Private Eyes in the Sky
How Commercial Satellites Are Transforming Intelligence
Radical ideas that are today considered right-wing—white supremacism, violent antigovernment libertarianism, Christian extremism—have played starring roles in the American story since the very beginning. For most of the postwar era, however, the far right has mostly stayed underground, relegated to the fringes of American society. It never disappeared, of course, and in the early 1990s, it seemed poised for a resurgence after a series of confrontations that pitted the authorities against antigovernment militias and religious extremists—a phase that peaked with the 1995 terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City by a white supremacist, antigovernment extremist, which killed 168 people.
By the dawn of the new millennium, however, those events seemed to be in the rearview. In the years following the Oklahoma City attack, a feared wave of right-wing violence did not materialize. If anything, the bloodshed seemed to further marginalize the far right.
Fast-forward two decades, and the picture looks very different. The past few years have witnessed an explosion of far-right violence and the normalization of the extremist ideas that drive it. In the United States in 2019, 48 people were killed in attacks carried out by domestic violent extremists, 39 of which were carried out white supremacists, making it the most lethal year for such terrorism in the country since 1995. In 2020, the number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks in the United States reached its highest level since 1994; two-thirds of those were attributable to white supremacists and other far-right extremists. In March of this year, the FBI had more than 2,000 open investigations into domestic violent extremism, roughly double the number it had open in the summer of 2017. Also in 2020, authorities nationwide arrested nearly three times as many white supremacists as they did in 2017. And last year, reports to the Anti-Defamation League of white supremacist propaganda—in the form of fliers, posters, banners, and stickers posted in locations such as parks or college campuses—hit an all-time high of more than 5,000, nearly twice the number reported in the previous year. This trend is not limited to the United States. Although jihadis still pose the biggest terrorism threat in Europe, the growth of far-right violence is increasing. The top British counterterrorism official, Neil Basu, recently described right-wing extremism as the United Kingdom’s “fastest growing threat,” and in Germany, violent crimes motivated by right-wing extremism rose by ten percent from 2019 to 2020.
Amid this increase in violence, extreme right-wing ideas were becoming mainstream and were normalized, with far-right political parties gaining representation in more than three dozen national parliaments and in the European Parliament. In the United States, Donald Trump’s electoral success was both a cause and an effect of this trend. His 2016 presidential campaign and his tenure in the White House were steeped in populist, nationalist, nativist rhetoric, which the far right perceived as a legitimation of their views. By the time the “Stop the Steal” campaign sought to overturn the legitimate results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election (with Trump’s explicit encouragement), extremist ideas had taken center stage in American politics. The increase in far-right violence and the normalization of right-wing extremism together culminated in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol: a brutal assault fueled by far-right ideas that had gone mainstream.
The growth of the extreme right has been driven by many factors, including a reactionary backlash to demographic changes and a rising belief in conspiracy theories. It has been further accelerated by the megaphone of social media, as new online channels for amplifying and circulating ideas have significantly broadened the influence of far-right propaganda and disinformation, forged global connections across groups and movements, and created new ways for extremism to seep into the mainstream.
Ironically, however, it was another form of extremism—and Washington’s reaction to it—that in many ways set in motion the resurgence of the far right. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, al Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream. Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far right had been trying to stoke for decades.
But it wasn’t just the terrorists who gave right-wing extremists a boost: so, too, did the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which involved the near-complete pivoting of intelligence, security, and law enforcement attention to the Islamist threat, leaving far-right extremism to grow unfettered.
In recent years, right-wing radicals in the United States and Europe have made clear that they are willing and able to embrace the tactics of terrorism; they have become, in some ways, a mirror image of the jihadis whom they despise.
Western governments must act decisively to combat this threat. Launching a new “war on terror,” however, is not the way to do so. The fight against jihadi violence went awry in many ways and produced negative unintended consequences—including by aiding the rise of the far right, which now poses the gravest terrorism risk. In the fight against this new threat, policymakers need to avoid repeating the very mistakes that contributed to the dangerous new reality.
The modern far right exists on a broad spectrum and includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists, militias opposed to federal governments, self-described “Western chauvinist” groups such as the Proud Boys, “alt-right” provocateurs, conspiracy theorists, and misogynists who call themselves “incels” (short for “involuntary celibates”). What links these disparate elements is a conspiratorial worldview and a shared adherence to antidemocratic and illiberal ideas. A subset of them also support—at least in theory—the use of mass violence against civilian and government targets.
Although their ideas and iconography draw inspiration from the Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and other dead or moribund movements, today’s American and European far-right groups are more firmly rooted in much more recent developments. In the early 1980s, episodes of far-right terrorism struck France, Italy, and Germany as part of a rising neofascist and neo-Nazi movement in western Europe. Those attacks were followed by a wave of neo-Nazi activity that swept through Germany and eastern Europe during the period of rapid social, political, and economic change that took place in the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain and German reunification. This form of radicalism manifested in a violent, racist skinhead youth culture, which celebrated street fighting and attacks on asylum seekers and immigrants.
At around the same time, racist skinhead groups began to emerge in North America, too, some of them linked to the hardcore music scene. In the United States, another source of far-right and antigovernment extremism was a small but dedicated contingent of Vietnam War veterans who set up boot camps to train paramilitary forces, with the goal of establishing a white separatist homeland. As the availability of assault weapons and tactical equipment expanded in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, militias built staggering arsenals and grew bolder in confronting authorities. A series of high-profile standoffs between radical groups and law enforcement agencies—including at Ruby Ridge, in Idaho, in 1992 and in Waco, Texas, the following year—drew attention to the threat, which had been simmering for years. The Oklahoma City bombing turned the far right into the most pressing issue in national politics, at least for a time.
But instead of being emboldened by the bombing, the far right went further underground in its aftermath. Membership in unlawful militias declined. Militia leaders distanced themselves from the bombers, who had brought unwanted attention to their cause from law enforcement. As the threat seemingly diminished, the far right faded from the public consciousness. Amid the booming economy, technological advancements, and relative peace and prosperity of the late 1990s, terrorism became a low priority for the American public.
That all changed on September 11, 2001. As the country reeled from the attacks, far-right groups saw an opportunity and grabbed it, quickly and easily adapting their messages to the new landscape. A well-resourced Islamophobia industry sprang into action, using a variety of scare tactics to generate hysteria about the looming threat. In Europe, the far right’s imagination was gripped by a conspiracy theory introduced by the British author Bat Ye’or in her 2005 book Eurabia, which argued that the profound demographic changes taking place in European countries were not coincidental. On the contrary, Eurabia suggested, Muslims were orchestrating a revival of the caliphate by replacing white Europeans through immigration and high birthrates. Europe, Ye’or warned, was shifting from a Christian civilization to an Islamic one, and Europeans would soon be subjected to Islamic law, or sharia, forced either to convert or to accept subservient roles.
In this milieu, anti-immigrant sentiment became more mainstream. Far-right political parties and organizations embraced the idea of an Islamic threat, using metaphors and iconography from the Christian Crusades and fifteenth-century pogroms in Europe that targeted Muslims and Jews. In France, the leader of the right-wing National Front, Marine Le Pen, compared groups of Muslims praying on sidewalks outside mosques to Nazi occupiers. The Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders described refugees as an “Islamic invasion.” The British arm of the far-right group Generation Identity linked the fight against multiculturalism to the fifteenth-century efforts of European forces to retake the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim rulers who controlled most of it at the time.
The 9/11 attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism.
By 2015, tens of thousands of people were marching in cities across Europe under the banner of a group called PEGIDA, a German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”—gatherings that sometimes led to violence between demonstrators and antifascist counterprotesters. During the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, the German far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) put up billboards featuring a detail from Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1866 painting The Slave Market, which depicts a naked white woman having her teeth and mouth probed by a dark-skinned, turban-clad man. The posters urged voters to learn from history “so that Europe does not become Eurabia.”
In the United States, rising anti-Muslim sentiment found expression in a successful movement to prevent the building of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York City and in legislation passed in dozens of U.S. states to thwart nonexistent efforts to subject residents to sharia. After the election of the first Black president in U.S. history, in 2008, record-breaking numbers of hate groups emerged. The antigovernment fringe that had gone quiet after the Oklahoma City bombing resurfaced, with calls for insurrection and revolution coming from militias such as the Oath Keepers and movements such as the Three Percenters (whose name was inspired by the false claim that it took only three percent of the American colonists to successfully rise up against the British). Starting in 2014, North America also witnessed a spurt of violent attacks carried out by incels inspired by male supremacist ideology, leading to the deaths of dozens of women, including in mass shootings at a college sorority and a yoga studio and in a vehicle-ramming attack on the streets of Toronto. In 2016, the Proud Boys arrived on the scene, engaging in street brawls and claiming to stand in defense of Western civilization.
In the midst of this explosion of far-right activity, national governments and international organizations remained laser-focused on jihadi terrorism, building new agencies and spending billions of dollars. Far-right extremism was all but ignored, and it was viewed by international organizations as a domestic problem facing individual countries, not as a common global threat.
Of course, jihadi terrorism posed a genuine threat—and still does, especially in conflict-ridden countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where Islamist terror takes the lives of thousands each year. But the global response to the shock of 9/11 was so overblown that it blinded policymakers, security officials, and the broader public to the faster growth of what became, in the United States especially, a much larger threat from far-right extremism. As a result, right-wing terrorist attacks were treated as fringe incidents, rather than as a persistent and growing danger to national security—one that now outstrips jihadi terrorism in terms of the toll on Western societies.
Even the most spectacular and gruesome far-right attacks have failed to galvanize counterterrorism agencies in the West. In Norway in 2011, for example, a far-right extremist named Anders Behring Breivik murdered 77 people, mostly teenagers attending a Labor Party summer camp outside Oslo. Breivik had composed a 1,500-page manifesto in which he railed against Islam, warned about the coming of Eurabia, and cited U.S. anti-Muslim activists nearly 200 times. His assault received a high degree of media attention but was often presented as an anomaly, and Breivik himself was sometimes portrayed as a mentally unhinged mass murderer rather than as a terrorist, even though his violence was explicitly political.
The obsessive focus on the Islamist threat left far-right extremism to grow unfettered.
By every relevant, available measure—the numbers of arrests and convictions, the number and severity of plots, the amount of propaganda circulating, and the number of attacks—right-wing extremism has increased significantly. Globally, deaths from terrorism declined in 2019 for the fifth consecutive year. But in North America, western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, they increased by 709 percent during those five years—a consequence of the roughly 250 percent increase in far-right attacks there. In 2010, there was only one recorded far-right terrorist attack in those places; in 2019, there were 49, which represented nearly half of all terrorist attacks in those places and resulted in 82 percent of all terrorism-related deaths there.
Some may argue that the decline in jihadi extremism merely reflects the efficacy of authorities’ efforts to combat it. But the tremendous imbalance in the resources and efforts directed toward thwarting terrorist plots, with the vast majority going to fight jihadi terrorism, had direct consequences for the success of the far right. In recent congressional testimony, FBI officials noted that despite the massive shift in the nature of the threat, 80 percent of their counterterrorism field agents still focus on international terrorism cases. That misallocation of resources has had an impact: between 9/11 and the end of 2017, two-thirds of violent Islamist plots in the United States were interrupted in the planning phase, compared with less than one-third of violent far-right plots.
The post-9/11 resurgence of far-right violence reflected reactions to changing social conditions, the rise of jihadism, the opportunism of political provocateurs, and the myopia of the war on terrorism. It was also rooted, however, in an intellectual project launched in the late 1960s by a group of French thinkers called the Nouvelle Droite (New Right). Some referred to this group, which included Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye among its founders, as “the Gramscians of the right” because of their adoption of the Marxist Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci’s call to spur revolution not by physical force but by gaining control over how people think, through education and cultural change. They adapted that approach into a concept called “metapolitics,” a term the New Right used to describe their effort to foster ethno-nationalist and anti-immigrant ideas and then introduce them into mainstream thought in ways that would eventually lead to political and social change.
Metapolitics was an exercise in patience, requiring a view of politics as “downstream from culture,” in the words of the late right-wing American activist Andrew Breitbart. In practice, the strategy involved using academic and mainstream media outlets to critique globalization and liberal democratic concepts such as egalitarianism and multiculturalism and argue in favor of ethnic separatism and homogeneity. Such ideas were controversial but influential: in 1978, de Benoist won France’s most coveted intellectual prize, the French Academy’s prestigious Prix de l’Essai.
After nearly 50 years, this long game finally bore fruit. Ideas that had once been relegated to the fringes seeped into the public discourse, helping justify hard-line anti-immigrant policies. In the early years of this century, stridently far-right political parties made substantial gains in national parliamentary elections across Europe, often by giving even the most vapid extremist ideas the veneer of respectability by draping them in the trappings of intellectualism—an approach perfected by the AfD (which was nicknamed “the professor’s party”) and by “alt-right” figures in the United States such as Richard Spencer. Right-wing metapolitics formed a feedback loop, with political ideas eventually flowing back upstream into the culture when, for example, far-right agitators slapped white supremacist slogans and icons onto hip clothing designs, which many young people then wore to seem rebellious and outré on social media.
During the past decade, far-right groups had succeeded enough to move past metapolitics and could embrace more traditional forms of politics, not only by launching political parties but also by putting forward something akin to a grand narrative to unify the disparate parts of the movement: a conspiracy theory about a coming “great replacement” of European and white civilization. Coined by a French scholar in a 2011 book by the same name, the term describes an alleged plot by global and national elites to replace white, Christian, European populations with nonwhite, non-Christian ones. The idea is a kind of greatest hits of right-wing extremism, combining the anti-Muslim ideas of Eurabia, American-style white nationalism, and age-old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish domination.
The conspiracy theory is powerful because it is remarkably flexible. A right-wing extremist can adopt the framework against virtually any perceived threat, be it Jews, Muslims, immigrants, or even white progressives. In 2019, a terrorist in Christchurch, New Zealand, live-streamed his murder of 51 Muslim worshipers in two mosques after writing a manifesto he titled “The Great Replacement.” Less than five months later, a terrorist killed 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso after posting a hate-filled manifesto that warned of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and that claimed white people were being replaced through immigration.
The anti-Muslim propaganda and conspiracy theories that eventually merged into the great-replacement narrative were in many cases inadvertently aided by counterterrorism policies that muddied the distinction between Islamist terrorism and Islam. In the wake of 9/11, counterextremist approaches—such as the so-called Prevent policy in the United Kingdom, or the New York City Police Department’s Muslim surveillance program—targeted ordinary Muslim communities. A full decade after 9/11, the FBI was using Islamophobic training materials that described ordinary Muslims as terrorist sympathizers whose charitable donations were a “funding mechanism for combat.” For far-right activists, such practices seemed to confirm that Islam itself posed an existential and civilizational threat. Such approaches also paved the way for more overtly discriminatory ideas, such as Trump’s musings during the 2016 presidential campaign about building a national database of Muslims and his promise to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
Meanwhile, the global war on terrorism led to military actions across the Middle East that triggered an unprecedented migration crisis in Europe—which in turn energized the far right. After the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, millions of people fled those countries for Europe, creating an influx of Muslims that produced an intense backlash, featuring anti-Muslim marches and hundreds of attacks on refugees and asylum seekers.
Right-wing radicals have become a mirror image of the jihadis whom they despise.
U.S. military actions in the Middle East also drove anti-Muslim sentiment among active-duty troops and in veterans’ communities. Merchandise for sale on websites catering to military veterans helped carry Islamophobic sentiment fostered on the frontlines into civilian life back home. Bumper stickers and T-shirts, for example, allowed American soldiers to proudly identify as “infidels” and displayed Arabic text with the phrase “Stay back 100 meters or you will be shot.”
Against this backdrop, the United States saw the growth of unlawful militias in the antigovernment extremist movement—including some that recruited from active-duty troops and veterans’ communities. Like the returning Vietnam War veterans who had helped launch the white power movement in the 1970s, some veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq returned home with a sense of anger and betrayal. Others grappled with posttraumatic stress, which research suggests can increase one’s vulnerability to extremist recruitment. The dehumanization that soldiers are trained to embrace as a battlefield tactic, for example, may not automatically turn off on one’s reentry into civilian society. And the rhetoric used by far-right extremist groups to recruit members—with appeals to brotherhood, heroism, the defense of one’s people, and a chance to be part of a meaningful cause—echoed the language that had attracted many to enlist in the armed forces in the first place.
The good news is that the upsurge in far-right violence has finally commanded the attention of counterterrorism officials. A scramble to realign resources and assemble expertise is now underway. From the UN Security Council to national parliaments to militaries and security agencies, there are currently dozens of commissions, special task forces, briefings, listening sessions, and investigations taking place across the globe to explore ways to counter the new threat. Some countries have already announced new legislation: Germany, for example, plans to spend one billion euros on 89 specific measures to counter racism and right-wing extremism, and New Zealand’s wide-ranging response to the Christchurch attack includes proposed changes to hate-crime legislation and counterterrorism laws, the establishment of a new ministry for ethnic communities, funding to enhance security for communities particularly threatened by terrorism, and the creation of a new national center for social cohesion and the prevention of extremism.
Changes are afoot in the United States, as well. In October 2020, the Department of Homeland Security’s annual threat assessment finally declared domestic violent extremism to be the most pressing and lethal threat facing the country. A few months later, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol brought that reality into sharp relief. In June of this year, the Biden administration released the country’s first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which emphasizes preventing radicalization by strengthening media literacy skills and building resilience to online disinformation and the need to address the underlying conditions that help fuel domestic extremism, including racism and insufficient gun control.
To fight the far right, leaders will need to abandon the logic that undergirded the war on terror.
This represents a welcome change. But the implementation of new policies around the globe will encounter significant challenges as the West pivots from the prior era of terrorism. The problem is partly structural: the strategies designed to combat jihadi terrorism—surveilling and monitoring hierarchical groups of leaders and cells—are a poor fit for the post-organizational nature of far-right extremism. Formal groups play a diminishing role in far-right recruitment and radicalization, which more typically take place in a vast and ever-expanding online ecosystem of propaganda and disinformation. Only 13 percent of the far-right terrorist attacks in North America, western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand between 2002 and 2019 that resulted in at least one death were attributable to a specific group. Today’s far-right extremism involves fewer backwoods initiation rituals and attacks by cells and more self-directed training and solo operations, live-streamed for a global audience.
The motivations and ideologies of far-right groups are more muddled than those of the jihadi groups to which most terrorism experts are accustomed. The far-right universe includes preppers, vegan neo-Nazis, anti-vaccine activists, QAnon followers, and thousands of unclassifiable radicals who have assembled bits of far-right propaganda into choose-your-own-adventure belief systems that don’t always make much sense to outsiders. Some far-right groups promote LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, for example, in order to draw supporters from the progressive left by arguing that they are defending what they claim are Western values against Islamic aggression. Or consider “ecofascists” who back border closures as a way of protecting and preserving territories threatened by climate change—not for the good of humanity but for the benefit of white people, who they believe have a “blood and soil” entitlement to those lands.
Combating these threats will revolve less around the surveillance and monitoring that were signature tactics in the global war on terrorism and more around building societies’ resilience to propaganda and disinformation. The politics of fear practiced by many officials and leaders in Western countries in the post-9/11 era clearly contributed to right-wing radicalization. By encouraging people to feel that they lacked control over their own lives, to see themselves as vulnerable, and to fear outsiders, this style of politics opened a door for extremists, who marched right through it. So fighting the far right will also mean more fully abandoning the civilizational logic that undergirded the war on terrorism—sometimes consciously, sometimes inadvertently. Counterterrorism authorities must do away with policies and messages predicated on the idea that Islam poses a threat to Western civilization, which helped created a kind of ideological scaffolding on which the far right has built a movement.
In the weeks after January 6, Washington, D.C., became a militarized zone. Wide swaths of downtown were fenced off, with military checkpoints on the bridges and more than 25,000 National Guard forces deployed to secure the city before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Perhaps Americans will simply become used to these security measures, just as global travelers came to accept the beltless, shoeless shuffle through airport security. To avoid that outcome, U.S. counterterrorism officials will have to get better at prevention. There is little evidence about what works to prevent radicalization or help people disengage from extremist movements, and even less knowledge about what kinds of interventions can be effectively scaled up. Other countries take holistic approaches, involving agencies that deal with health and human services, culture, education, and social welfare. U.S. expertise, however, remains concentrated in security and law enforcement agencies—although Biden’s new national strategy signals a shift, envisioning a coordinated, multiagency effort to reduce polarization, limit access to firearms, and combat racism.
Perhaps the single most important lesson to draw from the far right’s mobilization over the past 20 years is that liberal democratic ideas and institutions must be nurtured through education and not just defended by force. The best way to fight an omnipresent extremist fringe is not through suppression alone but by making mainstream society more resilient and less vulnerable to far-right appeals. This is the “defensive democracy” approach that Germany pursued after World War II, which involved sustained federal investments in scalable, evidence-based media literacy programs to strengthen citizen support for multicultural democracy and its core tenets. It requires giving all citizens the tools to recognize and reject extremist propaganda and disinformation. Federal agencies cannot do this job on their own; such efforts work best when integrated with initiatives at the local level, where leaders enjoy more trust and are better equipped to understand their communities’ needs.
Security and law enforcement agencies still have a role to play, but authorities should broaden the pool of experts who advise them on terrorism: agencies full of experts trained overwhelmingly in Islamist sources of terrorism have struggled to recognize and respond to the far-right threat. Governments should forge teams of cross-agency experts in social work, psychology, and education, and on topics such as cults, gangs, gender-based violence, racism, and trauma. They should also establish deeper relationships with academics and research centers, where younger scholars often have their fingers on the pulse of new and evolving threats.
There is no crystal ball that can predict what the future of terrorism will bring. But if there is one certainty, it is this: tomorrow’s extremism will not look exactly like today’s. The United States will likely see more violence from radical environmentalists; from coalitions of anti-vaccine, antigovernment, and conspiracy theory groups; and from groups that seek the collapse of social, political, and economic systems in furtherance of a variety of hard-to-define ideological goals. As the danger evolves, the worst thing the country could do is to once again focus obsessively and exclusively on the threat it faces today.