on Domestic Terrorism with Arie Perliger, author of "American Zealots"

Arie Perliger got a $998,599 federal grant to study right-wing terrorism over three years.

By David Perry

Prof. Arie Perliger’s latest book arrived last August, as if a playbill synchronized with current events. The Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol was still months away, but “American Zealots” all but foretold the plot and cast that would descend upon the seat of democracy. No one, he says, should have been surprised. 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. 

Q. As someone who has dedicated significant time and energy to studying terror, how surprised were you by the Jan. 6 insurrection? 

A. The storming of the Capitol was a colossal failure of our law enforcement. nothing that happened on Jan.6 should have been a surprise. warning signs were all around. militia leaders declared in their own voice, again and again, their violent intentions. In addition, the FBI and local agencies reported intensification in the militancy, frustration and anger in the media platforms utilized by far-right groups. Similar events in the past had escalated to violent clashes. and the increasing toxic rhetoric from the mainstream political ranks also had clear potential to spark a violent reaction. was this the opening salvo in something much bigger? while i don’t expect to see in the near future similar events to what we witnessed on Jan. 6, I have significant concerns that local militia cells or local chapters of other far-right movements may engage in plotting and perpetrating violent operations. Especially since they experience increased feelings of anger, frustration, marginalization and see themselves under siege. 

Q. Why is this happening and what is driving it? 

A. They truly believe that the U.S. government is further developing tyrannical practices, and engaging in undermining their constitutional rights and civil liberties. Many of them also believe that the U.S. government is controlled by foreign elements or a cabal of elites, thus they feel empowered to delegitimize the U.S. government as a source of authority. 

Q. What is the most disturbing aspect of this? 

A. The prominence of law enforcement and military veterans within the new militia groups — which helps the militias construct a more legitimate image and branding and facilitates their efforts to mobilize support, especially as they emphasize the fact that their members are individuals who risked their lives to protect the nation or their communities. Thus, it is more difficult for authorities to address these groups as potential domestic security threats and gain public support to promote countermeasures. Second, the popularity of the militias among a population with significant military and security experience may indicate their potential ability to execute sophisticated and impactful operations. 

Q. What can be done to stop it? 

A. There are several long-term policies that may be effective in curbing the rise in far-right violence. here are three: 

  1. Studies have identified that veterans are one of the main reservoirs of recruits for militias. Authorities need to identify how to better integrate former military into the civilian environment and thus make them less vulnerable to recruitment. 
  2. In the past, the use of civil lawsuits for damages by victims of far-right violence proved to be a highly effective tool in the fight against the far-right. Such lawsuits led to the collapse of the “Aryan Nations” and Robert Shelton’s “United Klans of America” and others. and 
  3. Since many of the militias seem to shift their focus to state and local targets, it is imperative to further invest in local law enforcement training and education in the ideological pillars, operational characteristics and organizational structure of militias and related groups.