A Rising Tide of Domestic Extremism

Terrorism expert Jytte Klausen on how conspiracy thinking and social networking are fueling antidemocratic behavior in the U.S.

Photo of people with insurrection flags standing atop an outside wall of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post via Getty Images
RADICALIZED: Insurrectionists breach the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In 2006, Jytte Klausen, the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation, launched the Western Jihadism Project, which created a comprehensive open-source database to identify and track Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists in North America and Europe, and served as the basis of Klausen’s 2021 book, “Western Jihadism: A 30-Year History,” considered one of the most authoritative texts on Islamist terrorism.

Since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Klausen and her students have begun to study domestic extremists, including the Proud Boys and the women-hating extremists who call themselves Incels, shorthand for “involuntary celibates.”

“There is a new wave of anti-liberal, antidemocratic, hate-filled, and still rising extremism in this country,” Klausen says. “It’s challenging what we consider the foundations of our democratic constitutional republic.”

Does your current research reflect a change in academic direction?

I’ve always been interested in how people become violent extremists. “Why do they do it?” is the question everyone asks. But motivations vary and cannot easily be generalized. So that begs a different question: Are there generalizable behaviors that can be used by law enforcement to identify and monitor individuals and small groups who pose a high risk to public safety?

Terrorist extremism is a particularly difficult law-enforcement problem, because the goal is to stop a criminal act before it happens, but not at the cost of civil liberties. We don’t police thoughts. How, then, might we stop extremist violence?

How does radicalization happen?

The process involves a personality makeover, and often there is a predictable set of patterns family members and others observe before someone who has become radicalized takes action. The behaviors in question are hardly surprising: seeking out fellow believers; military-style training; berating friends and family for having the wrong ideas, and other types of self-isolating behavior; and preaching hate-filled ideas on- and offline.

How did the Jan. 6 rioters fit into this picture?

Many of the January Sixers, way out of proportion to the general population, are self-employed or underemployed. They live and work in circumstances where they have very little direct supervision. They are mostly middle-aged. They have more freedom to engage in all types of activities associated with political extremism: plotting with pals, selling and buying merchandise in support of the cause, going down rabbit holes on the internet following conspiracy theories, or preparing for a violent spectacle that will awaken the world to the righteousness of the movement.

What are the characteristics of domestic far-right groups generally?

Extremist groups imitate one another. We see it again and again in tactics, such as violence and shooting incidents; online networking and propaganda, the spreading of misinformation; and, always, the selling of the brand online, through T-shirts, hats, survivalist gear, and conspiracy theories marketed on the internet and podcasts. All these tactics are driving extremism, and they are remarkably similar across different types of extremism.

Are domestic extremist groups operating less openly than they were before Jan. 6?

Yes, they’ve scotched much of their presence on Facebook and moved on to other sites. The Proud Boys recently fielded candidates for school board elections in several states and won. So that’s another aspect of what’s happening: Far-right groups are moving into localized political arenas. Much like earlier Republicans who built a base by campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, these groups are moving into school politics and other areas to challenge the so-called liberal elite.

What role does conspiracy thinking play in the radicalization process?

There is a certain personality type that thrives on being the one who knows something nobody else knows and can be the one to tell people, “You’re wrong.” They’ve done their own research, they say. They create a social network where they are the ones “who know.” They think nobody outside their network knows the truth. Many well-educated people are sucked into this kind of thinking.

American politics has always featured conspiracy theorists who pride themselves on being outside the mainstream. It’s identity forming. It’s empowering. It creates these new social contexts for people motivated by the excitement of being part of a movement.

Like we’ve seen with jihadists, people don’t disavow their ideas until they are separated from their social connections. It’s only when they become isolated and detached from that madness that they disavow their ideas. Even so, many never say, “I was wrong.”

Should we follow Canada’s lead and ban extremist groups?

We can’t ban groups in the U.S. as Canada has recently done. We don’t have a legal foundation for making membership in a political group a criminal act. We never banned the Ku Klux Klan, for instance. It takes a long time to ban a group, and it’s subject to court challenges. And by the time you get the names or group aliases on the list of proscribed groups, the effort has already lost its utility as a law enforcement goal. These groups just rename themselves. Neo-Nazi groups routinely change their names to get off the radar. Germany has banned neo-Nazi groups, and it hasn’t made much of a difference.

What can be done to counter the rise of extremist groups?

We are in a fertile time for domestic terrorism, and the internet is the fertilizer. We’ve been way, way too soft on internet service providers. Facebook and Twitter run detection algorithms intended to flag hate speech and “moderate” online conversations. But Facebook’s and Twitter’s business model continues to reward these types of activities — misinformation, disinformation, hate speech — because angry communications attract more clicks. And if we crack down on Facebook and Twitter, we empower other countries and systems to do the same.

A bigger issue is that a large number of smaller “boutique” platforms and messaging apps committed to no moderation are becoming the go-to platforms. Many are based outside U.S. jurisdiction. Telegram, a new messaging app, is based in Dubai, for example.


When does extremism become terrorism?

I don’t use the word “terrorist” to describe the January Sixers. I call them insurrectionists. Terrorism is usually defined as an organized effort. The victim is the general public. The goal is to change government and its policies. If you think about the people who wanted to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, well, OK, that would seem to me to be terrorism.

The January Sixers are antidemocratic because they wanted to disrupt Congress and prevent the orderly transfer of government after an election. Yet they didn’t want to do away with the whole system. They didn’t want to take away elections, as such. They just wanted the election to suit their candidate. In some respects, they resemble a fascist mass movement. Terrorism is not a mass movement.

Fascism focuses on a single leader, a cult of personality. Most of what we’re dealing with is not terrorism but, in some ways, is more worrisome, because it delegitimizes democracy.

Terrorism always fails. But the right-wing insurrectionists operate in a different radical tradition, characterized by personality cults, strongmen, mass movements that focus on remaking governments to suit their interests and deny the rights of others, and a repudiation of the reciprocity that’s a key element of pluralist liberal democracy. That’s much more what I worry about.

How do the Incels fit into all this?

They are perhaps the strangest movement forming online. It isn’t even accurate to describe them as a group. None of the perpetrators of violent attacks done in the name of the Incel ideology — there have been dozens of these attacks — have ever met in person. This is a movement that exists entirely online.

They have a coherent script for what’s wrong — a conspiracy theory — and they embrace violence as the vehicle for changing society. They argue that women and feminists are in control of the power structure, and that women and men who have bought into feminist rule are the reason why Incels are not getting any sex. They want to re-create society as a patriarchy and force women to marry men like themselves.

It’s a ridiculous but well-developed philosophy. Incels advertise their action points — who to shoot and how — online, but there’s no in-person training, no real-world peer groups or cells. They are the quintessential DIY terrorists.