ARGUMENT: Domestic terrorismThe Terrorist Threat from the Fractured Far Right

Published 3 November 2020

Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware argue that the right-wing threat is fracturing, with a wide range of overlapping groups and radical individuals posing a risk of violence that may overwhelm counterterrorism officials.

In November 2019, Seamus Hughes and Devorah Margolin of the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism argued in Lawfare that the jihadist threat to the West has splintered. “It is clear that the jihadist threat has become fractured, with new and old hazards facing the United States concurrently,” they reasoned, before presenting the multiple different groups—including homegrown jihadists, returnees from conflicts abroad, and those recently released from prison—that have diversified the threat beyond the traditional conceptualization of hierarchical, bureaucratic, foreign-based terrorist organizations that send foreign fighters abroad, à la al-Qaeda in September 2001. They are right, but this atomization of terrorism is not confined to the jihadist threat.

Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware write in Lawfare that over the past few years, and especially the past few months, the far-right extremist movement has fractured, too. It now presents a more disparate, amorphous and, arguably, dangerous threat than before.

The challenges to law enforcement and intelligence agencies tracking this diverse and evolving movement are formidable, particularly their efforts to preempt and interdict attacks from so wide an array of adversaries. Between the ongoing challenges of monitoring al-Qaeda and Islamic State attack planning in the United States, coupled with mounting instances of anarchist and other left-wing violence, authorities face an unprecedented deluge of threat information and intelligence. The threat has been complicated further by this critical moment in U.S. history, which has included a global pandemic and rolling, nationwide protests against police brutality.

Until recently, Western states faced primarily white supremacist threats from lone actors—as displayed to heartbreaking effect from Norway to New Zealand. But a heterogeneous collection of extremist actors within the same broad ideological community has now emerged, all seeking to press their own unique agendas and independently pursue their own strategies to undermine and eventually destroy the Western liberal state system.

Most worryingly, it is now almost impossible to deduce which group or networked individual poses the most pressing threat, which communities are in imminent danger, and against whom counterterrorism resources should be arrayed most urgently.

Hoffman and Ware write that until a few months ago, far-right violence was mostly predictable. Instances tended to be tragic but otherwise largely contained shootings randomly perpetrated by lone-actor white supremacists against soft targets—typically places of worship or shopping centers—along with sporadic militia or sovereign citizen attacks on law enforcement.

We now face a cacophony of violence, growing louder and perpetrated by multiple collectives or groups of actors that are similar in their ideologies and strategies, but just distinct enough in their differing approaches and targeting to complicate counterterrorism efforts.

Although these groups have so far inflicted a limited number of fatalities, their violence has the potential to escalate suddenly. And there seems to be no clearly articulated strategy from either the federal government or law enforcement to wrench back control.


There is no telling where the next bullet or bomb will come from, but it could trigger a wave of domestic terrorism, with a variety of disparate actors standing armed and ready.