The rising worry over far-right terrorism

A man stands accused of targeting Atlanta for a mass shooting to spark a race war. We should worry.
Federal authorities have accused Mark Adams Prieto, 58 of Prescott, Ariz., with plotting a mass shooting at a concert in May in Atlanta. Prieto, seen above in undercover photos by the FBI, allegedly hoped the shooting would spark a "race war" ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Credit: U.S. Department of Justice

Credit: U.S. Department of Justice

Federal authorities have accused Mark Adams Prieto, 58 of Prescott, Ariz., with plotting a mass shooting at a concert in May in Atlanta. Prieto, seen above in undercover photos by the FBI, allegedly hoped the shooting would spark a "race war" ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

The alleged would-be terrorist had only reached New Mexico on his cross-country voyage when he was stopped by law enforcement on Interstate 40. Leaving Arizona, he had packed his car with seven firearms. His target, according to a Department of Justice news release from his mid-June indictment, was a concert in Atlanta, where his intention was to incite a race war before the 2024 presidential election by carrying out a mass shooting of African Americans and other minorities.

Atlanta was the scene of an attack in April when an intruder attempted to crash through the protective barrier of the FBI’s field office. A South Carolina man arrested at the scene reportedly had posted numerous conspiracy theories online, including ideas frequently shared by Q-Anon adherents. The incident followed a similar attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati in August 2022, after the raid on former President Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago. Atlanta, of course, is no stranger to far-right terrorism. Twenty-eight years ago, a bomb exploded in Centennial Park during the Olympic Games, killing one person and injuring more than a hundred others.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

The latest incident is likely to reignite an old debate over which ideology poses the most serious domestic terrorist threat in the United States today: the far-left or the far-right? Like many other contentious issues in an election year, this has become a highly charged, partisan debate with some identifying Black Lives Matter, antifa and anarchists as the most worrisome threat and others white supremacists and white nationalists and various racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic anti-LGBTQ and xenophobic causes. Significantly, both extremes have strong anti-government elements, as reflected in recent polls that showed roughly a third of Democrats and Republicans — the highest percent ever — believe that in certain circumstances violence against the government could be justified. Atlanta, in fact, has become a focus of far-left extremists who seek to block the continued construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center.

But despite this intersection of animus to government, these two extremes have vastly different capacities for violence and pose significantly different threats. For example, no recent lethal mass shootings — the most frequent manifestation of terrorism in the United States today — have been linked to the far-left. Yet, attacks from violent, far-right extremists have been as sustained as they have been lethally consequential. The 2015 attack at the historic Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., tragically claimed nine lives. In 2018, a xenophobic gunman opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11. In 2019, another xenophobe murdered 23 at a Walmart in El Paso. In 2022 at the Tops supermarket in an African-American community in Buffalo, a gunman killed 10 persons. And, there was a similar incident at a supermarket in Jacksonville, Fla., in August that killed three people.

Less vigilance on the part of law enforcement might have resulted in Atlanta being added to the list. Moreover, as we document in our new book,God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America,” this tragic list is just a slice of the violence attributed to far-right extremists.

Against this litany of carnage from the far-right, only one incident of great significance can be attributed to the far-left: the attack in June 2017 by a person claiming to be a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who opened fire at a Republican team practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game in Alexandria, Va. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was gravely wounded, before his Capitol Police detail returned fire, killing the gunman. “Our lives were saved by the Capitol Hill police. Had they not been there it would’ve been a massacre,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., reflected.

The only other recent noteworthy incidents from the far-left include a botched firebombing of a Tacoma, Wash., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in 2019 (the perpetrator, a well-known, elderly anarchist, was killed by police), and an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh in June 2022. Far-left militancy has risen in the post-Oct. 7 era, too, with Jewish communities often finding themselves the targets of hate crimes, including vandalism and harassment, often by masked extremists spuriously claiming simply to oppose Zionism.

Other attacks where alleged far-left perpetrators have been identified include the tragic March 2023 shooting perpetrated by a transgender man at the Covenant School in Nashville and an August 2019 shooting at a bar in Dayton. But neither can be categorized as acts of terrorism. Despite the personal circumstances of the attackers, and regardless of their own private political views, there has never been an indication the attacks were perpetrated directly and explicitly in service to an ideological cause or for a political reason — the fundamental requirement of any definition of “terrorism.”

Data compiled by nonpartisan and nongovernmental organizations also point to the concerning rise in far-right terrorism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2023, all 17 extremist killings in the United States were perpetrated by far-right extremists. In 2022, all 25 extremist-related killings were carried out by white supremacists. And, indeed, from 2013-2022, 75% of all politically-motivated homicides in the United States were perpetrated by white supremacists or other violent far-right extremists. Left-wing extremists perpetrated just 4%. Because there is no domestic terrorism statute, the federal government does not collect statistics on acts that would otherwise be considered domestic terrorism, but scholars funded by the National Institute of Justice recently found that “Since 1990, far-right extremists have committed far more ideologically motivated homicides than far-left or radical Islamist extremists, including 227 events that took more than 520 lives. In this same period, far-left extremists committed 42 ideologically motivated attacks that took 78 lives.”

Perhaps the most worrying element of the violent far-right is the terrorist threat it poses to institutions traditionally cherished by American conservatives, including the Republican Party and American law enforcement. Since the 2020 election, Republicans have repeatedly been targeted by the violent far-right, never more overtly than on Jan. 6, 2021, when a gallows was built outside the U.S. Capitol intended, of course, for a conservative, evangelical, Republican vice president. Three years later, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley sought Secret Service protection because of the volume of threats against her, issued largely by the violent far-right.

As for the threat to law enforcement, the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history, the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168, was launched against the federal law enforcement agencies seen as responsible for the raid at Waco two years earlier. Even more damningly, the deadliest act of violence in the summer of 2020 — that year that became defined by far-left threats to American police officers, primarily symbolized by the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct, which was torched in a terrorist act — was in fact perpetrated by a far-right adherent of the “boogaloo” anti-government movement, an active-duty Airman who murdered a security guard and sheriff’s deputy in California.

The far-left has frequently posed a terrorism threat throughout U.S. history, never as often and consequentially as during the 1960s and 1970s, when groups such as the Weather Underground conducted widespread (albeit largely non-lethal) bombing campaigns in major cities. But today, the primary domestic terrorism threat unequivocally emanates from the far-right, primarily involving white supremacists and neo-Nazis. A different threat, no less violent but perhaps less homicidal, comes from the extreme left, given the absence of mass shootings attributable to that extreme of the political spectrum. Of course, that does not mean we ignore either threat, but law enforcement and those responsible for our security must understand the different dynamics, tactics and targeting that both extremes pose. In this way, resources can be prudently and flexibly allocated to counter each of these dissimilar extremist dangers.

Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware are the authors of “God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America.”