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Local Domestic Terrorism

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Heidi Howe
August 16, 2021

Domestic terrorism is in our ranks. The United States is deeply divided, filled with political polarization and conspiracy theories. Extremist and domestic terrorism groups thrive in this environment, stoking fear and waiting for opportunities to act. According to Christopher Wray, Director of the FBI, white supremacists—and right-wing extremists generally—are the greatest threat to domestic security. Increasingly, extremist groups are recruiting military veterans and law enforcement. Law enforcement leaders need to know the capabilities of the groups they are up against, including those within their agencies.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) defines terrorism as the, “Use, or threat, of violence by non-state actors in order to achieve political goals and create a broad psychological impact.” Terrorists fall into four categories: right-wing, left-wing, religious and ethnonationalist. This article focuses on right-wing and left-wing terrorism.

According to the CSIS, right-wing terrorism is the, “Use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities whose goal may include racial or ethnic supremacy, opposition to government authority, anger at women and outrage against certain policies.” Left-wing terrorism comprises, “Entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism and colonialism, pure environmental or animal rights issues, support pro-communist or pro-social beliefs or support a decentralized social and political system.”

Trends in United States Terrorism

The United States experienced 893 terrorist incidents between January 1994 and May 2020. Data reveals three notable trends. First, right-wing activity accounted for the majority of attacks in the United States. Second, right-wing attacks and plots have grown in the past six years. In 2019 right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of United States terrorist attacks and plots, committing over 90% of the attacks and plots between January and May 2020. Third, although religious extremists were responsible for the most fatalities, right-wing perpetrators were responsible for over half of annual fatalities in 14 of the 21 years tracked by CSIS.


Religious terrorists killed the most people in the United States. Of the 3,086 killed, the majority were killed on September 11, 2001 where 2,977 people died. Right-wing attacks caused 335 deaths, left-wing attacks caused 22 deaths and ethnonationalist terrorists caused 5 deaths.


The FBI, has compiled several reports, revealing how white supremacists infiltrate agencies and recruit from within. In a 2006 intelligence assessment, the FBI described “ghost skins” used among white supremacists to avoid displays of their beliefs while advancing their cause. One skinhead group encouraged ghost skins to seek employment with law enforcement agencies.

Studies, investigations and research papers reveal active and former military and police are a common target for right-wing extremist recruitment. The Oath Keepers is a militant group drawing thousands of members from military and law enforcement communities. They see themselves as, “Revolutionaries in waiting.” The leader, Stewart Rhodes, defended the former president and says he protects the country against “insurrection.” The Southern Poverty Law Center received a leaked database showing the group’s ranks were filled with military and law enforcement personnel.

Relevant Events

Harney County, Oregon: In 2015, Harney County Sheriff David Ward was threatened with a take-over of his agency. Ammon Bundy and Ryan Payne, participants in the 2014 Bunkerville stand-off, demanded Ward block the federal government from sending a father and son to prison on federal arson charges. A 41-day standoff ensued at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where the town was filled with anti-government extremists and militias, forcing him to turn his jail into a fortress.

Douglas County, Nevada: In August 2020, Douglas County, Nevada, Sheriff Dan Coverley told his local library board of trustees, “Due to your support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the obvious lack of support or trust with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, please do not feel the need to call 911 for help.” Thirty individuals came to protest the sheriff. Over 1,000 counter-protesters arrived, harassing, intimidating and assaulting BLM protesters.

Wilmington, North Carolina: Three officers of the Wilmington Police Department were fired in June 2020 after a random review of body camera footage revealed officers stating they looked forward to a civil war and shooting black people.

Northern Nevada: A 2020 report on right-wing violence in Nevada listed active groups, including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Boogaloo Bois and the Oath Keepers. The report provided detailed information on Nevada laws and its Constitution prohibiting unlicensed militias within the state. A copy of the report was sent to all law enforcement leaders in northern Nevada, putting them on notice.

Washington, D.C.: Since the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 31 police officers from 12 different states were implicated in the attacks.


Law enforcement leaders can no longer ignore what is happening in their agencies. They must be proactive, investigating and removing individuals who place our communities and agencies at risk. Public trust hangs in the balance. Former FBI Director, James Comey said, “Much of our history is not pretty.” Recent events send a message that law enforcement is sympathetic to far-right groups, harkening back to darker times. The scales of justice should represent balance, and law enforcement should be impartial and objective, not blind to what is happening.

Author: Heidi Howe is a retired Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Captain, ran for public office in 2018 and currently chairs the Legislative Affairs Committee for the American Jail Association. She recently graduated from the University of San Diego with a Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership.

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