Why Trump's plan to label antifa a terrorist group is little more than 'political theatre'

Some experts on terrorism say Republican efforts to proscribe the anti-fascist movement could backfire

Donald Trump says his rhetoric 'brings people together' ahead of visiting sites of mass shootings

As he prepared to fly to the scene of the two most recent mass shootings, Donald Trump answered a question about the threat of violent white supremacists by mentioning the anti-fascist movement known as antifa.

“I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” the president said, seemingly deflecting from the question at hand. “I don't like it ... Whether it's white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it's antifa.”

It was the latest attempt by the president and his allies to conflate antifa — a left-wing movement with no central command structure that consists of autonomous groups and individuals — with violence stemming from white nationalism. Republicans on Capitol Hill have introduced a resolution in recent weeks to classify antifa as "domestic terrorists", a plan that drew an approving tweet from the president, despite recent US government data revealing white supremacist violence is instead behind the rise in domestic terrorism incidents.

After Republican senators Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy introduced the resolution in congress earlier this month, the president tweeted: “Consideration is being given to declaring ANTIFA, the gutless Radical Left Wack Jobs who go around hitting (only non-fighters) people over the heads with baseball bats, a major Organization of Terror (along with MS-13 & others).”

He added: “Would make it easier for police to do their job!”

International terrorism analysts describe the Republican-led effort as “political theatre”, however, designed in part to distract from growing concerns surrounding white supremacy. But one expert says the allocation may instead have the exact opposite impact Republicans are hoping for.

Speaking before a suspected white supremacist killed 22 people in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Centre, told The Independent: “It’s a deliberate misallocation of resources to make a political point."

The Soufan Centre is a nonprofit research centre focusing on global security issues and emerging threats. The organisation’s upcoming research paper looks at mounting white supremacy and radical right-wing extremism.

“I don’t know any serious person that, if asked what is a bigger threat to security or safety to the United States, violent white supremacists or antifa, would say the latter,” Mr Clarke said.

While the group’s lack of structure makes it difficult to ascertain exactly how many members it may have, antifa is becoming increasingly present in the political discourse ever since Mr Trump’s election, staging counter protests to the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and notably attacking conservative journalist Andy Ngo during a street clash in Portland, Oregon, last month.

The president and others have also pointed to claims the suspected shooter in Dayton, Ohio was a supporter of antifa, as well as Democrats like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, though a motive for the mass shooting on Sunday remains unclear.

Still, an increase in its visibility is not resulting in an escalation of domestic terror incidents, according to data.

While 74 per cent of extremism-related murders were committed by right-wing extremists over the past decade, just two per cent were carried out by left-wing extremists, according to a 2016 report published by the Anti-Defamation League.

Extremism-related deaths have followed that same trend in more recent years as well. The number of murders carried out by white supremacists rose in 2018 to 17 total deaths, up from 13 the year before, while other forms of ideologically motivated killings declined. Violent Salafist jihadist murders declined to just one death last year, according to the Centre for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University.

When white nationalists clashed with nonviolent counter-protesters and antifa members at the Charlottesville rallies, it was a violent white supremacist who drove a car through a crowd and killed activist Heather Hayer.

Charlottesville: Donald Trump says there were 'fine people on both sides'

In the wake of those violent rallies, Mr Trump immediately attempted to cast blame on the group of counter-protesters that he called the “alt-left”, likely referring to antifa.

“What about the alt-left that came charging at [indiscernible] – excuse me – what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?” the president said to reporters at the time. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”

The president’s apparent refusal to address the issues of white nationalism and violent extremism on the right are juxtaposed by members of his own administration who have pointed to violent white supremacists as the cause of increasing domestic terror activity.

At a Senate hearing last month, FBI director Christopher Wray testified: “A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”

Mr Wray added: “We, the FBI, don’t investigate the ideology, no matter how repugnant. We investigate violence. And any extremist ideology, when it turns to violence, we’re all over it.

“We take domestic terrorism or hate crime – regardless of ideology – extremely seriously, I can assure you, and we are aggressively pursuing it using both counterterrorism resources and criminal investigative resources and partnering closely with our state and local partners.”

If the White House continues ignoring the issue of violent white supremacy, Mr Clarke says, incidents of domestic terror will only continue to grow and possibly become more advanced in the years to come. However, he also says the Justice Department labelling antifa a terrorist organisation could very well “open the doors” to the department using the same label against organised white nationalist groups who have been connected to numerous killings.

“If this administration goes and labels antifa, maybe that actually even helps the labelling of a right-wing group because it would set the precedent of labelling a domestic group a terror organisation,” he adds.

The terrorist organisation label allows the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to more aggressively counter possible attacks, the researcher said, by seizing websites and bank accounts, allowing government investigators to infiltrate the groups and providing additional resources to prevent deadly assaults.

“When it comes to antifa there is a really broad umbrella: yeah, there are pockets of street fighters and vandals, but I don’t see any real acts of terror with a real political message. Where does this political violence happen that isn’t street violence and protests?” Mr Clarke says. “But there are actual organised groups on the right… and the troubling thing is, just like jihadis, these right-wing groups now have transnational connections.”

“If the administration was really looking at it, the clearest priority is labelling some of the racist, violent white supremacist organisations,” he added, “but they’re not, because their purpose of taking action is politics.”

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