and on and on bus bombs to hostage, takings, fanatics old who justified their bloody rampage because their cause they think is just president. Trump's absolutely false claims of a stolen election have been rejected by every court, but it's ignited people who believe their president was a victim. This guy beat a policemen on the ground with an American flag. And before his arrest, he said, yeah ,

Speaker 1:

She's the only remedy for what's in that building. Well , everybody in there is a tree

Speaker 2:

Trader and here's policemen, Michael [inaudible] who was dragged down the steps of the Capitol and was going to be shot with his own gun

Speaker 3:

Fight as best I could. Uh, I remember like guys were stripping me and my gear, these riders , uh, pulling my badge off my chest. Um, they ripped my radio also of , uh, of my vest started pulling , uh , like ammunition magazines from their holder on my belt. And then some guys started getting ahold of my gun and , uh, they were screaming out , um, you know, kill him with his own gun. Um, at that point, you know, it was just like self preservation . Um, you know, how do I survive this situation? And I thought about, you know, using deadly force, I thought about shooting people. Um, and then I just came to the conclusion that, you know, if I was to do that, I might get a few, but I'm not going to take everybody. And they'll probably take my gun away from me. And that would definitely give them the justification that they were looking for to kill me. Uh , if they already didn't have made that up in their minds. So the other option I thought of was you knew trying to appeal to somebody as humanity. Um, and I, I just remember yelling out that I have kids and , uh, it seemed to work. Um, some people in the crowd started to in circle me and try to offer me some level of protection. A lot of people have asked me, you know, my faults on , uh , the individuals in the crowd that , um, you know, that helped me , uh , or try to offer some assistance. Uh, and I think kind of the conclusion I've come to is like, you know, thank you , but you for being there.

Speaker 2:

Okay, there are lots of pictures and evidence that there were dozens of white supremacists at the Capitol rally fighting police hunting inside with zip ties to handcuff, and God knows, do what with lawmakers, extremist groups, including the pro-Trump far right antigovernment oath keepers, and the three percenters, a loose antigovernment network. That's part of the militia movement. The hateful imagery included an antisemitic camp Auschwitz sweatshirt created years ago by white supremacists who sold them on the now defunct website. Arion were also among the rioters were members of the griper army, a loose network of white nationalists, the white supremacist, New Jersey European heritage association, and the far right extremist proud boys to name a few. The growth of white supremacists is international, frightening and hard to control. And that brings us to our interview on white supremacy in America and beyond. All right, joining me now from New York is Norine child dream think , uh, the executive director of the Soufan center, which is pretty much a security focused think tank or that's how I would describe it , uh, based in Washington and in New York. Hi, Dorian , how are you?

Speaker 4:

Hi, Dana. Good morning from where I'm sitting in New York. Thanks for having me.

Speaker 2:

It's an incredible time in America. And what would you say is the biggest security threat right now?

Speaker 4:

Um, you use the word incredible because I think none of us could have imagined the year we're looking at, you know, not just COVID. Um, but everything else we're saying, you asked about the biggest security threat. And I think that in the midst of a pandemic, we are seeing white supremacist and conspiracy theorists, and anti-government groups willing to use terrorism in the name of political change in, in the United States. And to me, that is the most. Um, and , and not just to me, certainly by, by many intelligence assessments and accounts, the greatest terrorist threats to the United States right now. And it's me ,

Speaker 2:

This was a long way in a very short time from the days of

Speaker 5:

Nine 11 and Al-Qaeda , and, and , uh, you know, Islamic groups , uh, excellent Islamic extremist groups , uh , representing a threat to the United States. How suddenly has this mushroom so quickly? If I can say it's quick?

Speaker 4:

Sure. Well, I think, I mean, first of all, it's been, we're looking at the 20th year anniversary coming up of nine 11. So it has been two decades and an eventful one at that. So we've seen things evolve and change. I think we've seen the white supremacist groups, you know, it , there's a long history there and certainly you and I just very briefly mentioned the headline . Exactly. So we are building on , uh , you know, we are building on a movement that has been there for quite some time, certainly in this country, but we know that a lot of dynamics, sometimes I hate to use the word accelerate in this context, but you know, you have catalysts and certainly with the infusion of the internet disinformation queue and on , um , sort of this deteriorating trust in government , um, I'm going to use a really long word and mess it up here. Anti-establishment, Marianism kind of take, you know, take, hold in the United States and elsewhere. I think we've seen a kind of perfect storm and no pun intended with the capital .

Speaker 5:

All right. As we talked to Noreen , I should mention that she was the senior policy advisor on counter-terrorism and sanctions at the UK mission to the United nations. I mean, Naureen , you're not new to this. You've been doing this for a long time.

Speaker 4:

That's right. More than I care to more years than I care to admit in public, but I've been looking at this, you know, for about 15, 16 years now. And one of the things I think has been remarkable as much as we talk about nine 11, certainly being the linchpin of counter-terrorism discussions for many years, this has also been a global phenomenon. And I think you, you know, when , when we talk about the security risk in the United States, we need to remember there are others abroad watching, planning to emulate, and these dynamics, you know, build on each other, right. We saw white supremacist groups really take heart in under his brave acts attack in Norway. I mean, the fact that he was able to kill like 70 kids and, and, you know, the greatest terrorist attack , um , in Norway and in much of Europe and it really served as fodder for, for groups abroad. And so what happens in the United States, certainly the greatest security threat we're seeing here may well have also international repercussions. We've already seen the attacks and Christ church attacks in Norway, and we will see more, unfortunately. So it's in the United States and beyond Trump,

Speaker 5:

It was regularly downplayed the threat of white supremacist violence during his presidency. He said there were some very fine people among the extremists who sparked violence in Charlottesville in 2017. He called black lives matter, a symbol of hate, and he's regularly , regularly pushed narratives on Twitter that emphasize violence against white Americans. He seeks to Curry support in the suburbs. What would you say about Donald Trump's role in the growth of extremism within the United States and specifically white supremacy?

Speaker 4:

You know , um, when I was growing up parents and family, friends used to say, you're known by the company you keep and that's how you'll be judged. And I think it says a lot about the fact that we had a president of the United States that was willing to serve just one community and one set of interests rather than the country as a whole. He has, we have seen provided a critical figurehead . Um, he has broken the seal on what is permissible in public, what you say, what you do and how you even conceptualize this country. And I think we, you know, it , it will be really hard to put that genie back in the bottle, whether he stays, whether he goes, he has provided that kind of ideological centerpiece for divisiveness in this country. And he has made it acceptable to use terrorist tactics to achieve the goals he talks about. So , um, I I'm afraid that, you know, whether he stays or whether he goes, and of course, whether he goes and what kind of accountability there is for the acts that he has incited , um, and committed , uh, will have a lot to do with the outcome. But the fact that he did it at all for the last four years and the fact that we have seen four years of growth and development in this narrative, the Q1 on movement , um, and the fact of polarization, I think there's grave damage done already

Speaker 5:

Is mega make America great. Again, that movement is that a terror threat, James Clooney , the former head of the FBI says it is or aspects of it to quote him directly.

Speaker 4:

I think that's a very important nuance aspects of it. We certainly live in a country where people are free to have different ideas of what constitutes greatness and government. And certainly , um, you know, I , I like to think America was great before, but if they feel, you know, if there's aspects of the maca movement that think there should be improvements in government, I would very, I'd be very hesitant and to live in a country where they couldn't have their say. What I think is extraordinary is when it tips into the use of violence, as we saw in the Capitol , you know, what happened on the Capitol , doesn't just , um, it will not obviously just affect Democrats once that is done. The use of violence for that kind of politics , um, should have been a seal that we never break. And so I don't, I don't really want to talk about the, the Maga movement as a whole, because as in any political movements, we will see nuances and layers of, you know, some people just have different political ideas and we can disagree, but debate them. Um, and some people who are willing to use violence, I think it's that latter group. We need to be careful,

Speaker 5:

Bigger role . Do you think white nationalism played in the attack on the Capitol

Speaker 4:

A huge role? I mean, if we just look at the images, just imagine that was a group of Muslims. I mean, we talked about nine 11, we talked about the last 20 years of the global war on terror. If that was a group from the Muslim community in the United States storming the Capitol , we would not be debating the nuances of terminology like insurrection or terrorism or, you know , rebellion. We, we would, we would certainly be here at called out as terrorism. Um, and so I think there was undoubtedly a sense of entitlement, a sense of privilege, a sense of impunity tied to white supremacist and white nationalist ideas. You know, we sitting here in Brooklyn and New York, we, we saw last year what the black lives matter protests were treated like. Um, we can imagine, as I said, if these were communities, not just Muslim communities, any communities of color that tried to, to , um , perpetrate those acts we saw last week , um, the, you know, there would be no debate about a law enforcement response. A lot of this has to do with the community feeling so entitled and so privileged and able to do this. So,

Speaker 5:

So in a way we see shockingly off-duty policemen that were in that crowd, flashing badges, assaulting other policemen, or using their badges to gain an access fireman , um, you know , uh, elected members of office , uh , soccer moms. But I mean, there were official people there from, and a lot of these policemen have gone back to their States now and they have been suspended and will probably be prosecuted

Speaker 4:

The , in the coming days and weeks, we will see what, what appears to be a very strong, our response to those who have dishonored their badges , um, and participated in this. But, you know, we are seeing reports of infiltration across the world in different law enforcement, military police , um, armed services , uh , by white supremacist far, right. Extremist groups, you know, and we have to remember, these are individuals as well. There is no , um , uniform , uh, sort of , uh , code, you know , sorry, there's a uniform code. I mean, there's no universal kind of person, right? So we will see individuals of different political and ideological color. I think it's gravely, gravely concerning. And I think very much a sort of white supremacist , um, entitlement means that many signs of this may have gone under , um, under noticed under reported. And, you know, we at the Soufan center and, and others have been calling out the white supremacist threat as something that needs to be taken far more seriously needs, far more resources , um, a lot of to it. And we hadn't seen that happening. I mean, in Germany.

Speaker 5:

In fact, in fact, I read that Ali Soufan was formerly with the FBI and dealt with international terrorism. In fact, he has been threatened for his calls to name some of these groups, terrorist groups and have , and have them outlawed. I mean, if, if I can use that term

Speaker 4:

Well, absolutely. And I think , um, the , the, the Soufan center was out front last year, calling this out as the next greatest domestic , uh , threat from domestic terrorism, but we still did not see the kind of preventive action, the kind of resources, allot allotted to investigate and understand and preempt this threat as we saw with , with G

Speaker 5:

Well, why is that? Is it because they underestimate them or because they accept them?

Speaker 4:

Well, I think it is easier to talk about the threat outside where you don't have political financial, familial community relationships. Right. We can talk about international terrorist groups says we can talk about monitoring individuals abroad or from abroad because the , not us, it's not in our community. And so from a political social economic point of view, and in many ways it's easier to monitor foreign threats. Legally speaking, of course, we don't have a domestic terrorism law, and so we can take different kinds of action when the threat is from abroad. Um,

Speaker 5:

So just explain that to me because a lot of people don't understand that. I mean, if you classify some of these groups, like for instance, proud boys or gags and flags, or, I mean, whatever, the, whatever the group is, if you classify them as a terrorist organization, then that allows the FBI a lot more leeway in terms of investigating them in terms of surveillance, in terms of monitoring , uh , electronic surveillance and also physical surveillance and all of that. And, and it allows people to look into their financing, doesn't it?

Speaker 4:

Absolutely. And I think that latter clause is especially important also because it means you can look at material support to these groups. And we know that, you know, such groups don't just recruit fighters and finance here's right there , there are now advertising for doctors and medics and logisticians and whatnot. So they are looking at , uh , they're looking for a wide array of material support and classifying . Yes. In fact, there are echoing very much, you know, what ISIS had done ISIS had said, you don't have to be a fighter to come to the caliphate. You can come be a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, you know, come be who you want to be in the caliphate . And we are seeing a lot of , um, a lot of that now where groups are putting out ads saying, for example, you know, you don't have to be a fighter if you want to be like a medic and come help us. And we're seeing ads and pictures like that. Um, so I think they definitely speak to each other. Um, more broadly we've seen white supremacist groups really echo some of the learning from jihadist groups from all of , from ISIS, you know, how to make bombs, how to radicalize, how to organize, how to mobilize. They're definitely learning from each other. So yes, to your question , um, uh, domestic terror , uh, terrorism law would enable a lot of the actions, which you outlined. However, there's also a very valid concern about the potential for overreach, right? And if we, and how do we make sure that there's very strong criteria for designating a group as terrorists? You know, I would be very wary of others who would want to suddenly , um, you know, designate black lives matter protests as terrorist action. Um, I would be wary of using the terrorism label all the time, without really thinking through the repercussions on civilization .

Speaker 5:

It was pretty simple to me, you know, and, and I , and I don't say it in a naive way because I've been in other countries where they have tried to deal with some of these groups. And if you say, if you designate somebody, a terror group, you were saying that they are going to take some kind of armed action to terrorize the public or represent a, a armed threat to the state. So it's not that, you know, you don't like a posting on the, on the internet. Then you say that, you know, he's a terrorist. It, it would have to be some kind of planned conspiracy to develop a physical threat and attack in America is , is why is it so complicated?

Speaker 4:

Well , I think because many of the actions that we would consider preparatory or leading up to it are protected in the United States. So you have free speech, which allows you to say whatever, you know, certainly there's hate speech, but you know, a lot of the preparatory speech and narrative, and, you know, what we would, you know, even in , in the UK and other places, maybe look at online harms and incitement , um, in the United States, it's protected. Of course you can carry weapons here, so you can save many of these things and you can carry your weapon and you can happen to be walking past, you know, somewhere that you think is a good target. And until the moment you do something, all of those actions are protected. Um, I think so in the United States for good and for bad, many of these actions are protected. And so it is a more difficult conversation where you draw the line between protect constitutionally protected actions and speech.

Speaker 5:

I think that lawmakers are prepared to draw that line. Now, though, more than they've ever been given what's happened.

Speaker 4:

I think there will be increasing calls to look into it. And I'm, and I'm choosing my words carefully .

Speaker 5:

That sounds a bit weak, not on your part, but you don't feel that it's reached this tipping point after the , the assault on the Capitol that lawmakers now will say, okay, that's it. I mean, groups like proud boys, Nazi and white supremacists , um, th that are engaging in recruiting , uh , and calling for violence. Then we have to act on that before it happens.

Speaker 4:

I mean, there's an argument to be made and others will. I'm sorry, I've been doing a lot of, you know, I've been doing academic research and diplomacy for a while , so I will have to look at both sides, but I think there are others who will say, you can prosecute this without, you know, you can prosecute acts of murder . You can prosecute prepper , preparatory, acts towards violence, and you can prosecute incitement to violence. Um, I think that there are cases where, of course the , the terrorism label , um, and the having a domestic terror terrorism statute is important. I, I think they will be looking into it. I think it is one of the most fundamentally difficult questions to address when it's constitutional protections. We're talking about,

Speaker 5:

Maybe it's better to talk about this in terms of smaller steps than at the very least these groups are now more than ever on the FBI's and Homeland security's radar. You think now they are going to start assigning more people to it, understanding that it represents a grave threat to the nation.

Speaker 4:

Absolutely. I think we're going to see more resources allocated. I think very importantly, you know, we talked about a sense of entitlement and impunity. You'll also see more senior leaders speaking out against it. You will see more law enforcement attention to it, which means as you say, you know, resources. And like I said, these groups don't exist in an American vacuum. They have partners, funders , um , supporters abroad in similar groups. And so the more there is action at a senior level in the United States with the FBI and law enforcement agencies and politicians, it also means in other countries that we can partner up with them and make sure we address the transnational dimension of these issues.

Speaker 5:

Where else, if you were just to name off the top five or two or three, w where else do you see them really proliferating , uh, in a worrisome level internationally?

Speaker 4:

Sure. Well, we've seen in Germany reports that some of the most elite law enforcement and police and military teams have been infiltrated by far right groups. We've also seen the German government take very early and decisive action to allocate resources and , and address this head on, you know, I think it was , uh, I want to say $80 million was maybe euros . I'm sorry about that. I don't have the exact figure, but a large amount of money in the 80 million , um, uh, sort of estimate has been allocated now to look into it. The government is on notice and very public in , uh , you know, in addressing this as a threat, calling it unacceptable, unacceptable, and launching investigations. Certainly Norway we saw after the brave Vic attacks went very, very quickly into , um, you know, investing a lot more in prevention and addressing violent extremism, writ large, and certainly New Zealand. And in the aftermath of the attacks in Christ church, we have seen, they launched the Christ church call and are working very closely to look at the online dimension of this. And this is what the UK also supported. Um, prime minister, Boris Johnson had committed resources to looking at what is happening online to these groups so that we can work on , um, addressing their online presence.

Speaker 5:

Do you think it is in America because probably a lot of people had the impression that, you know, there's some guys living up in the mountains in Tennessee or something, and , uh, you know, that it's very fringe, it seems like it's evolved to become far more mainstream. When I take a look at some of those videos , uh , from around the Capitol , I was shocked at that and, and, and read about the different groups that were participating. I mean, proud boys, Q Anon , um , which is a right-wing wingy cult, Nazi and white supremacists, including, you know, wearing this shirt shirt , Candace .

Speaker 4:

Yeah . And the six M w E . Okay .

Speaker 5:

Uh , noose was posted around the Capitol , which is apparently a fantasy day of, of the rope that traders will be hanged in the street gags, then flags yellow, American flags that dates back to 1778 , uh , you know , w w with the rattlesnake and the words don't tread on me from the revolutionary war, the 3% are flag, which , um, I thought it's quite ominous in its own way, because it said it took only 3% of American people to revolt against the British. And in this context, it's a signal that a small number of so-called Patriots, all you , that's all you need for a successful revolution. I mean, there , there's a wide berth of very bizarre groups there that any of them stand out to you or do all of them.

Speaker 4:

Yeah . I think it's exactly what you've just said. You've kind of hit it on the nail. It's the fact that it's many, many different groups kind of coalescing into a similar worldview. Right. Um, I think it is much more widespread. Like you, I think one of the most, like you just said, one of the most horrifying images for me was that news outside the Capitol, you know, we're , we're so transfixed on the kind of dramatic Q Anon shaman and his horns that we forget that the new, some of the zip ties is really the image , um , that we should, I think be very, very concerned about because so many different groups coalesced around these ideas, the ideas that the governments are traders, the ideas that the democratic process itself needs to be appended. So I D this is not certainly a fringe movement. Uh, we've heard a lot of families say that, you know, this is a concern in my community. I can no longer talk to family members because they're on some spectrum of these ideologies. Um, you know, I think we , we do have to remember, like we've seen with all Qaeda with ISIS, you know, there are some people who, because they're anonymous online, they get, they can say what they want. There's no real consequence. It requires no real courage or action or commitment to say things online. Um, what I think the problem of , you know, one of the many problems with the Capitol attack is that it mobilized people to move from an online world where things are just fantasies and maybe don't require commitment. And when you have an example of people that did follow through with action, it creates a kind of , um, you know, a Mo a very mobilizing narrative for those who may have been maybe on the , um , on the fence about whether to move from the online, into the real world. Um, at the same time, we know that just having a few activists , um, often they can be successful when there are layers of support behind them. You know, the ideologues, the narrators, the small financeers , the small businesses that support them, the communities that back them up, you know, the moms that defend them, the dads that egg them on, you know , um, all of these , um, you know, so I think when we look at not just those who are willing to take action, but the wide group of people that are willing to support them, I mean, just looking at the support for presence

Speaker 5:

And how do you, how do you fight that? I mean, yeah, looking at the support for president Trump, and he's got a lot of it, but, you know, maybe he will fade, but, and maybe he won't, but how do you deal with that scope of so many people that have been told by him that the election wasn't free? It wasn't fair. It was a fraud, it was stolen from you, stop the steal we have to fight. And that, that message , uh , you know, is , is pretty dangerous because I , you know, I , uh , a couple of the interviews with people who went to that re that riot , um, a few months ago , uh, were not that radicalized on the internet. And so a lot of it has been compressed , uh, as, as we've, as we've heard this constant echo of president Trump saying it's been stolen from us.

Speaker 4:

Well, part of that compression day now will also be the impact of COVID-19. There are more people at home, the more people that are scared, uncertain, spending time online, and, you know, we've seen UN reports, we've heard widespread , um , reporting there , more young people spending all day online. They, there are people with, you know, who've lost their jobs, lost their homes. And so I have to say, it's, it's really not surprising that this has all accelerated and compressed against the backdrop of a lockdown, an unprecedented global shutdown of, you know , other valves for engagement. Um, and so I think that this is not something we have seen necessarily on this scale, because we haven't had this background. Uh, we talked a bit again earlier about the 20 years since nine 11, we have worked on so many different iterations of counter narratives campaigns, counter campaigns, some are spectacular failures, some have shown some success, right? The ones that have shown success seem to be ones that are really tailored to local environments, really, based on a sound understanding of why people find some of this messaging messaging appealing. And that means we need to do better to understand where some of these groups are coming from, because it's, it looks like one big global message of kind of , um , militant does illusionism, but it is actually different groups with different kinds of , um , trajectories to get there. So I think we will have to start looking into our lessons learned over the last 20 years on counter messaging, counter narratives, and do better to understand the , the knowledge base of each of the groups that has come up , um, and how that operates online. But I really think we can't ignore the fact that this is happening against the backdrop of COVID and more people online, less interaction. Um, you know, on a whole more people are just interacting with themselves, with their families, with their very, very close friends, right? They don't even have access to people outdoors and in the long run, I, you know, we we'll see what that does to people, whether in a , in a very normal sense in the workforce and in day-to-day communities, but in these kinds of spaces, the potential effects are alarming.

Speaker 5:

Norine child rethink from the Sioux fan center. You know, I think we're going to have another talk soon because there's just so much here. Um, and you know, it's not going to go away quickly. And a lot of it will depend on how the Republican party delivers its message in the future about this election. Uh, and , and whether they start saying that it was fair and they poke a hole in, in this, you know, ridiculous cloud that Trump has put over the electoral process and democracy, which right now they're not stepping up a lot. Some are, but some are not. Naureen really pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Speaker 4:

Thank you for having me, Dana, look forward to speaking again,

Speaker 2:

And that's backstory. I'm Dana Lewis, please subscribe to our podcast and sheriff my advice spend less time on social media, especially right now, spend more time watching mainstream press and TV news. And if Trump and his Q Anon followers call it fake news, that usually means it's not thanks for listening. And I'll talk to you again soon.