August 28th, 2012
03:52 PM ET

Understanding America’s domestic extremist threat

By Jeff GruenewaldWilliam ParkinMichael Suttmoeller, Special to CNN

Jeff Gruenewald, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, William Parkin, assistant professor at Seattle University, and Michael Suttmoeller, doctoral candidate at Michigan State University, are researchers with the Extremist Crime Database. The views expressed are their own.

The tragic deaths of St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff's deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche in Louisiana on August 16, and the injuries to their fellow officers, highlight the ongoing and underreported threat that domestic extremism poses to law enforcement officers in the United States.

According to news reports, the suspects in these murders have been tied to the “sovereign citizens,” a far-right, anti-government movement. Unfortunately, this is not the first homicide of this type in Louisiana. In 2007, two Bastrop police detectives were killed by a member of the white supremacist prison group Aryan Circle who was wanted by U.S. Marshalls on weapons charges and for questioning over a previous homicide case. That suspect was eventually killed in a shootout with police.

Officers Nielsen and Triche are merely the most recent in a long history of law enforcement officers killed or wounded in the line of duty by far-right extremists. Only two weeks before the shootings in Louisiana, an officer was shot multiple times by a white supremacist while responding to the deadly shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where six people were murdered. Fortunately, the officer survived, but between 1990 and 2010, 46 on-duty law enforcement officers were killed in 30 incidents where at least one of the suspects was a far-rightist. In addition, during this timeframe, five corrections officers, four private security guards, one judge and one animal control officer were killed by far-right extremists.

Although not all of these incidents were ideologically motivated, the suspects’ extremist ideologies play a pivotal role in how they view and react to law enforcement. Anti-government extremists typically focus their ire against the state and federal governments, which they believe have no constitutional authority to police them. However, more than two-thirds of law enforcement officers killed were members of local law enforcement agencies, while less than a third were from state and federal agencies.  Officers are killed in ambush-style attacks by far-right extremists 30 percent of the time such groups choose to attack, as appears to be the case in the most recent Louisiana attack.  Although the full facts of this incident are yet to come out, it appears that law enforcement officials were also aware of at least one of the suspect’s extremist views.

Despite all this, it’s difficult for law enforcement agencies to keep track of extremists who pose a threat. Over the last 20 years, less than 20 percent of far-right extremist suspects were part of formal hate groups. Instead, they usually carried out their violence alone or with others, but without clear group boundaries.

So what do we know about the types of people likely to be involved in such crimes – and are there any clues we can look for? The reality is that there is no single profile, but notable patterns have been uncovered in the nature of law enforcement murders committed by far-right extremists.

A number of law enforcement officers have been killed while responding to calls for service. In 2009, in Pittsburgh, three officers were shot by an anti-government extremist while responding to a domestic disturbance call at his residence. In Michigan in 1998, a law enforcement officer was called to the home of a known anti-government conspiracy theorist that had previous interactions with the local police and was known to carry a gun. After an attempt to reason with the suspect, gunfire was exchanged and the officer was fatally wounded on the man’s front porch. In Tennessee in 2006, two brothers, who were also anti-government extremists, shot and killed a police officer and his acquaintance as they responded to a call at their home. The brothers were known to carry weapons and had long histories of feuding with local authorities.

None of these particular far-rightists had serious criminal histories. In 1993, an Alabama police officer was summoned to check on the welfare of a child who was in a vehicle parked at a supermarket. Also in the car was an anti-government, common-law couple who were members of the Patriot Movement. Fugitives from the law, the couple opened fire in the parking lot, fatally wounding the officer. Two years later, while on a crime spree, another couple with ties to the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang killed a California police officer who noticed their vehicle in a parking lot outside of a restaurant.

Routine traffic stops can also become extremely dangerous situations for law enforcement officers – of all attacks on officers by far-right extremists, 16 percent came during traffic stops. In one 1997 case, a New Hampshire man in his late sixties, with a history of threatening local officials, shot and killed a police officer during a traffic stop. He then led other officers on a chase that crossed two states and resulted in additional deaths, including his own. Five years later, a 61-year-old Ohioan claiming to be the leader of a sovereign citizens group led police on a high speed pursuit that ended in a shootout where he and a police officer were killed. Police found stockpiles of weapons during follow up investigations of both incidents.

But while far-right attacks on law enforcement may be most common, since 1990 law enforcement officers have also come under attack by other ideological extremists. Sixty law enforcement officers were murdered by al-Qaeda in New York City during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Other supporters of al-Qaeda have killed military personnel inside the U.S. and in 2002 a police officer was killed in California by a left-wing self-proclaimed anarchist. In another attack just before the shootings in Louisiana, a security guard was shot and wounded inside the offices of the Family Research Council, a conservative organization, in what was allegedly an act of left-wing ideologically motivated violence.

The murders in St. John the Baptist Parish serve as a reminder of the significant threat posed by far-rightists, al-Qaeda supporters and other domestic extremists in the United States, specifically to law enforcement officers. While it’s clear that no two law enforcement murders are the same, researchers, advocacy groups, and law enforcement should continue to work together to identify domestic extremist offending patterns and to profile these crimes in ways that aid in the identification, investigation, and prosecution of those who turn to violence to achieve both ideological and criminal goals.

The Extremist Crime Database is funded through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. The numbers and incidents referenced were compiled by the ECDB, which was created and is directed by Professors Joshua D. Freilich (John Jay College, CUNY) and Steven M. Chermak (Michigan State University).

Post by:
Topics: Law • Terrorism • United States

« Previous entry
soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. 100 % ETHIO

    It is My condolences for those who passed away.

    However, the article mentioned,"...antigovernment...", it doesn't say which Government. In America, Government comes-Government goes. Those who doesn't like the current, will be ok with the next.
    But, if we took about the systems in placed to be changed legally, that we could discuss.

    At the matter of fact, the idea of this article is in favour of someone who hate the Aryan Race.
    If you are get over it! This is America, not ME. Get a life!

    August 28, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  2. phrancis

    People who are so convinced of their self-righteousness and egos will of course not be stopped by the bounds of law or morality. I think the greater question is: How do we curb extremist thinking without infringing on freedom of speech, religion, guns, etc?

    August 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • randel

      "I think the greater question is: How do we curb extremist thinking without infringing on freedom of speech, religion, guns, etc?"
      This is indeed the question. I think that this question is a great one for debate. What can be done?

      August 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Andrey

      "People who are so convinced of their self-righteousness and egos will of course not be stopped by the bounds of law or morality..." that applies as much to liberals as to anybody else.

      August 31, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  3. Willie12345

    Now the right-wing media is trying to scare us with this "domestic" threat. I guess that the people are getting tired of listening all to these "threats" coming from foreign "extremists! The right-wingres in Washington feel that they need to scare us somehow!

    August 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
    • factchecker

      It would make more sense if you were talking about the left-wing media. I think you have this backwards. Why would the right-wingers want to scare the public about right-wing terrorism?

      August 29, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
  4. WHome

    So – wait what happened to all these frequent shootings only happen in Dem states. you Know Dem states like Louisiana.

    August 28, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  5. Larry

    Domestic extremists? Yeah, they're called Republicans.

    August 28, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • OpenedSpy

      Stop fooling around. They are called, Jewish extremists, who have access of American people privacy and have accesses of deadly weapons in America. I know, there are Muslin extremists too. But, they admitted and they took responsibilities of the attacks they do, but Jewish never and ever admitted, attacks they did. They always and always denied and expected to denied all harmful things they will committed.

      August 29, 2012 at 1:24 am |
      • KLARGAR

        What drugs are you on?

        August 29, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
      • TAB

        OpenedSpy, Just admit that you are a crack head you bigot!

        August 31, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • TAB

      Larry, I'm neither Dem or Rep.... But you are an idiot!

      August 31, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    US prisons are considered fertile ground for recruiters belonging to white extremist organisations. Before 9/11 2001 they were considered frequent targets of US prosecutors, who switched their focus since the deadliest terrorist attacks on US-soil. Only in recent years are these domestic extremists in the spotlight again.

    August 29, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  7. GOP Word Association

    WORD = GOP Association
    Old People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Sick People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Poor People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Female People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Non-white People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Non-christian People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Unemployed People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Gay People = Glob of cells that we don't care about. Let them die.
    Glob of cells in a womb = Something we PRETEND to care about just to get votes.
    Gun Control = Something ELSE we PRETEND to care about to get dumb redneck votes.

    August 29, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Ed

      Try to do some research on the progressive movement till until quite recently. You'll find that they are the ideologues who pushed mandatory sterilizations, genocide of minorities, installing Jim Crow racism into government employment policy under Woodrow Wilson, and much more. Look it up. American academic progressives including Charles Davenport, counseled the Nazis in their genocide, until 1942, when the Holocaust was put into action. Also read about progressive hero Margaret Sanger, as another example, in her drive to push down the black population in USA through forced abortions and sterilizations.
      Your heavily filtered view of the world is entirely ideological, not factual, since you only blame one side for our problems.

      August 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  8. JAL

    Often times, extremism can be traced to negative work cultures or loss of employment.

    August 29, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  9. kc

    In upholding democracy the goal is to curb violent ignorant action,not curbing thoughts.In a republic its fine to not like your goverment.Don't agree-our founders made this system because they didn't like thiers.Rember they were traitor extremestists to the English,untill 1776 they were English citizens.Don't get confused I am not calling todays militants in question Jeffersonian. Although ironacly the French reveloution was probaly borne in his parlor.This however is where any similarities end,because our founders sought to uplift the majority to a more egalitarian system,and even left provisions for those left behind.These groups seek to elevate a few at the expense of the many. They often claim they are marginalized,but are looking to force everyone into thier mold of thinking .In doing so they become the very thing they claim is the justification for toppling thier enemies.

    August 29, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  10. rightospeak

    The article is barking up the wrong tree . Extremism is a result of social conditions created by a non-representative government. Over 20 % real unemployment ,lack of opportunities for young people,bankers stealing billions and not going to jail,shipping of American jobs overseas,lack of proper healthcare, Affirmative Discrimination -all these create extremism .Erosion of freedoms is also very dangerous.
    If you add to that all the brainwashing and lies in the media, people's brains become a "kaleidoscope of contradictory nonsense

    August 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  11. Obelisk

    All roads to extremism in USA lead to India.


    LEADERS: L.K. Advani/ Ashok Singhal/ Bala Saheb Devaras/ Bal Thackeray/ A.B. Vajpayee/ Savarkar/ Baikunnth Lal Sharma “Prem”/ Balraj Madhok/ The Shankaracharya of Puri, Niranjan Dev Theerth/ Rama Gopalan/ Variyar – Vishwan Hindu Parishad/ Dharmalinga Nadar/ Cho Ramaswamy

    August 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  12. Common Sense

    What about all the civilians and officers killed by gangs? Are they really going to claim that white supremacists are the biggest problem facing America? None of the murders mentioned were even race motivated.

    August 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  13. Benish ahmed

    europeans came to america, legallydecided that the native americans were not humans and commenced to totally annialate these persons and/or their culture, setting up this 'non-human' theory that allowed for the physical and emotional imprisonment of the african slaves. now i suppose telling these true indesputable facts makes me an anarchist...i can live with that labelbetter than i can to deny these horrible truths in regard to our ancestors...

    September 3, 2012 at 2:47 am |

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

« Previous entry