J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D.
In this feature Reid Meloy addresses the rising problem of threats posed by right wing extremists – to workplaces, campuses, places of worship, and virtually any organizational or community setting where people come to work, learn, worship, or celebrate.
On August 3, 2019, a 21 year old gunman entered the Walmart Store in El Paso, Texas, and shot and killed 22 people. He injured 24 others. A manifesto was posted to the online message board, 8Chan, written by the offender before the attack. In it he cited the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings earlier this year, and a right wing conspiracy theory known as the “Great Replacement” as motivation for his attack. This theory advances the belief that the world is experiencing a slow motion genocide since nonwhite people are reproducing at faster rates than whites, and will eventually replace “the superior race.” The New Zealand attacker had likewise begun his manifesto with the phrase, “it’s all about the birthrate” and repeated it three times.
The El Paso offender subsequently left the scene of his carnage, but stepped out of his car, identified himself as “the shooter,” and peacefully surrendered to police officers a few blocks away. He now awaits trial.
Extreme right wing (XRW) terrorism is politically motivated violence against noncombatants, ideologically framed by a hodgepodge of beliefs, often including anti-Semitism, anti-abortion, anti-government, anti-immigration, anti-gun control, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently issued a “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” and made three points:
- Today, we face a growing threat from domestic actors inspired by violent extremist ideologies, as well as attacks from those are not ideologically driven.
- The prevalent trend of Americans driven by violent extremist ideologies or personal grievances to commit acts of terrorism and targeted violence with little apparent warning creates a unique challenge to traditional law enforcement and investigation methods.
- Racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, in particular, violent white supremacism, is one of the most prevalent and abhorrent of these anti-American ideologies. There is no moral ambiguity on this issue.
XRW terrorism is on the rise. Highlighting the attacks on Jewish Synagogues in Pittsburgh PA, Poway CA, and Halle, Germany, the attack in Dayton, Ohio, and the attack at the Gilroy Garlic Festival this past summer, fatalities resulting from attacks by far-right-wing violent extremists have exceeded those caused by radical Islamist violent extremists in the last decade. Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far-right-wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73%) incidents, whereas radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27%). There is no sign that XRW extremism, and acts of terrorism arising from this mashup ideology—often grounded in a fear of personal irrelevancy and loss of economic hegemony–is abating.
What can we practically do to assess such risks in organizational settings?
Both Dr. Stephen White and I stress the importance of assessing Item 1: Motivation in the WAVR-21, and added in version 3 the phrase, “to achieve terrorism-related goals or advance a cause.” (p. 103). We recognized the growing threat of ideologically-motivated violence, although in virtually all cases such motivation is accompanied by other desires that justify violence in the mind of the subject at risk.
Start with the WAVR-21; consider the TRAP-18.
A second and very useful purpose of the WAVR-21 V3 is to also be a gateway to other, more finely tuned, structured professional judgment (SPJ) instruments that have been specifically designed to address more circumscribed risks, such as domestic violence, stalking, or psychopathy. In the case of a motivation that appears to be ideologically tainted, the assessor might want to consider an instrument that I have been developing called the TRAP-18 (Terrorist Radicalization Assessment Protocol). The correct process we are suggesting is that the WAVR-21 be utilized first, and if an ideological tone is present in the case, the TRAP-18 also be used. There is a growing body of validity for the latter instrument, and all of this research is available at drreidmeloy.com. The TRAP-18 manual, codesheets, and online training are available at gifrinc.com.
Although ideological attackers (terrorists) and non-ideological attackers are more similar than different, there are three important distal characteristics that stand out in the TRAP-18: personal grievance, moral outrage, and ideological framing. One can view these three as potential storm clouds on the horizon, and provide the threat assessment professional with an early warning system that a person of concern (POC) likely needs to be monitored. Let me address each of these in turn:
Personal grievance is present in virtually all targeted attackers, whether ideologically driven or not. This personal or primary grievance has four necessary elements: a loss in love or work, humiliation, anger, and blame. In a 2018 FBI study of pre-incident indicators for targeted attack, four out of five had an identifiable personal grievance—a steady and robust finding by many research groups over the past two decades. But for the potential terrorist, two additional characteristics are present,
Moral outrage is joined with personal grievance, and is apparent in the POC’s vicarious identification with a suffering group. The suffering group might be perceived victims of the federal government’s taxation, unemployed white workers, gun owners, or victims of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy (the so-called Zionist Operated Government or ZOG), but what is most intriguing is that the POC typically does not belong to the “suffering” group and rarely has endured the suffering of the victimized group with whom he identifies. This identification with a victimized group tends to magnify his personal grievance, and may intensify his perceived suffering. But how is he to understand the holy marriage, in his mind, of his personal grievance and moral outrage?
Ideological framing is the third distal characteristic, and is typically a secular, religious, or highly idiosyncratic belief system. These beliefs, however, are not the systematic theology of a young jihadist schooled in a madrassa for years, but are only cherry picked phrases that justify homicidal aggression toward the unbelievers: from an XRW perspective, those who support gun safety, federal government employees, abortion rights, women’s rights, immigration and globalism.
The POC frames his personal grievance and moral outrage with phrases advocating violence from within his chosen belief system.
Early warnings. The joining of these three distal characteristics are some of the storm clouds on the horizon. We don’t know if a storm is going to materialize, and whether it will land in our backyard, but we want to monitor the POC. We must be careful to not trample the individual’s freedom of speech, but we are also responsible for the health and safety of our organizations’ members. Any indication, however, that proximal warning behaviors are also emerging—pathway, fixation, identification, novel aggression, leakage, energy burst, last resort, and directly communicated threats—compel active managing of the POC. The details of these proximal warning behaviors are spelled out in the TRAP-18, and have also been the subject of previous features in the WTS Newsletter.
Safety is not a political issue. Some readers may conclude that my opinions are an unfair condemnation of conservative political views. They are not. As historical scholars have noted, terrorism comes in waves. When I was a young man, acts of terrorism were coming from the extreme left (XLW): the Weathermen, the Red Army Faction in Italy, and the Symbionese Liberation Army come to mind. Over the past thirty years we have seen terrorism dominated by jihadists and radical Islam. I am afraid that now we are seeing the rise of terrorism from the extreme right (XRW), along with the continued threat from jihadists. But what underscores this commentary is my belief in the right of the individual to think what he wants, regardless of where he lands on the political continuum; but not the right to kill those who believe differently from him—regardless of how morally righteous he believes his cause to be.