In 2019, the UK passed a law, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which made it a criminal offence merely to view online “material of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.” It seems clear that the law’s writers had Islamic extremism in mind—the Islamic State’s slick (if shocking) propaganda has been the subject of much concern in Britain.

Part of my job is to comb through the disturbing propaganda of groups like the Islamic State to better understand the motives of its followers, and how to limit the group’s reach. With the passage of the UK law, I and other researchers wondered if we would have to hide or discard our data (though subsequent amendments to the law carved out exceptions for academic research). The United States never passed any law quite as restrictive, but officials have been known to search the devices of journalists and researchers at airports and other border crossings. 

The UK law may give limited latitude to researchers, but the animating idea at the heart of the legislation remains clear: recruiting materials for the Islamic State and other jihadist groups were such a radioactive and corrupting influence that a mere glance at them was dangerous.

In contrast, when I study white supremacists in the United States, there is no implied worry that I may be won over to their cause by viewing their noxious materials. Archives containing reams of propaganda (and evidence of incitement and violent crimes) are freely available to the public—no need for special permits, vetting, or the watchful supervision of law enforcement. White supremacist materials are treated as if they pose only a limited threat, appealing to some tiny demographic, despite evidence of the surge of white supremacist groups in the United States and of their effective messaging.

This dichotomy of official approaches to jihadists and right-wing, racist groups distorts the study of violent extremism, and makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to effectively research the connections between violent groups that operate in different regions, or to explore comparisons and parallels between their ideologies or tactics. The context can be so enveloping that, as researchers, we don’t even notice the assumptions, restrictions and legal frameworks that shape and limit our ability to research violent militants. But throughout my career, I’ve done fieldwork on the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, as well as on American white supremacists, and I’m all too aware of the structural differences that can distort our work. The different legal approaches toward propaganda related to one type of violent criminal group (jihadists) but not of white supremacists is just the most obvious difference. What I’ve learned from my research is that we should study not only the violent groups themselves, but our own assumptions about those groups, so we can better understand their followers and the threats they pose. 

Criminalizing Research

After the Islamic State occupied Mosul, Iraq and declared its caliphate in 2014, jihadist accounts cropped up all over social media. For a brief period, it was easy to study the public propaganda and recruitment of the Islamic State. Indeed, Amazon even offered the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq, for purchase in the first year after the group’s appearance on the global stage. I copied social media postings into an offline archive, well aware that online materials can suddenly disappear. Soon enough, law enforcement began shutting down jihadist social media accounts, and some governments, like the UK, made it a criminal offense to possess jihadist archives in some circumstances.

We should study not only violent groups themselves, but our own assumptions about those groups, so we can better understand their followers and the threats they pose.

Different safety and political considerations apply to a researcher working on international jihadist groups as opposed to a researcher looking at American white supremacists. Consider, for example, the limitations imposed on a researcher focused on Islamic State mobilization in Syria and Iraq. Safety considerations, of course, prevent anthropological techniques like ethnographic field work, and force researchers to seek alternative source material, such as the accounts of defected foreign fighters, propaganda productions, or social media posts made by active recruits and sympathizers of varied engagement levels—none of which should be taken at face-value, given the operative role of image management at play in such source material. In contrast, a researcher focused on militia mobilization or white supremacist activism in the United States enjoys—in theory—far greater access to human sources, even accounting for the potential risks of an ethnographic approach. Researchers can interview imprisoned white supremacists in the United States, and have access to former hate group members who have recanted. Not so with convicted members of international jihadist conspiracies, to whom access is restricted because of national security concerns. In a very literal way, we end up with less information about one type of group (jihadists) than the other (white supremacists). 

Similarly, researchers have relatively more access to white supremacist propaganda, since governments more severely restrain access to jihadist primary source materials. Consider the case of Jihadology, an online archive of materials produced by groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other nonstate armed groups that invoke a connection to Islam. Despite the impeccable credentials of Jihadology’s owners and administrators, governmental concerns over open-access repositories of jihadist propaganda sparked heated debate and, in a considerable blow to terrorism scholars, some nations asked the site’s owners to curtail public access, while other jurisdictions blocked the site altogether

The grave national security threat so widely ascribed to materials associated with jihadist-identified actors has no parallel in the far more numerous propaganda archives of transnational white supremacist organizations and actors. Not until after the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol did Amazon finally pull the 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, a seminal text often hailed as the white supremacist strategic Bible and the source of inspiration for Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And Amazon only stopped selling the novel after repeated concerns expressed by advocacy groups. However, Amazon has shown no signs of a broader attempt to curtail access to white supremacist and fascist propaganda linked to campaigns of violence, as the works of key ideologues like Julius Evola and convicted white supremacist terrorist Richard Scutari, among many others, remain widely available. 

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Thinking the Unthinkable

When researchers can work freely, they can ask questions without prejudice and look for links and parallels without fear of political repercussions. In the contemporary United States, of course, the research climate is fraught and heavily influenced by politics. Members of the U.S. Congress debate whether the January 6 insurrection was an act of terrorism or, as the Republican National Committee declared, “legitimate political discourse.”

In my research, I’ve explored operational connections between neo-Nazis and Islamic jihadists, a pairing that would be unimaginable if it didn’t happen to be true. One well-documented Florida case centered on a white convert to Islam who was charged in the double-murder of his two neo-Nazi roommates. And there has been ongoing interaction between neo-Nazis and jihadists online.

In a similar vein, working as a researcher on both jihad and white supremacy has changed my thinking about foreign influence. Foreign influence campaigns are much more complicated than a formal–informal binary might suggest. There’s a need to expand the ways in which we think of state sponsorship. One example is Russia’s role in supporting far-right groups. U.S. media and political attention centered on covert Russian support for militant groups and for disinformation campaigns—emblematic formal foreign influence. But influence passes through informal channels as well, such as the activities and writings of the far-right Russian geopolitical strategist and philosopher Alexander Dugin. Dugin is not a “formal” channel of the Russian state, but his 1997 Foundations of Geopolitics remains a required text for Russian military officers, and he is politically connected in Russia. Dugin’s influence campaigns, which provide support and inspiration for international far-right groups, are more sophisticated than the classic model of state sponsorship of a proxy militia abroad. Then there are cases like American white supremacist Tom Metzger’s international campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. The group he founded, White Aryan Resistance (WAR), expanded to Sweden during this time, partly as a result of Metzger’s savvy propaganda campaigns. WAR in Sweden subsequently rebranded and was folded, at least partially, into the nationalist Sweden Democrats party. This course of events complicates the straightforward ideas of “foreign sponsor” and “foreign influence.”

All these examples lead us to an important axiom for thinking about militant groups over time and in different contexts: we should keep our scope broad. If we are stuck in our conceptual silos, we might miss the way some groups change over time, embracing violence during some periods of their history and conventional politics at others. 

As researchers, we have to think about methodology, and more importantly, about what constrains the methodology—the broad assumptions and the legal frameworks. American researchers are willing to think about Islamist militants as different types in a broadly related family, but they are reluctant to do the same with white supremacists. Much of this frustrating divergence in approach stems from rarely discussed prejudice or, at the extremes, racist assumptions that allow nuance and complexity in the study of criminal militants who are white U.S. citizens, but not of those criminals whose ideology is considered foreign and Islamist. 

Bias Stunts Our Understanding

As a specialist in both transnational white supremacist and jihadist nonstate armed groups, I have been struck by the American debate over whether it is appropriate to describe the events of January 6, 2021 as “terrorism.”

In this flawed view, a Muslim American criminal is a terrorist, whereas a white supremacist American criminal is just a criminal.

Partisan skirmishes over the proper legal and criminal categorization of January 6 perpetrators reveal much more than a divided political climate. In practice, if a criminal is thought to be connected to Islamic extremism, their crime tends to be defined as international terrorism and falls under a national security paradigm. If an equally dangerous or violent criminal is connected to neo-Nazi or white supremacist militants, then the crime tends to be defined without any political enhancements. In other words, U.S. law enforcement is more likely to consider a Muslim American criminal as a terrorist, while considering a white supremacist American criminal as simply a criminal. 

This overarching bias robs us of important insights into the parallels between jihadists and white supremacists—insights that could help researchers better understand violence, in the hopes, ultimately, of preventing it. We should cast a wide net in our study of violent militants, regardless of whether they are “local” or “foreign,” and regardless of which religion or religions they harness for their ideology and propaganda. Religion, identity, and fears about gender all motivate militants to join groups as seemingly disparate as the Islamic State and Atomwaffen Division or the Nordic Resistance Movement, for example. 

Right-wing pundits and politicians have attempted to vindicate Capitol riot participants as “patriots,” placed in opposition to “foreign combatants.” These efforts at vindication demonstrate the volatility and plasticity of extremism as an analytical category, and hint at a far darker set of assumptions structuring public perceptions of legitimate protest, political violence, and threats to national security. We need a concerted comparative examination of the different methodological challenges that face researchers across the spectrum of nonstate armed groups, and the reasons that account for these differences. Without such an examination, we will miss critical clues about the broader dynamics that selectively normalize political violence. 

This commentary is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header image: Members and supporters of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the United States, hold a rally on April 21, 2018, in Newnan, Georgia. Community members opposed the rally and came out to embrace racial unity in the small Georgia town. Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images