Documenting domestic terrorism in the US: this new dataset exposes the legal response
Finally, there is a dataset documenting response to white supremacist violence in the US.
Domestic terrorism (DT) has been an increasingly important topic in the United States over the last several years. This year, the US Federal government created classifications for ‘Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism’ (REMVE) that include white supremacist forms of violent extremism along with ‘Targeted Violence’ (TV) in the Department of Homeland Security’s Strategic Framework released in September 2019.
This shift stems from attempts to incorporate mass attacks committed by REMVE actors as well as self-described Incels (Involuntary Celibates) linked to male supremacist cultures, and mass attacks such as ‘school shootings’ under the banner of DT threats. Identifying individuals linked to these newly recognized (but extant) forms of terror remains difficult, because US law does not allow for the designation of citizen groups under the framework of domestic criminal charges for terrorist activities due to potential breaches of first amendment rights of free speech and free assembly.
Join the COVID-19 DemocracyWatch email list
Sign up for our global round-up of attacks on democracy during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition, ‘Targeted Violence’ can often be linked to online cultures that are difficult to classify as ‘groups’ under existing law. Further, non-citizen participants in such cultures who are in the US also have first amendment protections. Although there are ongoing debates about how to address these issues, criminal charging and prosecutions still go forward when REMVE / TV actors commit crimes.
Nevertheless, identifying individuals charged in relation to REMVE / TV motivated crimes is difficult given that neither they nor their acts are necessarily flagged as linked to terrorist ideologies or motivations, given that charging follows the US criminal code, and there are no current charges under the banner of ‘domestic terrorism’ available to prosecutors in these cases (as there are in cases where individuals are linked to Foreign Terrorist Organizations, or FTOs.)
The problem, in other words, is this: for the American case, you cannot research violence motivated by white or male supremacist ideology by simply searching arrests for a single criminal charge, the way you can search for individuals arrested for ‘providing material support’ for terrorism in the jihadist case. Recently, the US designated a European white supremacist / Right-Wing Extremist organization as an FTO for the first time. This measure allows US persons who can be proven connected with this organization to be charged with crimes such as providing material support to an FTO. Such a measure will assist in the identification of terrorist actors in the US, but it will not come close to capturing all such action.
The information within the dataset, and its continued development over time, may help to shed light on terrorist activity and legal responses to it in the US
This focus on terrorism occurring within the United States is important given that such acts have been increasing for some time. In order to effectively research these changes, finding a way to track and analyze such prosecutions is essential. In recognition of this need, First Vigil, a website built by activists, provides a searchable site format including this information in narrative form covering charges starting in 2017, intended for activist and journalist use. And, the Lawfare blog has recently begun a ‘White Supremacist Prosecutions Roundup’ feature—also in narrative form—that covers charging over the previous six months. These developments are important, but not suited for direct use in comparative analyses.
Additionally, they also cover relatively recent periods of time that does not offer a comprehensive view of increases in this form of terrorist activity. The University of North Carolina (UNC) dataset works alongside these efforts but is distinct given its range of data (from 2011 – 2020) and its format (excel database) which allows easy parsing and analyses necessary for effectively researching the threat posed by white supremacist, nationalist, accelerationist and male supremacist groups and ideologies.
The UNC dataset is comprised of manually collected and vetted information developed using open source, web-based data gathering. It provides information about individuals arrested and charged for federal crimes linked to ‘domestic’ terrorism stemming from white supremacist, nationalist, accelerationist, and male supremacist ideological cultures and groups. This dataset does not include charges at the state level, where many such crimes are charged depending on whether or not a case meets the requirements for federal charging.
In some cases, charges will occur at both the federal and state level (e.g. The Charleston AME Church shooter was charged at both levels). Given the complexities of searching 50 separate state court systems and the limitations of our team (size and time), we were unable to include state charges in this dataset. This information is all publicly available data under US law (thus does not breach the privacy of individuals named) that we have aggregated for ease of analysis.
The file comprises more than 550 rows of total data. Some data points may be missing because the case is ongoing and that data is not yet available or because that data was not available in any of the multiple open source sites for a particular case.
This dataset provides an initial attempt to reduce barriers to the effective study of this urgent issue. The information within the dataset, and its continued development over time, may help to shed light on terrorist activity and legal responses to it in the US. This is crucial for studying questions about the efficacy of policies relative to this threat, evaluating the consistency and impacts of charging patterns, and the outcomes of prosecutions nationally, regionally, and locally.
Moreover, the dataset may help researchers explore gaps between known activity and charging by region to better understand whether such differences are related to group strategies to evade the law or organizational structures within US justice entities, or a combination of both. It also provides a vetted source for conducting network analyses between charged individuals and other known actors and groups.
Such analyses can address multiple issues stemming from the use of online technologies including whether developing interconnections between ideologies online are impacting criminal behavior and violence, whether different groups and actors are using similar strategies to develop and sustain funding, recruit members, or incite violence, and whether there is more coordination between these groups and ideologies over time.
* This project was completed with the generous support of the Office of Undergraduate Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Get our weekly email