Analysis of rising domestic far-right terrorism typically focuses on the threat it poses to minority communities, the political left, and liberal democracy. Not much attention has been given to the danger it poses to the broader American right and institutions typically cherished by conservatives. In this three-part series, CFR research fellow Jacob Ware assesses the violent far-right and white supremacist terrorist threat to these entities, including the Republican Party, the United States military, and American law enforcement. The first post can be accessed here.
The summer of 2020 will forever be remembered for rolling protests and riots against police brutality, both in the United States and abroad.
After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, peaceful protestors took to the streets to demonstrate their anger at continued police brutality against young Black men and women. At night, though, peaceful protestors were sometimes replaced by militant far-left anarchist rioters, who frequently deployed terroristic violence against federal targets—the police union building in Washington, DC, was firebombed, while the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, sustained an onslaught of riots. More than two thousand police officers were wounded over the course of the summer. As the Black Lives Matter movement dominated airwaves, an adjacent movement, donning itself with some variation of the moniker “Back the Blue,” countered, loudly supporting police officers and often calling for the continued freedom of the murderer and accomplices who took George Floyd’s life.
Just days into 2021, the narrative was flipped on its head. A U.S. Capitol Police officer died due to a stroke after the siege on the Capitol on January 6, after being sprayed with a chemical agent and later collapsing. Several committed suicide in the days and weeks that followed. More than one hundred officers were wounded. The violence against police officers that day was not collateral damage in a bigger plot; for some, the police were legitimate targets, complicit in the apparent election thievery that inspired the rioters. “Cops don’t have ‘standing’ if they are laying on the ground in a pool of their own blood,” one post on TheDonald.win forum had warned. The heightened tensions were felt beyond the nation’s capital: one Idaho-based police trainer, a former Oath Keeper, called for the execution of government employees disloyal to former President Donald Trump, also declaring, “We are on the brink of civil war.”
Law enforcement again found itself in the crosshairs of the violent far right in the days after the FBI launched a raid on Mar-a-Lago as part of an investigation into Trump’s handling of classified information last August. Conservative politicians led the anti-police clamor, with Congressman Ronny Jackson (R-TX) tweeting, “Tonight the FBI officially became the enemy of the people!!!” A Florida state house candidate added, “Under my plan, all Floridians will be able to shoot FBI, IRS, ATF, and all other federal troops on sight.” In Cincinnati, an armed gunman approached the FBI building, causing a substantial lockdown and sending tremors of fear through the bureau’s rank-and-file. The attacker, a Trump supporter who had been present on January 6, was killed after a police chase. “I’m always concerned about threats to law enforcement,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said, responding to an increase in threats after the raid. “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”
Conservatives are absolutely right to fear violence against law enforcement. Police officers put themselves in harm’s way every day, risking their safety to ensure the public’s. More than two hundred police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2022. But, despite the prevailing narrative, when considering ideologically motivated violence, far-left extremist violence has not predominantly killed police officers in the United States. Historically, most domestic terrorist violence against the police comes from the far right. No American antigovernment extremist caused as much terror and bloodshed as Timothy McVeigh, an army veteran who in 1995 detonated a large truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh intended his attack to cause maximum damage to the country’s law enforcement agencies—notably the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which had an office in the building—which he perceived as tyrannical and overreaching. “When an aggressor force continually launches attacks from a particular base of operation, it is sound military strategy to take the fight to the enemy,” McVeigh wrote in a letter to Fox News, weeks before his execution.
More recent acts of domestic terrorism targeting police have often been perpetrated by the far right. In June 2014, two Las Vegas police officers were executed by an antigovernment couple aiming to start a revolution. Additionally, the deadliest terrorist incident in 2020’s summer of protests targeted several police officers and security guards in California, killing two. The perpetrator, Steven Carrillo, was an adherent of the nascent “boogaloo” movement, a largely right-wing antigovernment extremist movement aiming to start a second civil war. “The Boogaloo revolution is against the government,” Carrillo explained in an interview, “but the police is basically the government’s dog on a leash.”
Violent far-right extremists have also grown adept at manipulating social justice protests for their own ends. The attack on the Minneapolis third police precinct in May 2020 was perhaps the most notorious incident of anti-police violence that summer, a stain on any legitimate protest against police brutality. But that attack was partly perpetrated by violent far-right extremists. A twenty-six-year-old antigovernment extremist from Texas was arrested and charged with rioting for helping set fire to the police precinct and firing thirteen bullets into the blaze. Another particularly aggressive rioter smashed windows at an AutoZone. Dubbed the “Umbrella Man,” he was found to be linked to the white supremacist Aryan Cowboy Brotherhood prison gang. “This was the first fire that set off a string of fires and looting throughout the precinct and the rest of the city,” Sergeant Erika Christensen wrote of the “Umbrella Man’s” incitement strategy, which included vandalism and other actions designed to enflame the mob. “Until the actions of the . . . ‘Umbrella Man,’ the protests had been relatively peaceful.”
Those warning of far-left violence against police often cite two July 2016 ambush attacks targeting police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas. Eight police officers were killed in the unrelated shootings, which occurred during another summer of Black Lives Matter protests. But even those domestic terrorism incidents cannot easily be categorized as “left wing.” The Baton Rouge killer, for instance, was a Black supremacist associated with so-called sovereign citizen causes. An antigovernment movement responsible for 15 percent of FBI-listed domestic terrorism incidents in the United States between 2015 and 2019, sovereign citizens are frequently ranked by police groups as the most dangerous threat to officers, and align more neatly with other antigovernment movements on the far right. The Dallas terrorist’s online activity indicated support for the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, which, the Anti-Defamation League explains, “has maintained a consistent record of antisemitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s”—suggesting they could actually find more common ground with their far-right white supremacist counterparts than the average left-leaning American. The FBI lists both white supremacists and Black supremacists under the same category—“Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism”—a nod to their similar methodology, despite dueling ideologies. Like violent far-right extremism, then, the far fringe of the political left does not necessarily align with the average voter’s views.
Of course, far-left violence does often target law enforcement. One particularly infamous case involved two New York lawyers who pled guilty to throwing a Molotov cocktail at an NYPD vehicle in May 2020. And in July 2019, an Antifa activist was shot dead while attempting to firebomb a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Tacoma, Washington. That incident, likely the closest an Antifa adherent has gotten to a terroristic murder of a law enforcement officer, did not result in any major police casualties. Conservatives decrying arrests of far-right extremists who rioted on January 6 often complain of a two-tiered justice system, where conservatives are seemingly arrested for certain activities while liberals are not. But at least seventeen thousand protestors were arrested for their crimes during the summer of 2020, more than seventeen times the number arrested on January 6.
A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies analysis of domestic terrorism incidents in 2020 found that far-left extremists are more likely to attack “government, military, and police,” than far-right extremists—58 percent of far-left attacks between January and August that year targeted government, compared to only 18 percent of far-right attacks. But far-right violence is considerably more common, and far more lethal, than attacks from the far left. Grievances against law enforcement and government could be more rhetorically central to far-left and anarchist extremism—but violent far-right extremists are more likely to act on such grievances, and are far more likely to claim casualties. Extremists within law enforcement, meanwhile, pose a threat to the integrity of the entire institution itself, not to mention the general public.
The average American citizen is absolutely right to fear violence against the police officers charged with protecting them. But the narrative that the threat against police comes solely from the far left, and not the far right, is simplistic and partisan, if not simply wrong. If conservatives’ interest is really to Back the Blue, they too should fear, condemn, and work to end violent far-right terrorism.