How can the new Biden administration address the threat of domestic terrorism, most vividly illustrated by the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? Last week, 20,000 members of the National Guard were deployed for the inauguration to protect the new administration from far-right extremist violence, but a more serious threat looms. Nuclear and radiological terrorism has prominently appeared in “apocalyptically minded” white-supremacist ideology for decades.
The policy community perceives the threat of nuclear terrorism as almost uniquely emanating from outside of U.S. borders, specifically from Islamist terrorism networks such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida and their splinter groups. But in fact, U.S. far-right extremist groups have a history of attempted procurement of nuclear weapons and radiological materials to use against the federal government. Members of neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division, which literally means “atomic weapons” in German, and the National Socialist Movement have attempted in the past to access nuclear materials with the intent to cause harm.
Fears of nuclear terrorism among U.S. policymakers go back at least to the 1970s, when armed insurgencies intensified in the Middle East. The 1972 Munich massacre by the Palestinian group Black September and the 1973 oil price shock that suddenly empowered petroleum-exporting countries fueled concerns of a violent, non-White, Muslim world. India’s 1974 nuclear explosion, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons acquisition in response and new nuclear energy programs funded by petrodollars in Iran, Libya, Iraq and elsewhere further fanned fears of nuclear materials falling into “rogue” hands. In 1979, as the Iran hostage crisis played out on national television for over a year, the idea of radical Islam as a security threat became entrenched in U.S. political culture.
But nuclear terrorism was also a domestic threat in the 1970s. Nuclear power was expected to grow that decade, and a large amount of plutonium (a radioactive material used in nuclear weapon design) was feared to be widely available. By the end of the decade, white-power activists, many of whom were Vietnam War veterans hardened by military training, had organized for a violent armed struggle of “leaderless resistance” against the federal government. To them, the government was the source of unacceptable societal change that hurt White Christian Americans.
In 1978, William Pierce, the founder of the neo-Nazi group National Alliance, published the novel “The Turner Diaries”under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. It sold over 500,000 copies worldwide and remains highly popular among white supremacists.
In the novel, right-wing extremists invade the Capitol to overthrow the U.S. government. Its narrator, Earl Turner, gloats that “not one of them is beyond our reach.” Dubbed by the FBI as the “bible of the racist right,” the novel depicts 18 nuclear explosions in Manhattan alone and the destruction by nuclear weapons of Baltimore, Miami, the California coast and Detroit. It also provides plans to deliberately contaminate with radioactive materials a nuclear power plant in Evanston, Ill. The novel ends with Turner detonating a nuclear bomb over the Pentagon. He justifies the nuclear explosions and sabotage against non-White populations and “race criminals” (liberal Whites) in the name of establishing white supremacy in the United States and worldwide.
“The Turner Diaries” has inspired racially motivated armed robberies and more than 200 killings in the United States. It greatly influenced Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who perpetrated the deadliest domestic terrorist attack on U.S. soil that killed 168 people in April 1995.
The book has received renewed attention after the attack on the Capitol. Amazon has prevented its sale, and major news outlets have reported on its influence over far-right and white-supremacist groups. The analogies are chilling.
The violent white-supremacist ideology that calls for nuclear and radiological attacks against non-White populations has spread outside the United States.
Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in July 2011, had called for the use of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear agents against “cultural Marxists,” “multiculturalists” and those responsible for the Islamic “colonization” of Europe. In his 1500-page manifesto, he laid out plans for theft or unauthorized access to nuclear weapons and the procurement of nuclear materials through transnational smuggling networks. Breivik recommended the use of radiological agents and nuclear weapons after Jan. 1, 2020 – his deadline for Muslims in Europe to “assimilate.” Given the leaderless transnational networks of white supremacists, the call for nuclear and radiological attacks in Breivik’s manifesto as well as “The Turner Diaries”poses grave concerns.
Policy experts reassure us that if taken seriously as a threat, nuclear terrorism is both preventable and solvable. That violent white supremacists can easily infiltrate the police, the military and nuclear facilities make them an extremely serious and hard-to-detect national security risk. The involvement in the Capitol attack of the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government group that recruits former U.S. military and law enforcement personnel, demonstrates the extent of this threat. Screening far-right extremists within government institutions at local, state and federal levels needs to be a priority for the Biden administration.
The key to preventing such a catastrophic attack will be moving beyond a one-dimensional understanding of terrorism as the violent threat of radical Islam, and better understanding the different ways in which far-right domestic terrorism has grown in the United States and the specific threats this brings. Despite ample evidence to support the concern that insider threats pose high security risks in nuclear and radiological environments, little has been done at the policy level.
The threat of nuclear terrorism is such that we must act preemptively, not after a devastating attack. The lessons of the past tell us that action will involve breaking down the artificial border between foreign and domestic policies. National security does not just mean preventing attacks from abroad. The siege of the Capitol came close to being far worse, and there are indications that some rioters intended to harm lawmakers. But just because we escaped the worst does not mean we can rest easy. We must be proactive to prevent far-right domestic terrorism from going nuclear in this country.
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Sarkar is assistant professor of international relations at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.