Five years ago today, white supremacist extremists from across the United States traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia for the “Unite the Right” rally. “Unite the Right” is best appreciated as a watershed moment in U.S. politics. Former President Donald Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment further mainstreamed far-right extremist rhetoric largely relegated to the fringes of recent U.S. political discourse. Then-candidate Joe Biden centered Charlottesville in his 2020 “America is an Idea” presidential bid video, framing his candidacy as a “battle for the soul of America” against a backdrop of neo-Nazis marching through the University of Virginia’s Grounds.
Anniversaries are important because they cause us to reflect on what has been lost, and they remind us how much work still remains. That is true each September 11 when the counterterrorism (CT) community within which one of us served pauses in remembrance and resolve. It is no less true for a new generation of CT professionals, a nascent but growing community with which the other one of us identifies. Like those before them who were motivated to serve by a foreign-perpetrated Salafi-jihadist attack on the United States, a groundswell of scholars and practitioners now consider the domestic-perpetrated white power terror attack on the streets of Charlottesville their raison d’etre for work in the CT space.
With the clear vision of hindsight, the incidents in Charlottesville five years ago sounded a wakeup call about where the United States may be headed. The very real threat of white power terror attacks, alongside other forms of political violence and radicalization that flow from the highly toxic political climate we currently live in, make for a turbulent domestic threat landscape in both city parks and virtual chatrooms. Progress against this threat will require a significantly expanded degree of multistakeholder collaboration and innovation that implicates all of us in its delivery and places responsibility for problem solving on government, private industry, and civil society alike.
Our reflections on this anniversary are also personal: The ripple effects of this fateful day continue to have an impact at the macro, meso, and micro levels of our country, but also in both of our lives. As the Student Council President of the University of Virginia (UVa) and as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) during that August of 2017, we have both found challenge and renewed purpose in working to prevent future incidents like Charlottesville. It is that sense of purpose which animates our current work at the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) and informed our thinking on where we go from here as a nation.
Remembering Charlottesville as We Confront our Present
The fuse that sparked the triad of demonstrations culminating in the “Unite the Right” incident was a petition started by local high school student Zyahna Bryant calling upon the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and to change the name of a local park from “Lee” to “Emancipation.” In February 2017, City Council took up this petition and voted in the affirmative. On May 13, 2017, far-right activists Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer organized the first set of rallies in Charlottesville in response to Council’s ruling, where anti-Semetic chants of “blood and soil” and “you will not replace us” echoed 1930s Europe and presaged August 2017. Per an independent incident review, Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) Chief Al Thomas reflected that “the events of May 13 revealed an ‘operational blind spot’’ and that “CPD lacked advanced capabilities for social media monitoring that may have helped the Department anticipate these events.”
Following the May 13 demonstrations, a North Carolina-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan — The Loyal White Knights — applied to demonstrate in Charlottesville. Sarah, whose term as UVa’s Student Council President was defined by Charlottesville’s “Summer of Hate,” worked with deans across the University’s various schools as well as local City officials and law enforcement to try and prepare students for the Klan’s impending July 8 demonstration. The aforementioned independent incident review found “the City’s response to the Klan event adequately accommodated both compelling interests at stake on July 8 – free speech and public safety.” Skokie’s precedent protecting the First Amendment rights of neo-Nazis stood.
On August 11, torch-wielding white supremacist extremists marched down the University of Virginia’s Lawn and around the Rotunda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On August 12, protestors overwhelmed the streets of downtown Charlottesville. A 32 year-old counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed by James Alex Fields Jr. when he deliberately rammed his vehicle through a crowd. Two state troopers, Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke Bates, also lost their lives that day when the helicopter from which they were conducting aerial surveillance crashed outside the city. Dozens of others sustained injuries, and many more experienced emotional distress and susainted trauma, due in part to the steady stream of image and video footage of the violence on cable and digital platforms.
In the days that followed, Sarah strived to understand in real-time how to define, contextualize, and communicate about the violence that had just occurred in her community. She engaged with civil society both at UVa and in the broader Charlottesville community, as well as grieved the violence with friends and family. She rewrote a Convocation address to the incoming class that she then delivered in the same space where the white supremacist extremists had just marched; organized town hall meetings for students to deliberate a list of demands put forth by a broad coalition of multicultural student groups, to include removing plaques commemorating the service of Confederate veterans; organized over 100 student council presidents across the country to sign a statement against hate on U.S. college campuses; and directed her final year dissertation towards the study of the white power movement.
What was clear is that the vehicle-ramming attack in Charlottesville was an incident of domestic white power terrorism, and it was not a historical anomaly. Rather, this summer of demonstrations constituted the latest repackaging of America’s longstanding legacy of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism. Yet these were not settled truths amongst the City and University’s diverse set of stakeholders or in American social or political discourse more broadly.
Indeed, while the tragic events in Charlottesville fell squarely within a definitional framework of domestic terrorism, there was not much evidence to suggest that the federal government was pursuing any kind of broad based strategy to deal with the growing challenge of domestic extremism and terrorism. Nick’s mandate as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) — a post he held from 2014-2017 — was to “lead and integrate the national counterterrorism (CT) effort by fusing foreign and domestic CT information, providing terrorism analysis, sharing information with partners across the CT enterprise, and driving whole-of-government action to secure our national CT objectives.” And yet he and his colleagues at NCTC had done nothing of the sort with respect to the domestic violent extremists and terrorists who assembled in Charlottesville. The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was a challenge to the CT community to reflect on the lack of any kind of strategic, whole of government approach to our domestic terrorism problems.
The threat posed by racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists operating in a domestic political context was not, and had not been, a significant feature of the threat picture for Nick and the broader CT community over the course of his 26+ year career in government service. His work at the White House and in the Intelligence Community at NCTC in the decades following 9/11 focused on the Salafi-Jihadist terrorist threat and Shia terrorist groups linked to state sponsors like Iran. The work of preventing and responding to the white power terrorists that descended upon Charlottesville was not to be found anywhere on the agenda of our major CT institutions like the NSC or NCTC. The CT community had spent the better part of the last two decades designing, building, and investing in a national security apparatus largely designed to combat a specific ideological manifestation of terrorism and violent extremism. That whole-of-government effort largely achieved its principal objective of preventing another large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil carried out by terrorists operating from a safe haven abroad.
But that approach and the accompanying institutions and tools are not fit to purpose when it comes to organizing effective strategies to counter the domestic terrorist threat we face. As Nick has written previously in Just Security, it is essential that we move beyond the post-9/11 counterterrorism strategy paradigm that placed government at the center of most counterterrorism work and instead create a more inclusive, multistakeholder approach to an ideologically diverse threat with significant online and offline dimensions. A whole of society approach to counterterrorism, rather than merely a whole of government approach.
Today’s Threat Landscape and the Need for a Whole of Society Approach
The threat landscape we face today requires a whole of society approach to effectively address its online and offline dynamics.
Every one of us today leads an increasingly online existence, with more and more of our daily communications and social interactions, as well as our intellectual engagement with ideas and global events, taking place in the virtual sphere. This trend applies as much to terrorists and violent extremists as to any other population. Terrorism itself is a form of coercive communication – a tool that is leveraged with the intent to bring about a radical change within a society.
The same digital platforms on which we connect with friends and family, date, shop, listen to music, game, and navigate the physical world offer bad actors a concentrated set of virtual spaces to communicate and interact as well. These bad actors are able to congregate, exchange ideas, radicalize newcomers, and sustain communities based on shared ideological commitment to a narrative that usually defines what is “different” as “other” and therefore threatening. In extreme cases, they are able to plan and execute acts of violence, and then project that violence to a global online audience as a means of inspiring others to emulate or imitate their hateful acts.
Terrorists of all stripes are making use of the internet. ISIS continues to find ways to exploit the online environment to their benefit and pose challenges to those seeking to counter their influence, as do white power terrorists, other racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists of various forms, and others who propagate violence-inducing conspiracy theories. Moreover, we know that terrorists mimic and incorporate technical innovations to their respective efforts by learning from others, even those with very different ideologies. As scholars from the Global Network on Extremism and Technology have closely monitored, the global Coronavirus pandemic has also played a role in exacerbating an already volatile threat landscape, contributing to cross-ideological trends in accelerationism and ideological nihilism.
These intersecting dynamics demand a behavior-based approach to the threat landscape that recognizes that many or even most terrorists or violent extremists will not display group affiliation as an easily observed “signal” of their hateful activity. List-based approaches to designating terrorist and violent extremist behavior – i.e. the United Nations Consolidated Sanctions List – provide a useful point of common ground for governments and tech companies who often use slightly different operational definitions of “terrorism” and “terrorist content.” However, sole reliance on a list-based approach can limit the ability of policymakers and trust and safety practitioners to respond to a rapidly evolving threat landscape. Furthermore, this approach can reproduce the biases of the governments or entities that produced these lists. A behavior-based approach to the threat landscape can safeguard against risks of ideological bias that we have seen lead to over-enforcement of activity tied to some ideologies and under-enforcement of others (i.e. white supremacist extremism).
While terrorist exploitation of the digital environment is happening at a scale and velocity that seems novel, it is important to note that terrorist engagement online is by no means a new issue. U.S. violent extremist actors were among the most innovative internet pioneers 20 years earlier (i.e. Stormfront’s bulletin board system (BBS)). Al-Qaeda issued its first online English-language publication “Inspire” in 2010 and the U.S. government worked aggressively for a time to limit the reach and dissemination of this material, with an emphasis on the specific content that had real operational value for al-Qaeda. Countering the violent and sophisticated online propaganda campaign that in part sustained ISIS’s brief territorial conquest of Iraq and Syria became for a period of time the single most important priority for the U.S. CT community, including at NCTC.
Part of what made the series of ISIS beheading videos of U.S. captives a watershed moment was the catalyzing effect those horrific murders had on some of the technology industry’s biggest players. These companies were driven to take strides toward a more collective approach to countering violent terrorist activity online and founded the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT). The livestreaming of the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings prompted GIFCT’s founders to take this sector-wide approach to the threat landscape even further; in September 2019, GIFCT’s founding companies announced that GIFCT would transition from a consortium of member tech companies to an independent 501(c)(3) organization with tech companies as its members.
While improvements to our understanding of the online component of the threat landscape are essential, it is neither strategically sound nor intellectually honest to view the online and offline threat landscapes as separate and distinct entities. As Nick made clear in written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security in February, the online ecosystem can only play the role of facilitating greater communication, information-sharing, and organizing for terrorism and violent extremism when other factors that contribute to this threat are present as well. Online consumption and exchange of information can surely be pointed to as an accelerating factor to the process of radicalization. Yet it is also clear that information drawn from other sources, including broadcast news outlets and rhetoric employed by political leaders and public figures, also plays a role in that pathway to extremist behavior.
GIFCT’s approach to its work reflects the need for understanding both online and offline factors, ongoing analysis of evolutions in the full range of violent ideologies, and that any tactics and solutions developed require input and consultation with experts from across sectors. A true multistakeholder approach takes the view that comprehensive and sustained partnership with each stakeholding sector is the only path to sustainable progress. As evidence of commitment to this approach, GIFCT in 2021 commissioned a human rights impact assessment of the organization to help identify and counterbalance some of the competing risks and rights that intersect in this work at the nexus of counterterrorism and technology.
An Evaluation of Progress Since August 2017
Over the last five years, there have been important steps taken to counter white supremacist extremism and white power terrorism like what we saw in Charlottesville. Among these moves, in May 2021, the U.S. joined the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online. In June 2021, the first ever U.S. National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism was published, which includes addressing online terrorist recruitment and mobilization to violence by domestic terrorists as a strategic goal. Different organs of the U.S. national security apparatus have also since stood up new mechanisms to address domestic terrorism; among them, the Department of Homeland Security created the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships and the Department of Justice created a domestic terrorism unit within the National Security Division.
In October 2021, nine plaintiffs impacted directly by Charlottesville’s white power terror attack, along with a civil rights nonprofit that supported them, Integrity First for America, took their lawsuit Sines v. Kessler to trial. The plaintiffs alleged violations of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act and various state laws. After a month-long trial, the jury found every named defendant liable for “for conspiring to deprive minorities and their supporters of their civil rights.” The verdict was historic for its ability to prove conspiracy to commit violence and intimidation and an important step in securing justice for the victims of the attack as well as communicating about the limits of First Amendment protections to a larger public. The Ku Klux Klan Act has since been cited against Trump and others involved in the January 6 insurrection.
For every positive step forward, though, we are confronted with a series of new challenges that will test our stamina and resolve. First, as Nick shared in his written testimony this past February, violent extremists and terrorists increasingly understand where policy red lines have been drawn by mainstream platforms and at what point policy enforcement is likely to drive them off a particular platform or cause them to lose access. These bad actors are adept at staying one step ahead of enforcement efforts; in many cases, they prepare in advance for loss of access to a platform by having a bank of alternate accounts at the ready. This dynamic can feel like we are always playing whack-a-mole with the latest form of terrorist innovation online. Continued developments in technical tooling and cross-platform information sharing are needed to reach the levels of consistent and scalable “left of boom” moderation of content and enforcement of terms of service that will make it more difficult for terrorists and violent extremists to exploit online platforms.
A second concern pertains to the continued patchwork of government designations of white supremacist extremist groups. The U.S.’s Five Eyes partners have made strides towards designating such individuals and entities: among others, Canada includes Blood & Honour and Combat 18 as terrorist organizations; the UK proscription list features National Action and Sonnenkrieg Division (SKD); New Zealand outlaws The Base and the Proud Boys; Germany banned Combat 18. While the U.S. designated the Russian Imperial Movement and three associated individuals as Specially Designated Terrorist Groups (SDTGs), it has never given a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) label to a white supremacist extremist group–a question the National Strategy raises for consideration. The picture may be improving, but we are a long way away from having a coordinated prescription regime aimed at white supremacist groups the way the U.S. government has against Salafi-jihadist terrorist adversaries.
A third challenge to progress in addressing the domestic terrorism challenge is the lack of societal consensus about the nature of the threat we face, which is simply a feature of our deeply divided politics. It is hard to envision development of a truly whole of society approach to a problem when large segments of society do not accept that we are actually under threat at all from domestic white supremacist extremist actors, or worse, are sympathetic to their rhetoric if not their violent approach. The very tools that one side seeks to employ to address our domestic terrorism concerns are likely to be seen by opposing voices as vehicles for political repression or selective enforcement of the law (even if in reality the enforcement is not one-sided). Despite President Biden’s earnest efforts to bring Americans together around a shared sense of outrage in the aftermath of Charlottesville, we don’t seem at the five year mark to have generated the kind of consensus needed to address our most serious domestic terrorism concerns.
Where We Go from Here
Charlottesville’s near century-old statue of Robert E. Lee was removed on July 10, 2021; the over 1,000 pounds of bronze will be melted down to create new art, per a proposal put forth by Charlottesville’s Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Although this symbol around which white supremacist extremists converged no longer stands, it is imperative that we continue to reflect on the events of August 12, 2017, and the lessons this incident can offer us in our ongoing efforts to prevent future such threats.
First, let us remember what actually happened that day. Heather Heyer was murdered by a terrorist for protesting a white supremacist extremist rally in the heart of her city. That is what happened. The ideals that she lost her life standing up for — democracy, community, pluralism, inclusion — should animate both the means and the ends of all future efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism in its online and offline manifestations, whether international or domestic.
It is crucial that any future prevention efforts begin with a critical reexamination of our polarized, toxic political and socio-cultural landscape. We may each have our own version of the history of how we got to this terrible place. But the implications of mainstreamed extremist rhetoric, a phenomenon which has only accelerated since 2017, go beyond mere questions of civility in the public square, be that cable news programs or online chat forums. There are real consequences for democratic resilience and loss of life when political figures use the platform of their position to promote baseless conspiracy theories and deploy violent, radically exclusionary rhetoric. By design, white supremacist extremism often presents itself in much subtler ways than what President Biden described unfolding in Charlottesville – “crazed faces, illuminated by torches, veins bulging and bearing the fangs of racism.” Yet these subtler manifestations, embedded in day-to-day life, create ripe conditions for future terror attacks and require society-wide vigilance to counter.
Central among the lessons that August 12 can teach us is the need to build cross-sector patterns of trust and cooperation to prepare for and ultimately prevent such violent expressions of white supremacist extremism. To do so, we must challenge some of the longstanding Manichean framings that surround this problem set – such binary thinking is in and of itself a feature of the ideological extremes that we are seeking to counter. Numerous entrenched dichotomies — the enemy far away/the good guy at home, government issue/tech issue, lone wolf actor/organized violence, online/offline — can blinker our collective capacity to envision and execute whole of society solutions. As Nick shared in his written testimony, technological innovation, over the course of history and through to today’s discussion of digital platforms in 2022, can serve both as a force for good, and as a potential accelerant to radicalization and mobilization to violence. That is the unfortunate reality that we confront.
Nevertheless, there is reason for hope that we can break down some of these entrenched binaries as we stand up a new strategy for countering this particular threat. Charlottesville’s “Summer of Hate” sent shockwaves throughout much of America, particularly white America, that had in large part grown to see skinheads, private militias, and the Klan as ever-fading remnants of a bygone American era. Due in large part to August 2017 — and intensified by other recent events — a new generation of students, public servants, technologists, and citizens have been galvanized to recognize a threat that was always there in our midst, but perhaps simmering beneath the surface of 21st century mainstream political life. Charlottesville serves as a reminder that the work of defending this pluralistic democracy of unprecedented scale from ethnocentric and autocratic forces must be reborn with each new generation. Countering white supremacist extremism is not a project that a limited “we” in the security space will one day wash our hands of, but instead a perennial project that we must recommit ourselves to, from the ground up, time and time again.
This work will remain hard, without easy or obvious solutions that everybody can embrace. Our only choice is to keep at it, testing the limits of multistakeholderism and pursuing innovative approaches to a defining challenge of our times in which we all have a stake.