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Expert: 'The vast majority' of domestic terror in 2020 came from far-right supremacists

Seth Jones, CSIS International Security Program Director, joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to break down a new report detailing the rise of U.S. extremist attacks.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Now this week's pro-Trump riots were branded as domestic terrorism by many, including President-Elect Biden, after looters broke into the Capitol, stole items from members of Congress, and attacked police. One has even died as a result of those riots this week.

So let's talk more about the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States. We're joined now by Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at CSIS. As I mentioned before the break, that's the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

So, Seth, I think, at least on this piece, language is incredibly important. So I kind of want to start this way. How would you classify what we saw happen at the Capitol this week?

SETH JONES: Well, I mean, I think there have been some comments about words like "coup." I mean, this is not generally the traditional use of that term. I think terrorism, there certainly was terrorism. It was domestic in nature. When we talk about terrorism as people who work on the subject, either from an academic or a policy perspective, it's the use or the threat of violence designed to achieve political objectives.

And I think based on the kinds of individuals that were present at the Capitol, they had baseball bats. They were armed. There was the use of violence and the threat of violence. They definitely had political objectives. But I think one can characterize this as a form of domestic terrorism. It's a really unfortunate development.

Just one other thing along these lines that we've seen-- I think this was a testament to what we saw this week-- is that it's been very decentralized. So what we don't have is a clear command and control structure. From most of what we see, it's pretty decentralized. In fact, a lot of these people operate under this mantra of leaderless resistance, the term that came from Louis Beam. And that's still what we're seeing, for the most part.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, CSIS has a report titled, "The War Comes Home, the Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States." And so, I want to get into kind of how these groups are operating. But I want to ask, what is that evolution of domestic terrorism in the US? And what group is making up the bulk of these domestic terrorism attacks? I think when we hear the word terrorist, at least here in the United States, a lot of folks think of one kind of group or one kind of person. But in reality, what does that look like here in the US?

SETH JONES: Well, after 9/11, much of the major threat we faced in the US is, as everyone knows, is it generally came from organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. These were individuals, either like we saw on 9/11 that were members of these kinds of groups or that were inspired. And there were a number of threats that we saw, the Pulse nightclub attack down in Orlando.

More recently, though, in the last few years, what we've seen is a significant increase in the number of individuals involved in what we call violent far-right, and to some degree, of smaller numbers, violent far-left terrorism. The vast majority, what we see about 2/3 of the attacks in 2020, were motivated by or were perpetrated by individuals that were either white supremacists or militias or other like-minded, violent, far-right entities.

And again, they're not really groups per se. There are a few, like the Base and the Atomwaffen division, but most of them don't have a clear command and control structure, although they do operate on social media and digital platforms. So they are communicating with each other.

KRISTIN MYERS: And we're showing a graph for everyone at home so that they can see that those attacks from the far-right-- and this is actually a graph from your report, Seth, attacks from the far-right massively outpacing those from the far-left and other groups. I'm wondering, then, because the charts that we're seeing are just from 2020, January to August specifically of 2020.

And so, I'm wondering, as we see this rise of, as you mentioned, the White supremacist, this rise of these far-right attacks, what kind of impact has either the president himself, or what some are branding as Trumpism as a political phrase, how much has that influenced or impacted this increase that we have seen, especially in 2020 being an election year?

SETH JONES: Well, it's definitely had an impact. It's hard to pull out how much of an impact. There are clearly other factors that are going on. The pandemic, COVID-19 has had an impact. And so, it's brought out individuals that simply do not trust the government, frankly, whether it's Republican or Democrat. And these are some of the anti-government militias generally on the far-right. So there are other variables that are driving this.

But where the president has played an influential role, though, is in stoking these conspiracy theories, and I think, as we saw this week, encouraging individuals to take action against locations like the Capitol building. In fact, I think what's particularly concerning is how active social media platforms-- it's not just the big ones, like Facebook or Twitter.

It's also Reddit, Discord, Gabb. There are a whole range of other platforms where a lot of the words of individuals like President Trump or Rudy Giuliani are being posted. And then, we're seeing re-recordings of it. So it's inflamed some people's views. And I think we saw it in the riots this week.

KRISTIN MYERS: Now, Seth, you mentioned just a couple of moments ago about how these groups are really decentralized, leaderless. How does that impact or shape either the targets that they have or the kinds of attacks that they do? And really, how does that impact policy in order to combat it, or even just tracking down these individuals and preventing these attacks before they even happen?

SETH JONES: Well, a couple of things. First is, it does-- because they're not groups-- so it's not like trying to penetrate Al-Qaeda's leadership or the Islamic state's leadership. The fact that they're largely decentralized organizations means it is more difficult for the FBI and the joint terrorism task forces, including law enforcement, to penetrate a range of these networks because they're not groups.

And I think we can see that even in response to the storming of the Capitol building, that the FBI and other organizations that I've spoken to them about the investigation, they have to rely on social media platforms, videos, photographs that were taken because it's a pretty diffuse network.

The other thing you asked-- and this gets to the issue of tactics-- is, what we are seeing is a pretty significant number of plots and attacks using firearms and also explosives. And that's what has me concerned over the next few weeks and months, is the kinds of things we saw the plot, for example, to target the governor of Michigan.

These are the kinds of things that worry me, not just in Washington, but in other American locations, including cities, is attacks now. And these individuals are well-armed. Some of them have explosives training. So, this is-- we're moving into a new era now.

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to ask you, Seth, we have another chart. And you mentioned, you know, the government really being the main focus of a lot of these attacks. And we do have a graphic here of some of the targets from both far-left and far-right extremist groups, the government being a huge part of those attacks.

I'm wondering what that means going forward in terms of national security, what that might mean for an event like the inauguration happening in just a couple of days away that the government is the focus right now of this anger, but also of this violence.

SETH JONES: Well, two things. One of the things in 2020-- and I think we're likely to see it in 2021-- that we're seeing with domestic terrorism is that urban areas-- and I think areas around the inauguration will highlight this-- are bringing together people from all sides engaged in combat.

So we've seen it in Portland, Oregon. We've seen it in Kenosha. We're seeing it in Washington with antifascists and anarchists on one side fighting in hand-to-hand combat, occasionally with weapons like automatic rifles against white supremacists, against militias. So, there's this security dilemma dynamic that we're seeing in urban areas. And Washington, DC, for the moment, is the center of it. And what that suggests also is we may see that kind of combat around the election period.

The other thing, just really briefly, is the police now are an enemy not just of some of the violent far-left organizations that we saw over part of 2020, but my interviews with police even this week say that now those in the violent far-right consider law enforcement an enemy of them. So police are now in a really difficult situation, where they're the enemies of the extremes on both sides.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right, Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at CSIS, thank you so much for being here with us, especially after the events of this week, and breaking down some of-- all of that information that we have now.

SETH JONES: Thank you.