Conspiracies, Extremism, and Violence

Right-Wing Terrorism and Associated Risks to NGOs

Publish Date: 22MAY2024
Security & Geopolitical Analyst: MF
Contributing Authors: TW, GSAT

Right-wing extremism and subsequently terrorism have generally become a credible threat and risk, but polarization and radicalization have turned those threats and risks towards non-governmental organizations. The development and expansion of right-wing extremism over the past decade has changed the threat landscape for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially as they can be connected to conspiratorial thinking or face incidental risks of violence in the United States and Europe. Extremism poses physical threats in two ways. Terrorism that directly targets NGOs over their funding by governments or connection to certain political and cultural causes is plausible. In addition, the spread of conspiracies involving NGOs make them credible targets for vigilante violence. Combined, this significantly increases the risks that NGOs face within the United States, and organizations need to incorporate these issues into their decision making.

Right-Wing Terrorism: A Contextual Review

Terrorism is defined as politically motivated violence or the threat of violence against noncombatants to spread fear for policy change. This is true despite the specific motivation of each individual or group. Right-wing terrorism, though, is motivated by anti-government extremism, white nationalism, and cultural preservation. These motivations are often intermixed. For example, the most well-known anti-government attack was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996. Timothy McVeigh was motivated by the recent federal storming of a religious compound, but he also had a history of being connected to white nationalist groups. Internationally, the attacks by Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011 and the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019 were motivated by opposition to Muslim immigration changing the Christian nature of Europe and New Zealand, and they were motivated by opposition to perceived global government control. Several attacks, such as the Charleston church shooting in 2015 and El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019 sought to create racial tension and war.

Domestic Terrorism Locations, 2010-21, Source: GAO

Related to all of these interconnected ideas is accelerationism, bringing about such discord and problems that outright conflict will ensue. This is because right-wing terrorists often believe that “progress” is in fact the destruction of their traditions and culture. So, they want to cause sufficient problems that the government over responds or civil war occurs (what terrorism scholar Louis Richardson referred to as the “reaction” motivation). Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware described it as such, “Fomenting divisiveness and polarization through violent attacks on racial minorities, Jews, liberals, foreign interlopers, and power elites and thereby producing a cataclysmic collapse of the existing order and provoking a second civil war, accordingly, is accelerationism’s stock-in-trade” (God, Guns, and Sedition, p. 4).

Data on right-wing terrorism shows a concerning rise of the right-wing variety in the United States and Europe, but particularly in the US. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has looked at the data for the past thirty years, and they have been able to parse out trends within this. First, since 2016, the data shows an increase in right-wing terrorism primarily because of conspiracy theories and online radicalization (discussed below). The Council on Foreign Relations argued explicitly, “The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing government ‘lockdowns’ in many jurisdictions provide renewed impetus to extremists across the far-right spectrum, offering perceived proof for many of their conspiracy theories and leading to spikes in online radicalization.” Second, the years of 2020-21 together had almost 200 incidents of terrorism, and data from the Anti-Defamation League shows that between 2016-22 about 45% of terrorist attacks in the US were from right-wing extremists. Finally, the CSIS data shows, “between 2015 and 2020, the largest percentage of targets (42 percent) were against private individuals—such as African Americans and Latinos—and locations associated with them.”

Despite all of these developments in right-wing terrorism and their motivations, NGOs might not understand why they could suddenly become targeted by these groups. Terrorism by definition is a political phenomenon, and NGOs intentionally or not also operate in the political space. A terrorist’s targeting imperative could be explained by their perception that NGOs have become associated with the political entity they oppose. There are two major reasons why right-wing terrorists might consider NGOs as being associated with that political entity. First, state and federal governments fund a significant number of NGOs both domestically and internationally. That funding could be perceived as operating on behalf of those governments (whether true or not). Second, right-wing terrorists could view NGOs as representing causing that they oppose. For example, certain conservative and right-wing groups have accused NGOs of using DHS funds to help undocumented immigrants. As mentioned above, immigration issues have directly led to violent attacks.

Percentage of US Terrorist Attacks/Plots Related to Demonstrations, 1994-2021

Finally, another reason that NGOs could become targeted is their participation in or support for various protest movements. According to CSIS, only 2% of domestic terrorist attacks/plots occurred at demonstrations. However, “this portion rose to 47 percent in 2020 and 53 percent in 2021.” Due to this, major metropolitan areas of the US, such as New York, LA, DC, and Seattle, are becoming “focal points of domestic terrorism, where extremists from opposing sides square off against each other and against law enforcement agencies.” NGOs often participate in electoral processes and even protests, and as the data demonstrates, right-wing terrorists are increasingly attacking those gathering. During the 2024 election and after, it is credible that such extremists will target major protests over political issues in this contentious period. 

Conspiracies and Vigilante Violence

There is a long history of right-wing conspiracies in the US going back to the John Birch Society during the early years of the Cold War. This was the group of anti-communists that believed there was a mass conspiracy within the US government, and they even accused President Eisenhower of secretly being a communist. Mainstream conservatives would break with the John Birch Society when William F. Buckley actively opposed conspiracies and antisemitism. However, a contingent of right-wing conspiracists would remain through the rest of the Cold War and into the 21st century.

The John Birch Society saw communism everywhere, and they promoted major conspiracies in 20th century America.

This would greatly expand during the Obama administration for various reasons, and former President Trump would promote several conspiracies during that time and following his presidency. These include “birtherism” (that Obama is not an American citizen), “deep state” (hidden and powerful people in the CIA, FBI, etc. control the US government instead of elected officials), and “Stop the Steal” (the idea that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump). Importantly, conspiracy theories are not just found in right-wing circles, and the belief in them tends to correlate with the politics of the subject of the conspiracy. For example, left-wing people tend to believe that conservative billionaires are behind certain right-wing movements while right-wing people tend to believe certain liberal billionaires are behind certain left-wing movements (Koch brothers vs. George Soros).

Of course, the most prominent and impactful conspiracy online is QAnon, which is closely followed by right-wing extremists. “Q” was a poster on 4chan who claimed to be a government official with “Q” clearance. QAnon believers hold that Western governments are secretly run by the “deep state” that is made up of Satanic pedophiles. They further believe that former President Trump will round up and charge these Satanic pedophiles in an event called “The Storm.”

Such beliefs in right-wing conspiracies online have led to real-world physical violence. The most infamous of these incidents is Pizzagate. According to this conspiracy, the Democratic Party elites held child sex slaves in a Washington, DC pizza parlor (Comet Ping Pong). In December 2016, Edgar Welch drove from North Carolina to the pizza parlor, bringing a firearm to free the children being held there. Welch would fire the gun in the restaurant to convince the employees to give him access to the chamber. However, this online conspiracy was completely false, and when Welch realized that, he turned himself over to the police (later being sentenced to four years in prison). Other incidents of conspiracies leading to real-world violence include the destruction of 5G infrastructure in the UK and violent attacks/protests by the Boogaloo Bois over the potential for a second American civil war.

The local DC pizzeria that conspiracists claimed had children used in a pedophile ring.

Conspiracy theories may seem nonsensical and farfetched, but they are not inherently threats to NGOs. Rather, it is how those conspiracies can develop further that could create risks of violence. For example, it is entirely plausible that NGOs that promote democracy and election integrity could become wrapped up in conspiracies about “election fraud” in the US and Europe even if they do not work there. Beliefs about Bill Gates and his objectives with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lead to general conspiratorial thinking about NGOs seen as part of the elites’ plans for “population control” and gaining power, what is termed the Great Reset. The Great Reset Initiative by the World Economic Forum was interpreted in right-wing conspiracy circles as global elites attempting to control the world through environmental regulations and population control (akin to the conspiracy about the UN’s Agenda 21).

That is where NGOs come into play. In 2021, a video spread over social media claiming Gates supported eliminating three billion people to save the planet. The quote is false, but it shows how humanitarian aid organizations can be connected to conspiracies about leftist causes. Part of the conspiracy also holds that Gates wanted to use the coronavirus vaccine to impose forced sterilization on the population. Should a violent threat actor like Edgar Welch take these conspiracies seriously and believe that global elites are using NGOs to enforce population control, engage in election fraud, or are part of the deep state, then it is credible that NGOs could be targeted with vigilante violence. A critical factor of this is that many NGOs inadvertently are associated with left-wing causes that easily fold into conspiracies, and their general international presence can lead to beliefs of a global design by elites (i.e., donors and board members). While NGOs cannot stop such conspiracies from spreading, they can prepare to deal with the risks and threats from them.

Key to Managing the Problem

When dealing with the problem of right-wing extremism and potential violence, the key is monitoring the relevant groups and online communities. Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. These online communities are constantly changing, and those changes impact how radicalization will occur. For example, the Boogaloo Bois essentially started as an online joke, so did the “OK” hand signal as an indicator of white supremacy. Many NGO security teams have strong connections for human intelligence in places like South America and Africa, but they do not spend time monitoring online threats from right-wing extremist groups and typically misunderstand their language and symbols. The best way to manage these news threats and risks is to have appropriate intelligence monitoring and spending time in those spaces to understand those groups. In addition, it is the best way to get an early warning if conspiracies are developing that involve the NGOs or knowing the most salient issues to assess the likelihood of an NGO becoming connected to the conspiracy.


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