The events in Charlottesville have made many Americans increasingly worried about the threat of domestic terrorism committed by members of right-wing hate groups. It’s hard not to be concerned, after seeing white nationalists march with torches in lockstep on the University of Virginia campus, watching the footage of their leaders armed to the teeth with guns, listening to the mother of Heather Heyer eulogize her daughter. Given this, it’s natural to wonder what law enforcement, particularly the FBI, is doing to counter the threat of right-wing extremism. Is the bureau taking the potential danger seriously? Is it monitoring these hate groups and making sure their murderous rhetoric doesn’t turn into actual murder?
To find out, I called Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. During his time with the FBI, German infiltrated multiple white supremacist organizations, and is the author of the book, Thinking Like a Terrorist: Insights of a Former FBI Undercover Agent.
German’s answers surprised me. Though he was adamant that thwarting domestic terrorism is an essential responsibility of the FBI, he argued that targeting white nationalist groups because of the ideas they express is an inefficient and ultimately counterproductive way to locate and identify potential terrorists. The operative trait of people who actually commit violent acts, German said, is not their belief system—it’s their willingness and desire to commit violent acts.
My conversation with German is below; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Leon Neyfakh: Tell me about your time as an undercover FBI agent and the work you did infiltrating white supremacist groups.
Michael German: I joined the FBI in 1988, and in 1992, I was stationed in Los Angeles, California, where there was a considerable amount of community unrest after the police beating of Rodney King. I was asked to go undercover into a group of neo-Nazi skinheads who were involved in weapons trafficking in preparation for further unrest. I spent about 14 months undercover in neo-Nazi groups. It resulted in several convictions, and after that case ended, the Oklahoma City bombing happened. For whatever reason, McVeigh and his group were characterized as “militia” members rather than white supremacists in the media, even though they had strong associations with white supremacist groups, and after that, groups started calling themselves militias. I went undercover in militia groups in the Pacific Northwest and was involved in the same exact type of illegal activities: manufacture and trafficking of illegal weapons, and plotting to commit violence with those weapons.
How did you go about blending in with those groups?
We had pretty good informant coverage, so we knew what individuals we were interested in. I just presented myself as somebody who had some talent as a criminal and was open to being recruited by them. So they basically recruited me and taught me how to be a white supremacist, and specifically how to be part of the criminal fringe of the white supremacist movement.
You’re making a distinction between the criminal fringe of the movement and the rest of it. What’s the difference?
There was definitely a sharp divide between them. Typically, if you’re the type of person who’s going to spend a lot of time writing a speech and practicing a speech and setting up a rally where you give the speech, that’s because you think giving speeches is an effective way of getting your ideology out to the masses. If you’re the type of person who thinks you have to bomb a black church in order to get your message across, writing a speech and setting up a rally isn’t something you’re interested in.
Many times when I was working within this movement, somebody would meet me who would say, “Oh, you seem like a smart young man. You don’t have any tattoos; you don’t look like a white supremacist—we could put a suit on you and run you for office in the city council and not let people know you’re a Nazi, and you can implement our policies.” They’d ask me, “Who do you know in the movement?” And I would point to these four scruffy guys in the corner, and they would go, “Oh, no. Do not hang around with those guys. Those guys are going to get you killed or arrested. Those guys are trouble; they make our movement look bad. Stay away from them.” Now, there were some people who would say to me, “Oh, I wish I were as brave as you that I could go out and do that kind of stuff, but I’m not.” But for the most part there is, or was, a certain amount of distance dividing these two sides of the movement, with the ideologues on one side and people who are actually engaged in violent crime on the other.
What does that mean for the FBI’s efforts to prevent these extremist groups from carrying out acts of violence and terror?
So, after 9/11 the FBI formally adopted this concept of terrorist radicalization, which held that people get bad ideas and then they become terrorists. The government’s theory is that the ideas cause the violence. But that doesn’t make sense mathematically. If you target groups based on their ideas, 99.99 percent of the people you monitor are not going to be violent.
Before 9/11, before all the rules were changed, I needed a reasonable indication of criminal activity to investigate someone. So, for every person who was added to my investigation, I had to document my reasons for being suspicious of them. It was a low standard, lower than probable cause, but I needed to point to objective facts that would give a reasonable law enforcement officer suspicion to believe the person was involved in criminal activity. It wasn’t enough to say someone was giving speeches and putting up websites.
But if someone’s a member of a group whose reason for existing is to promote ideas that are intrinsically violent, isn’t that a pretty good reason to suspect they’re capable of violence? Isn’t it more likely that groups like that will be harboring violent individuals and attracting them and enabling them?
The empirical evidence does not show that. In fact, when you look at extremist violence in the United States, the average annual death toll is somewhere around 100. Usually it’s much less than that. Obviously there are outlying cases like Oklahoma City and 9/11, but for the most part, this is a very low level of violence compared to the 15,000 homicides we have each year. So it’s not true—or not demonstrably true—that someone with a particular ideology is more likely to be violent than someone who doesn’t have that ideology. That’s why my reform proposal is, “Let’s focus on the violent people rather than the people with bad ideas.” Because there are lots of people with bad ideas.
“Focusing on violent people” seems like kind of a no-brainer. Isn’t law enforcement always pretty focused on violent people?
Unfortunately half of the violent crime in the United States goes unsolved. That includes more than a third of the murders and 60 percent of the rapes. So serious violent crime isn’t being addressed. We have 5,000 murderers going free every year because we’re not putting our resources into finding them, and instead we’re spending all our time looking at people with bad ideas, looking for the 10 or 15 who are going to do something about it. I would argue that’s the wrong way to go about it.
It sounds like you’re saying that the ideology that terrorists hold up to justify their violent acts are a red herring for law enforcement—that the main thing about these terrorists is not that they have extremist views, but that they’re criminals who like violence.
Even when you see large-scale attacks like the ones that have happened in Paris and Brussels, almost inevitably what they find is that the people responsible come out of criminal networks. These are people who obtain their weapons not from some terrorist group in the Middle East or elsewhere, but the same way any criminal in the area receives them.
But if you ask these nations, “Where is illegal firearms trafficking on your list of priorities?” you’ll find out it’s pretty far down. Terrorism is really high, on the other hand. But by not focusing on the illegal firearms tracking, they miss the terrorism by instead focusing on what people are saying and posting on Twitter.
So how did the FBI zero in on the groups that you infiltrated in the ’90s? You’re saying that, even though these were white supremacist groups, their white supremacist ideas were not the thing that made you suspicious of them?
We took out a map of Los Angeles and said, “There was a racist attack here; there was a racist attack there; there’s a person associated with the racist movement who was arrested with a trunk full of illegal firearms here.” It’s not rocket science. You’re not trying to divine the future, which is what the radicalization theory is doing.
The “radicalization theory” is the post–9/11 idea that we can locate and identify violent extremists by monitoring people who associate with extremist groups and express extremist ideas?
Right. That’s why the FBI investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev went awry, because they were using this flawed model of what makes somebody dangerous, they misinterpreted the evidence that they had. Similarly, with Omar Mateen in Orlando. Or Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood. You go down the list. David Headley. These people were investigated but determined not to be threats, even though they had been involved in illegal activity.
I remember reading that after the marathon bombing in Boston, the authorities concluded that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been involved in a triple murder.
Yeah. What they were looking at was, Has he said radical things? Has he associated with radical groups? Rather than Is he involved in violent acts? He’d been involved in domestic violence. He’d been arrested for domestic violence. And then, right, in 2011, shortly after the FBI closes its investigation saying he’s no longer a threat, he kills three people, according to what the FBI believes today. And then it’s another two years before he then engages in the Boston Marathon bombing conspiracy. Solving that triple homicide would have been an easy way of preventing that bombing that would have also made the Waltham community feel more safe.
It sounds like what you’re warning against is applying the FBI’s post–9/11 theory of Islamist terrorism to right-wing domestic terrorism.
Yeah. And we can start even with that term: Islamist. Many of the white supremacist groups are Christian. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance—they call themselves the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and their symbol is a burning cross. Many other groups call themselves Christian nationalists. But we would never call that “Christianism.” We would never talk about “radical Christian extremism.” And the reason is we know the label “Christian” applies to millions of people who have nothing to do with this fringe group of extremists.
So are you saying that violent terrorists who’ve pledged allegiance to two totally different ideologies have more in common with each other than with the nonviolent people who subscribe to the same ideology they do?
That captures a lot of what I’m saying. I mean, I don’t pretend there aren’t the Tim McVeighs and the Mohammad Attas who are out there working in a large group of people in a broader conspiracy. And it’s important that the government recognizes that and takes measures to address it. But Tim McVeigh wasn’t going out and giving speeches and writing manifestos that expressed his viewpoint. And if you look at his past, according to what the government believes today, he was involved in violence; he was doing armed robberies and other types of activities to fund his terrorist operation. So the government does have to understand the criminal elements within these groups well enough to infiltrate and interdict those longer, more dangerous plots. But they don’t do that by tracking people’s Twitter pages.