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 manpower 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, but 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.”
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.
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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 schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were targeted, including the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova University, Bryn Mawr College, 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 and threats of violence in New Jersey, including the presence of neo-Nazi network the Base. Authorities arrested six members of the group last month ahead of a planned pro-gun rally in Virginia, alleging at least three of them plotted to kill antifascist activists. No violent incidents were reported at the rally.
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.
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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 violent white supremacist activity are 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.”