Right-Wing Extremists More Dangerous Than Islamic Terrorists In U.S. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Peter Bergen, vice president and director of studies for The New America Foundation, about its new study on homegrown terrorism.

Right-Wing Extremists More Dangerous Than Islamic Terrorists In U.S.

Right-Wing Extremists More Dangerous Than Islamic Terrorists In U.S.

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NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Peter Bergen, vice president and director of studies for The New America Foundation, about its new study on homegrown terrorism.


What are the motives that define an act of terrorism? That's one of the questions that surfaced last week after the deadly attack in Charleston.


The shooter is believed to have been influenced by white supremacist groups. The Justice Department has not called this an act of terrorism, but a lot of Americans are.

MARTIN: And according to a new report, that kind of homegrown threat is twice as prevalent than the threat posed by Islamic extremists. The report by the New America Foundation says since 9/11, self-proclaimed Islamic radicals have killed 26 people in the United States. Non-Muslim extremists have killed 48. Peter Bergen helped lead that study. I asked him to explain how his organization defined terrorism.

PETER BERGEN: A commonly accepted view of terrorism is an act of political violence against a civilian target by someone other than a state, so that's the definition we used. And we found that there were, you know, 26 deaths that are attributable to jihadist terrorists since 9/11.

MARTIN: Twenty-six deaths within America's borders.

BERGEN: Within America's borders, attributable to jihadist terrorists. And we found 48 attributable to people with extreme right-wing, racist or antigovernment views. Now, of course, you know, on 9/11, almost 3,000 Americans were killed by al-Qaida. And that's, of course, the lens through which American see a lot of terrorism. But the fact is that there is violence done in the name of all sorts of ideologies that isn't just jihadi in flavor, including in the United States.

MARTIN: Can you tick through a couple of those cases. You say extreme right-wing views.

BERGEN: Well, so for instance, Glenn Frazier Cross attacked a Jewish Community Center last year killing two and then went to another Jewish center and killed another person, and when he was arrested, shouted heil Hitler. He's pleaded not guilty, but this seemed like a pretty clear case of political violence done sort of with neo-Nazi intentions. And then, of course, on the jihadi side, there are some cases that are well-known, like Ft. Hood. But there are cases that are less well-known - for instance, Carlos Bledsoe, who attacked a Little Rock, Ark., recruiting center, killing one soldier in 2009.

MARTIN: Why do these labels matter?

BERGEN: Well, it's an interesting question. I mean, I think that as an analytical matter, it's quite important to distinguish between acts of simple murder and acts that are politically motivated. And, you know, in the 1970s in the United States, we saw a lot of political violence that was terrorist in nature, whether it was from the left or Weather Underground or the Black Panthers or whether it was Puerto Rican nationalists. There's been political violence for all sorts of reasons in the United States throughout our history and sort of trying to identify, you know, what is and what is not an act of political violence is important.

And then also, by the way, Rachel, from a legal point of view, when people go into court, the Justice Department has certain guidelines about sentencing. So, for instance, if a crime is deemed to have a terrorist underpinning, the sentences that are handed down are longer than it would be just for a conventional crime.

MARTIN: The Obama administration held a big conference on countering violent extremism last year. And it took great pains - it made sure not to limit the conversation to Islamic extremism. So the White House has been sensitive to this, but is that just optics to some degree? Is there any real effort to counter what you have described - this other kind of threat, this non-Muslim radical threat?

BERGEN: Well, I think that's a great question. And certainly, a lot of the countering violent extremism work and thinking has been about jihadis. But this should be equal work done with people who have neo-Nazi ideas or extreme antigovernment ideas that are willing to conduct violence in their name. And, I mean, one of the interesting things about the piece in The New York Times today, which cited our work, is the number of police chiefs who are very concerned about the so-called sovereign citizens movement in their areas and other kinds of extreme right-wing political groups because, of course, they often target police officers. So certainly, police - local police chiefs are keenly aware of the fact that they need to be looking at other forms of political violence as well as jihadists.

MARTIN: Peter Bergen is a terrorism expert who helped lead a study from New America comparing homegrown terrorist threats. Thanks so much for talking with us.

BERGEN: Thank you.

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