ALBANY, NY — Just in time for the midterm postmortem, terrorism expert and professor Victor Asal has completed the scary task of deep diving into menacing rabbit holes. He examined 567 domestic anti-government organizations gathered into a database over two years.
As director of research at the University at Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, Asal has studied terrorism all over the globe. He's completed huge projects for the Department of Homeland Security, National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research.
Asal also works on projects with START (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) at the University of Maryland.
Thanks to a recent grant from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Asal spent months focused on U.S.-spawned militias, insurrectionists, white supremacist incels, secessionists and others vehemently opposed to the American government.
The mystery Asal was tasked with solving: What factors are the most reliable predictor that a group would use violence against civilians?
Asal examined the 567 groups collected over the years in his database. Interestingly, the commonality most of them shared was that regional law enforcement was monitoring them already when the groups used violence. Asal found that far-right groups were more likely to use violence than others. And they are also more influential and plentiful.
START counted groups with a radical anti-government stance from 1948 to 2018 and found 977 far-right radicals with 511 Islamist groups a distant second followed by a puny 374 far-left groups and 364 that embrace only one issue, like abortion.
Asal says another key predictor of violence was violent rhetoric.
"Violent rhetoric isn't simply talk," Asal said, adding that vows to kill or maim shouldn't be dismissed as bluster. Those with a right-wing ideology are more likely than left-wingers to be violent, his research concluded.
An organization's dream or mission can also be predictive. When that goal is separatism or annexation, as opposed to winning elections, there is a higher likelihood of violence. Asal explained what annexation meant in this context. "Some want to have an enclave in one of (the 50) states...or specific places where they are regarded as a sovereign nation."
It would look strange and the goals would be different from our Civil War, as Brookings Institution scholars Darrell West and William Gale observed in "Is the U.S. headed toward another Civil War?"
"There are urban/rural differences within specific states, with progressives dominating the cities while conservatives reside in rural communities," they wrote. "But that is a far different geographic divide than when one region could wage war on another. The lack of a distinctive or uniform geographic division limits the ability to confront other areas, organize supply chains, and mobilize the population. There can be local skirmishes between different forces, but not a situation where one state or region attacks another."
"There is no clear regional split: We do not have a North/South schism similar to what existed in the 19th century," they emphasized.
A war with no clear geographic lines or battlefields raises the specter for many domestic terrorism experts of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The war between Protestants and Catholics was fought on residential blocks and civilians died when bombs exploded in restaurants, shops, bars, groceries and near schools.
START found that over 90 percent of domestic terrorists prosecuted for violent crimes were male and most, 37 percent, were between ages 20 and 30.
Interestingly, Asal found that in the Middle East, radical anti-government organizations are less likely to turn to violence against civilians if women are members of the organization. But, the feminine presence may not have had such an uplifting impact in America, where women participated in insurrection violence alongside Proud Boys and QAnon cultists.
Brace yourself for 2024.