New Jersey declared white supremacists a major threat. Here’s why that’s groundbreaking.
Experts say governments have been generally slow to recognize and name the threat posed by rising white supremacist activity. Part of the problem could be that the demographics of white supremacists represent a majority of Americans.
New Jersey says white supremacist extremism is one of the state’s greatest terrorism threats — higher than al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda, an Islamic extremist group founded by Osama bin Laden, and ISIS, which split from al-Qaeda 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.
“As we have this anti-establishment tilt and this fracturing and splintering of our sociopolitical landscape, what we see is groups that aren’t meeting as much or holding rallies as much still are able to influence the white-supremacist narrative,” Levin said, “but merely as one server in a buffet of hatred and a 24/7 Charlottesville online.”
Also, Levin cautioned that white supremacists "are by far not the only one in a continuing arms race with a diversifying set of extremist movements both here in the United States and worldwide.”
White supremacist groups in New Jersey in particular appear to have ramped up their recruitment in 2019. The state reported there were 168 instances of white supremacist propaganda distribution in 2019, compared with 46 in 2018.
That propaganda is most often in the form of fliers posted in public spaces, a problem the Anti-Defamation League reported was particularly acute on college campuses last year. The group reported 16 Pennsylvania and New Jersey schools were targeted, including the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, Princeton University, and Rutgers University.
The New Jersey European Heritage Foundation was responsible for about 10% of the white supremacist literature distribution nationwide last year, the ADL said.
There have been several other instances of white supremacist extremism in New Jersey, including the presence of the neo-Nazi network the Base. Federal investigators said a Camden County 18-year-old used the network to recruit perpetrators to carry out vandalism of synagogues in the Midwest. The reported founder of the Base, believed to be living in Russia, is a graduate of a Catholic preparatory school in Morristown and has held an address in North Bergen.
In addition, a 41-year-old Philadelphia Navy Yard worker from Salem was arrested in October and charged with lying to federal officials about his ties to a white supremacist group.
But it’s not clear to experts whether threats posed by white supremacist activity is more severe in New Jersey than anywhere else. There were historically hot spots across the country where white supremacists gathered, but much of the activity is now internet-based and increasingly transnational.
“When I think of New Jersey, I certainly don’t think of white supremacy,” Clarke said. “That’s what’s so bedeviling about the threat from white supremacy. The younger generation getting involved with white supremacist extremism looks just like your next-door neighbor.”
In addition to rating white supremacist extremism as a “high” threat, the state also elevated the threat posed by black separatist extremists from “low” to “moderate” after two individuals associated with that ideology targeted police and the Jewish community at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City in December. The gunfight left six people dead, including the assailants and a police officer.
The officials were careful to note that while ISIS has not carried out an attack in the United States, its inspiration of supporters in America still poses “a consistently high threat.”