Expert: Obama ignored surge of rightwing extremism that inspired Charleston killer

A photo from Dylann Roof’s website shows the suspected Charleston killer posing with a gun and Confederate flag.

As lead author of a suppressed 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the rising threat of rightwing extremism, Daryl Johnson was not the least bit surprised by last week’s terrorist attack on the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

On the evening of 17 June, white supremacist Dylann Roof entered the Charleston, South Carolina, church and shot dead nine African Americans after they had welcomed him into their Bible study.

“Here we go again. That was my first thought. It reminded me of the Sikh temple shooting,” Johnson told The Electronic Intifada, referring to the August 2012 attack by a neo-Nazi in Wisconsin that killed six people.

Johnson, who spent 15 of his 24-year career in government studying rightwing extremism, made headlines in 2011 when he accused DHS of gutting his unit due to a conservative uproar against the 2009 report.

Since then, Johnson says the US government has continued to ignore the growing danger posed by homegrown rightwing extremism while focusing obsessively on Islamic “jihadists.”

DHS has a total of three people analyzing non-Islamic domestic extremism, down from eight prior to the release of Johnson’s report in 2009.

In stark contrast, up to 100 analysts are employed by DHS to evaluate homegrown Islamic extremism, Johnson said. DHS did not return The Electronic Intifada’s request for comment.

This lopsided balance is reflected across federal agencies, according to Johnson, who keeps in touch with sources within DHS who tell him nothing has changed since he left.

“If you look at the government as a whole, there are thousands of counterterrorism analysts looking at al-Qaida and its affiliates versus dozens on domestic non-Islamic extremism,” Johnson said, noting that a vast majority of rightwing extremism analysts operate under the auspices of the FBI.

Johnson added that most federal law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the US Marshal Service and the presidential protection agency the Secret Service, have no full-time analysts monitoring rightwing extremism.

White supremacist “lone wolves”

Johnson’s prophetic 2009 report predicted that the election of America’s first Black president coupled with an ailing economy would spark a resurgence in rightwing extremism, with “white supremacist lone wolves” posing “the most significant domestic terrorist threat because of their low profile and autonomy – separate from any formalized group – which hampers warning efforts.”

Johnson’s report also drew attention to the danger of extremists recruiting military veterans.

Though intended exclusively for law enforcement, the report was leaked immediately after publication, generating a firestorm on the right.

Whipped into a frenzy, conservative media outlets and Republican lawmakers mischaracterized the report as an Obama administration conspiracy to smear all conservatives as potentially violent extremists.

In a stunning display of political cowardice, the Obama administration caved in to the pressure.

Within days of the leak, newly appointed DHS secretary Janet Napolitano apologized for the report and Johnson’s DHS unit was slowly disbanded over the following year, leaving behind just one analyst to assess all non-Islamic extremist threats for DHS.

Six years later, Johnson’s prescient warnings have been tragically vindicated again and again.

In 2012, US army veteran and neo-Nazi skinhead Wade Michael Page stormed into a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and fatally gunned down six worshippers.

Last year, Frazier Glenn Miller, the former “grand dragon” of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and a longtime anti-Semite, killed three people outside a Jewish community center in Overland Park, Kansas.

Two months later, anti-government extremists Jerad and Amanda Miller killed three people in Las Vegas.

The married couple shot two police officers execution style and then draped their bodies in a Revolutionary War era flag bearing the slogan “Don’t tread on me.”

These are just a handful of the better-known instances of rightwing terrorism in recent years.

Lethal terror

The New America Foundation, a liberal think tank close to the Obama administration, has documented that 48 Americans have been killed by rightwing extremists in the US compared to 26 by so-called jihadists since the 11 September 2001.

Yet US law enforcement agencies seem more invested in entrapping Muslims in manufactured plots, harassing Palestine solidarity activists and monitoring Black Lives Matter protesters than tackling the rising tide of deadly rightwing extremism.

Dangerous denial

Meanwhile, Republican leaders predictably contorted reality to avoid labeling Dylann Roof’s violence an act of terrorism, or even racism for that matter.

US government officials are similarly reluctant to identify ideologically inspired violence committed by non-Muslims as terrorism.

Speaking at a press conference three days after the Charleston attack, FBI director James Comey told reporters that Dylann Roof’s racially motivated massacre was not terrorism because it was not a “political act.”

But Roof has been clear that his motive was to ignite a race war. One of his victims was South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, whose presence Roof reportedly requested when he entered the church.

If assassinating a Black elected official and murdering Black worshippers to start a race war isn’t enough to prove Roof’s violence was political, then perhaps his own admission is.

Roof reportedly let one churchgoer live precisely so she could inform the world what he did and why.

More evidence of Roof’s ideological motives can be found in the trove of photos he posted to his website.

The images show him embracing the Confederate flag, a notorious white nationalist symbol.

Roof is also pictured sporting a coat adorned with the flags of white minority ruled South Africa and Rhodesia, highlighting the convergence of white nationalism globally.

In case his motive still wasn’t clear, Roof posted a 2,500-word anti-Black manifesto on his website laying out his racist ideology.

Even President Obama failed to label the attack an act of terrorism, focusing instead on the issue of gun violence.

“Government officials are reluctant to call it terrorism because of the political ramifications,” former DHS analyst Johnson said. “If you’re justifying money and resources for a war on terror, then you are going to talk about al-Qaida, which comes at the expense of other forms of terrorism that might be less sensational.”

“The general public is inundated with media and government scrutiny of al-Qaida and its affiliates. It’s ingrained in the American public mind to think of terrorism as a foreign threat from people with dark skin,” he said.

“The ongoing danger is that by not labeling it terrorism it’s being perceived as something else,” Johnson added. “If you label the Charleston shooting as a hate crime, people think of it as a local issue. If you label it terrorism, it’s a national issue.”

Lopsided countermeasures

Though Johnson concedes that it is difficult to thwart lone wolf attacks, he believes there are preventive measures the US government has failed to implement. Chief among them is “counter-messaging.”

“Educating the public on these issues and that these movements are dangerous is vital,” Johnson said. He noted that “today’s white supremacist and white nationalist is an Internet junkie.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors rightwing groups, found that nearly 100 people have been murdered since 2009 by registered users of the world’s largest online hate forum Stormfront.

Stormfront users have included Wade Michael Page and mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011 supposedly to halt the “Islamization” of Europe.

Charleston killer Dylann Roof was a regular commenter at another neo-Nazi website.

He also wrote in his manifesto that he was influenced by the white supremacist group the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), following the killing in Florida of unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman.

The leader of the CCC, which grew out of the White Citizens Councils opposed to desegregation in the South, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican elected officials in recent years.

While the White House has launched several campaigns to counter Islamic State, or ISIS, propaganda directed at impressionable youth, no such measures exist to counter rightwing extremism of the kind that apparently mobilized Roof and others to kill.

The Obama administration’s skewed approach was on display in February when it convened a White House summit on countering violent extremism that focused almost exclusively on Islamic fundamentalism.

It is impossible to know whether the Charleston massacre could have been prevented had federal authorities invested more resources in countering rightwing terrorism.

But denying that the problem exists and doing nothing only makes the next attack more likely.


Rania Khalek

Rania Khalek's picture

Rania Khalek is an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized.