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New Jersey declared white supremacists a major threat. Here's why that's groundbreaking

Anna Orso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- New Jersey says white supremacist extremism is one of the state's greatest terrorism threats -- higher than al-Qaida and the Islamic State -- and in doing so has positioned itself as a national leader in countering domestic terrorism inspired by racism, experts say.

Last week, the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness issued a 2020 threat assessment report, for the first time rating the threat of homegrown violent extremism, and specifically white supremacist extremism, as "high," noting the increased number of plots, attacks and recruitment efforts in 2019. Meanwhile, al-Qaida, an Islamic extremist group founded by Osama bin Laden, and ISIS, which split from al-Qaida in 2014, were both rated in the "low" threat category.

Experts say this assessment is true across the country, but New Jersey, in publicly releasing its research and analysis, may be in a better position than other states to dedicate new resources and personnel to addressing violent white supremacist organizations and countering the ideology.

"They nailed it," said Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit threat and security research organization. "I don't think it's fearmongering. It's sounding the alarm in the right way, because it's now about marshaling the resources to counter the threat and really kind of raising awareness."

Clarke, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for Politics and Strategy, said governments have been generally slow to recognize and name the threat posed by rising white supremacist activity. A part of the problem, he said, could be that the demographics of white supremacists -- as opposed to those of jihadists -- represent a majority of Americans. That's why New Jersey's move is significant, he said. He isn't aware of other states with research and analysis offices that have gone this far.

Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray elevated addressing "racially motivated violent extremism" to a top-level priority for the bureau, on par with the threat posed by ISIS and its sympathizers.

 

The threat assessment noted that of 44 domestic terrorist incidents in the United States in 2019, four had a connection to New Jersey. In addition, six of the 41 homegrown violent extremists arrested in the United States last year were arrested in New Jersey or New York. Homegrown violent extremists are defined as people inspired by, not directed by, foreign terrorist organizations.

Jared M. Maples, director of the office that released the report, said in a statement that the "ever-changing threat landscape" requires officials to adjust strategies to "anticipate new threats while remaining ready to combat those already existing."

Brian Levin, director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said white supremacy has been the most ascendant fatal form of extremism over the last few years, replacing violent jihadists at the top of the list of extremists most likely to commit ideologically motivated homicide.

The most clear example was the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where one person was killed. But the influence is deeper.

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