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large group of violent protestors at the capitol building

Are there far-right extremist groups in your neighborhood?

Rioters clash with police trying to enter Capitol building through the front doors in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. Police used buttons and tear gas grenades to eventually disperse the crowd. Rioters used metal bars and tear gas as well against the police. Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa via AP Images

The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks on Tuesday played testimony from key witnesses inside the Trump White House about the former president’s role in influencing the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the electoral count. 

The hearing—which was the committee’s seventh—focused on the period of time between the end of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection, when Trump and his allies, failing in their efforts to overturn the election results, began to organize and even direct the dangerous mob to march to the Capitol building and resist Congress’ counting of electoral votes. 

The lawmakers showed how Trump himself assembled the group of his supporters, which included disparate far-right extremist and militia elements, such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, as well as other white nationalists. Lawmakers also documented how the former president ignored his own advisers to entertain a plan concocted by a group of outsiders to use national security assets to seize voting machines in the wake of his loss. 

U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, said that a Trump tweet sent a month before the attack served as a call to action, saying that it “electrified and galvanized his supporters, especially the dangerous extremists in the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and other racist and white nationalist groups spoiling for a fight against the government.”

Max Abrahms, terrorism expert and professor of political science, poses for a portrait at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Indeed, much has been said about the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys in recent months. But beyond the infamous invasion of the U.S. Capitol, just how broad is the threat posed by far-right extremism? 

Far-right extremist groups have committed many violent attacks in the U.S., and are linked to 330 homicide incidents over the last 20 years, according to the Department of Homeland Security. There’s even some evidence, albeit more anecdotal, that far-right extremists have tried to recruit military personnel into their organizations. 

Many Democrats and Republicans alike denounced the Jan. 6 insurrection as an act of domestic terrorism.

“One could argue that some of the acts committed were acts of terrorism,” says Max Abrahms, associate professor of political science and an expert on terrorism and international security. 

Either way, the activities and tactics of right-wing extremist groups—broadly speaking—adhere closely to many academics’ definitions of terrorism, Abrahms says.  

“From 9/11 until Jan 6., the primary threat to the United States was seen to be coming from Jihadist terrorism,” Abrahms says. “I think that that has changed, particularly since Jan. 6, where the primary terrorism threat is now often, at least said to be, the far-right terrorism threat.”

A national survey of state law enforcement agencies in 2018 found that there was “significant concern about the activities of far-right extremist groups,” according to DHS. More states reported the presence of far-right militia groups (92%), neo-Nazis (89%), and racist skinheads (89%) within their constituencies and jurisdictions than Jihadi extremists (65%). 

Indeed, the majority of terrorist attacks and plots (57%) between 1994 and 2020 were perpetrated by “right-wing terrorists,” according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Roughly 25% were committed by left-wing terrorists, 15% by religious terrorists, 3% by ethnonationalists and less than 1% by terrorists with other motives, the data shows. 

Abrahms says by continuing to document incidents of violence—by identifying perpetrators and fatalities—local, state and federal law enforcement officials can best assess the threat posed by violent extremists.  

“It’s certainly easier to quantify people’s actions than it is to quantify their thoughts,” Abrahms says. 

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