By David Perry
The publication of Prof. Arie Perliger’s latest book, “American Zealots,” couldn’t feel more timely.
Arriving Aug. 18 to a nation divided by politics, protest and pandemic, the book examines the American far-right’s subculture of domestic terror and its reemergence in recent years.
Perliger, director of security studies in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies, oversees the largest database of right-wing extremist violent incidents in the U.S., a mountain of facts and figures chronicling more than 5,000 attacks since 1990.
Before arriving at UMass Lowell in 2016, Perliger was the director of terrorism studies and associate professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
In 2003, Perliger began his teaching career at the University of Haifa in Israel, where he also earned his Ph.D. in political science (specializing in terrorism and political violence security policy and politics), as well as his master’s and bachelor’s degrees.
We caught up with him to chat about his research and about emerging trends in political extremism in these polarized times.
Q. What did your research for the book reveal?
A. In the book, I analyze the historical roots, characteristics, tactics, rhetoric and organization of the violent American far right. I also examine the current and future trajectory of the movements that comprise this subculture. I utilize a comprehensive dataset of more than 5,000 attacks and their perpetrators in order to explore key trends in American right-wing terrorism and identify some important and counterintuitive characteristics. For example, a state's ethnic and racial diversity is the best predictor for the geographical distribution of far-right violence. The number of attacks is positively correlated with the proportional size of minority populations (African Americans, Hispanic and Asian Americans) in each state. Thus, blue states, which are more diverse, also experience higher levels of violence, even when controlling for other factors.
The size and the increase rate in Hispanic and Asian American proportions of the state's population are also strong predictors of the level of violence. I also explain how and why there is a substantial increase in far-right attacks against religious sites and LGBTQ targets, delve into the spontaneous nature of many far-right violent incidents and examine how this can be used to distinguish between different types of perpetrators. Lastly, I use hundreds of primary sources to gain better insights into the current discourse of the American far right, how groups influence each other's rhetoric and explain the diffusion of ideological narratives and how changes in rhetoric impact target selection.
Q. With the country in a state of deep division, “American Zealots” seems particularly timely. How can your research help us understand the consequences of political polarization?
A. In the book, I highlight how political polarization facilitates further violence. For example, I show that the composition of political institutions is associated with the level of violence and explain how polarization empowers members of far-right groups.
Q. For a long time, many Americans thought extremism was Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic State. We didn't hear as much about homegrown terrorist groups until recent years. Where were all of these right-wing groups?
A. The American far-right groups never disappeared, but were less active until 2008. But a combination of factors facilitates their reemergence, including an increase in political polarization, the election of an African American president, the proliferation of social media which helps groups to disseminate ideological narratives, as well as the economic recession and increase in legislation that was perceived by many in the far right as unconstitutional (gun control, land appropriation, environmental regulations).
Q. Is it true you maintain the largest database of right-wing extremist violent incidents in the U.S.? If so, do students help you maintain this database, and what research purpose does it serve?
A. Indeed. There is no other dataset that covers more than 5,000 attacks since 1990. It includes attacks against property and those without fatalities, which usually receive less attention. I'm grateful to a group of dedicated undergraduate and graduate students at UML, who helped in expanding and improving the dataset. I believe that the dataset will continue to help to explore various facets of far-right extremism and violence, as well as changes over time in the way it is manifested.
Q. Your research focuses on far-right extremism. What about extremism at the other end of the spectrum?
A. I study different manifestations of terrorism. For example, I'm currently working with one of my doctoral students on research focusing on violent environmental groups in the U.S. In the past I also researched nationalist, left-wing and religious groups.
Q. How do you characterize newer groups like boogaloo and antifa, and what do they say about radicalism in 2020 America?
A. The "boogaloo" movement is comprised of individuals and small groups who are inspired by libertarian, white supremacist and anti-government sentiments. Its members promote various conspiracy theories that focus on the federal government's plan to undermine civil liberties, constitutional rights (with focus on the Second Amendment) and various freedoms. Many of them also seem to believe that they can exploit the current social and economic crisis (resulting from demonstrations against police brutality and COVID-19) in order to start a second American civil war. They believe that such a civil war will allow them to promote white supremacy policies as well as counter the powers of the central government. In the short term, their main goal is to prevent what they see as the implementation of new federal intrusive policies, such as new environmental and public safety regulations and policies that promote more racial diversity.
So far, there are no indications of central leadership, coordination or formal organizational apparatus. Some of the major activists are former or current members of militia groups, such as the “Three Percenters.” Its members are usually communicating via basic social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit and YouTube. They are currently not using more secure and advanced platforms such as Telegram or Gab.
Most of the online boogaloo groups were created just in the last four or five months, basically when the COVID-19 crisis erupted. Facebook eliminated many of their groups in the last couple of weeks. We will need to see if they will migrate to other platforms like other groups did when their access to mainstream social media platforms was blocked. It’s important to note that while some members were engaged in planning violent attacks, such efforts are still restricted to individuals or small groups.
As for antifa, currently there is no evidence that the group was involved in any planned campaign of violent attacks.
Q. When and how did your interest in terrorism begin?
A. I actually became interested in terrorism and political violence shortly before 9/11. I was always curious about extremist ideologies and how people are being mobilized to adopt such views, which are so far from my own views. However, while most of my colleagues focused on the more visible types of terrorism (such as Jihadi terrorism), I was always attracted to study the less "popular" violent groups. For example, my first book focused on Jewish Orthodox terrorist groups in Israel, and since 2011 I began to focus on the American far right. Despite the fact that at that time, most experts regarded it as a minor and insignificant threat.