By Spencer Ackerman
Wired Danger Room, August 7, 2012
It was anything but a lucky guess on Johnson’s part. He spent 15 years studying domestic terrorist groups — particularly white supremacists and neo-Nazis — as a government counterterrorism analyst, the last six of them at the Department of Homeland Security. There, he even homebrewed his own database on far-right extremist groups on an Oracle platform, allowing his analysts to compile and sift reporting in the media and other law-enforcement agencies on radical and potentially violent groups.
But Johnson’s career took an unexpected turn in 2009, when an analysis he wrote on the rise of “Right-Wing Extremism (.pdf) sparked a political controversy. Under pressure from conservatives, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) repudiated Johnson’s paper — an especially bitter pill for him to swallow now that Wade Michael Page, a suspected white supremacist, killed at least six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. For Johnson, the shooting was a reminder that the government’s counterterrorism efforts are almost exclusively focused on al-Qaida, even as non-Islamist groups threaten Americans domestically.
Johnson left DHS in April 2010 after “they dissolved my team,” he says. Had he still been at DHS, he says he would have published an analysis calling attention to a growing number of attacks on mosques, which he thinks could serve as a “warning” to Sikh communities that are often mistaken for Muslim ones. But finding so-called “lone wolf” terrorists like Page is a challenge no matter their motivations, since they operate outside established extremist cells and often don’t have criminal records, making it difficult for law enforcement or homeland security officials to spot them.
Now a security consultant in the Washington D.C. area, Johnson used to work for DHS’ analysis shop, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A). He supervised a team of six analysts studying what he calls “domestic non-Islamic extremism.” It’s a telling term: the DHS employed as many as 40 analysts who looked at al-Qaida and other jihadist groups’ inroads into the homeland.
Johnson ran everything else. One person on his team worked on the threat from anarchists; another, the threat from animal-rights extremists. Still others looked at anti-abortion radicalism, white supremacy and radical environmentalism. They were supplemented by analysts at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; but outnumbered by the literally thousands of analysts, operatives and other counterterrorism officials throughout the government who focus on jihadism. “Salaries were our major budget item,” he recalls.
Then, in April 2009, Johnson warned that the election of the first African-American president, combined with recession-era economic anxieties, could fuel a rise in far-right violence..
And so began a brief media firestorm. Conservative writers feared that the DHS was demonizing — even, potentially, criminalizing — mainstream right-wing speech.
It surprised Johnson. An Eagle Scout leader from northern Virginia in his early 40s, Johnson became interested in counterterrorism in his teens, after an Arkansas standoff between federal authorities and a millenarian group called The Covenant The Sword And The Arm of The Lord, which stockpiled weapons and explosives to bring about Armageddon.
Stung, DHS responded by cutting
According to Johnson, his former team now consists of a single analyst tasked with tracking all domestic non-Islamic extremism. His database has been shuttered.
Asked for comment, DHS disputed Johnson’s claim that it gives non-Islamic extremism short shrift.
Johnson, who has written a forthcoming book about far-right extremist groups, concedes that the definition of “right-wing” in his product was imprecise. In retrospect, he says he should have clarified that his focus was on “violent” right-wing organizations, like white supremacists, neo-Nazis and so-called Sovereign Citizens who believe the U.S. government is an illegitimate, tyrannical enterprise. Much like mainstream Muslims denounce terrorism and object to over-broad analysis portraying Islam as an incubator of extremism, so too do mainstream conservatives denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists and dispute that those groups are authentically right-wing.
Nor does he think DHS should ignore Islamic extremism. “It just needs to be more balanced,” Johnson says. New York congressman “Peter King has held three hearings in the past year on Muslim extremism,” he says, referring to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, “but he’s yet to have a single hearing on right-wing extremism when there’s been a lot more activity.”
Indeed, since Johnson released his ill-fated report, the Wichita, Kansas, abortion doctor George Tiller was assassinated; a security guard was killed when a gunman with neo-Nazi ties went on a shooting spree at the U.S. Holocaust Museum; the FBI arrested members of a Florida neo-Nazi outfit tied to drug dealing and motorcycle gangs; a man was charged with attempting to detonate a weapon of mass destruction at a Spokane, Washington march commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; and several mosques around the country have been vandalized or attacked — including a Missouri mosque that burned to the ground on Monday, which had been attacked before.
As Salon recounts, the FBI has been warning for years that far-right racialist organizations might be interested in suicide terrorism. Peter Bergen, a longtime chronicler of al-Qaida, wrote on Tuesday that far-right domestic terrorism rivals and might eclipse the threat of homegrown jihadism.
In a press conference on Monday, FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Teresa Carlson acknowledged that Page, the perpetrator of the Sikh temple assault, “had contact with law enforcement in the past,” but that contact didn’t rise to the level of sparking an active investigation. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks right-wing extremist groups, has apparently had Page on its radar for some time.
But Johnson doesn’t contend that more resources would necessarily have stopped Page from attacking the Sikh temple. Lone-wolf terrorists are hard to spot. What the government should do instead is broaden its counterterrorism focus beyond just jihadis. “It needs to be more balanced,” Johnson says. “It’s frustrating to see these types of incidents ongoing.”