Domestic terrorism experts say groups like the white nationalists who marched through Indianapolis over Labor Day weekend pose an interesting problem for law enforcement.
Experts, including two former members of the FBI, told WFYI that because of the strong free speech protections in the United States there aren’t always clear ways to bar groups like Patriot Front from demonstrating in public spaces.
Catrina Doxsee is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that specializes in national security issues. She said in the past few years there has been an explosion in domestic terrorist violence linked to public demonstrations – predominantly by far-right perpetrators.
“Only about 2 percent of terrorist incidents in the United States were connected to protests and then in 2021 over half of them were connected to protests and demonstrations,” she said.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Patriot Front is responsible for “the vast majority of white supremacist propaganda distributed in the United States.”
But Doxsee said that isn’t enough to warrant law enforcement involvement.
“It’s innately not something we want in our communities, but it is technically legal for them to express these beliefs,” she said.
Javed Ali, a professor at the University of Michigan and former senior counterterrorism official with the federal government, said agencies like the FBI need to have their powers expanded to go after domestic groups. Like the propaganda, he said, involvement in explicitly violent groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, or Oathkeeprs isn’t itself a crime.
“Membership in the group itself is not illegal,” he said. “That is one of the gaps in our policy framework as we look at domestic terrorism.”
Ali said the government needs to take a more aggressive stance on domestic counterterrorism especially as the increase in terrorist violence is unlikely to abate anytime soon.
In an op-ed penned shortly after the Jan. 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, Ali wrote that the U.S. is currently experiencing a wave of right-wing extremist violence that could last anywhere from 20 to 40 years and began sometime in the early 2000s.
“How severe will the threat look like? I tend to believe the threat for the most part will look like what we’ve seen over the last 15 years,” he said. “Lone offender plots and attacks or small groups of people who are angry or part of broader groups.”
But, Ali said, Patriot Front hasn’t yet engaged in plotting a lethal attack as some other groups like the Proud Boys have done.
“When they are coming together,whether it’s in Indianapolis or Idaho, as long as they are going through the formal process to march openly or protest I’m not sure there is much that law enforcement can do,” he said.
Not all experts agree.
Michael German is with the Brennan Center for Justice, and a former FBI agent. He said the FBI has repeatedly failed in recent years to use its existing powers to go after members of terrorist groups who already have records of violence – something they might have done during his tenure.
“They would take whatever measures necessary to make it clear to those violent people you’re not going to be able to come here and commit violence and walk away,” he said.
Patriot Front is a splinter group from Vanguard America, formed in the wake of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
German said Vanguard America was connected to the violence in Charlottesville and that should be enough for law enforcement to be able to take a group like Patriot Front more seriously.
“One of the tactics these groups take on is if they become notorious for criminal activity they change names,” German said. “But law enforcement shouldn’t be fooled by that.”
More recently, members of Patriot Front were arrested near an Idaho Pride event. German said instances like this are things law enforcement could use to build a case against the group if they wanted to.
“I don’t know that the Patriot Front is the most dangerous group out there,” he added. “I just know that law enforcement has not identified and continues to intentionally misunderstand the problem.”
Critics have long argued that the federal government hasn’t taken the threats of far-right violence seriously enough.
But more recently, concerns have been raised about the number of law enforcement with connections to far-right groups like the Oathkeepers.
That’s especially concerning, according to Doxsee, because it undermines community trust in law enforcement.
“That definitely calls for law enforcement more broadly across the country to make sure they are educating personnel on these threats,” she said.
There are still some solutions for handling extremist groups when they come to town.
Doxsee said local governments should look to de-escalate interactions between opposing groups in an effort to stop any violence before it occurs.
Some cities, like Washington D.C., ban demonstrators from being armed at a public protest.
“A lot of that is just removing the ability of individuals to conduct these attacks and removing weapons so that if tensions do escalate the worst thing that happens is a fist fight instead of a mass shooting,” Doxsee said.
During the Patriot Front’s demonstration in Indianapolis, there were no known confrontations.