Who should you fear?

Everyone talks about radical Islamists, and they definitely are terrible awful violent people (but remember, please: radical Islamist ≠ Muslim). But there are other ideologies to fear, like far right white nationalists and animal rights extremists. Acknowledging that they’re all bad, and that murdering people in the name of your cult belief is always wrong, which one is worse? David Neiwert has done the research.

  • From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
  • During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
  • Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
  • Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities – making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
  • Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.

Lotta words and numbers there. Maybe a graph will help.

As I would have expected, the greater danger to the public is homegrown blue-eyed narrowly patriotic nativist assholes, of the kind who get normalized and treated relatively gently by the internet and media. You can kneel at the feet of alt-right idols and worship them, and everyone looks the other way; try to do that with the local imam, and you’ll find yourself in an FBI file and with tabloids breathing down your neck.

Take a look at who gets labeled as terrorists.

That’s striking. The bigger threat largely gets a pass from law enforcement, possibly because so many LEOs tend to be terroristic right wing ideologues themselves, if recent murders of citizens are any testimony. Maybe that will change, though, as it begins to sink in that far-right patriot movements are out to kill anyone who defends the government.

By now, the steady drumbeat of terror plots and attacks from the far right has begun to attract renewed attention, among them incidents involving the “sovereign citizens” movement, white supremacists, Patriot and militia movements, and anti-abortion fanatics, including some radical Christians. Their targets are police and military, Sikhs and Muslims, African Americans and Jews, power grids and transit hubs, abortion clinics and black churches and immigrant communities.

It’s a long read, but substantive and evidence-based. Read it and worry.


  1. says

    I’m not in the same universe in which animal rights is a “left wing ideology.” It has nothing to do with left vs. right. It’s not even a single ideology. Most compassionate humans have some degree of sympathy for animals over which humans have control. Exactly how far that extends and what degree and kind of exploitation of animals by humans is acceptable is susceptible to an infinite variety of interpretation. In fact there is a social consensus that gratuitous cruelty to animals is morally wrong and it is enshrined in law. Cruelty to animals is subject to criminal prosecution, as far as I know, in every U.S. jurisdiction.

    What this has to do with the “left” is quite mysterious to me.

  2. rpjohnston says

    This is the graphic that I’m going to be posting on every argument for the next eleventy jillion years.

  3. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    This study confirms my perception of the situation. I’m definitely more scared of the right wing/theocrats/gun nuts than I am of the members of the Islamic community.

    What this has to do with the “left” is quite mysterious to me.

    Look at the Green party, which is considered a left wing party here in the USA. You won’t find the rethugs having a platform position on animal rights. Hence it is seen as a leftish ideology.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    shouldn’t that graph be scaled by population?
    counter example:
    1000 coins —> 501 heads
    500 pennies –> 220hds = 44% [no event]
    250 dimes –> 120 hds = 48% [right w]
    200 nickels –> 70 hds = 45% [left w]
    50 quarters –> 30 hds = 60% [islamist]

    It is possible the ranking could distort the data slightly. Percentages could explain the LEO focus on Islamist category as being highest probability of success.
    while not my full argument, it seems that “domestic citizen” is a pretty broad category when looking for potential terrorists. That may be true and is still NOT justification for focusing on them as “potentials”. There are usually many other forewarnings of such terrorist actions.
    shit, I’m spiraling. apologies.

  5. says

    One common thread among the majority of extremists is the reliance on their own belief in a mythological deity who is willing to reward them for the harm they bring to their version of the “other” side. Is a world without religion too much to hope for?

  6. says

    Nerd — You may have various problems with the Green Party, but they do not engage in any form of violence. I don’t know offhand what their position is on animal rights, beyond environmentalism. But in any event, the Socialist Workers Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, for example, are also of the left, and I’m not aware that they have any particular interest in animal rights.

    PETA, as far as I know, has no specific connection with any identifiable left or right ideology or organization.

  7. jazzlet says

    There have been complaints to the BBC over their description of the Finsbury Park terrorist as such, some people object to a white man killing and injuring Muslims being called a terrorist. Interestingly there have also been more people saying they were glad the BBC had done so, interesting as people are less likely to make the effort to say they approve of something than to say they disapprove of something.

  8. Chuck Stanley says

    So a couple of hundred deaths over 8 years. Who should you fear? Really? Maybe other drivers. Maybe cancer, heart disease, diabetes, car accidents, the flu, drownings, I don’t know. I fear cancer the most. I don’t fear terrorists.

  9. antigone10 says

    The number one thing that kills Americans is heart disease, followed by cancer. The top 10 list is here: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death

    We eat shitty food, we have sedentary lifestyles, and we smoke to much. Of course, we eat shitty food because finding healthier food is harder and takes more time. We have sedentary lifestyles because we design our cities and workplaces for cars and treat exercises like a chore we have to pay for. We smoke too much because it’s addictive and there was (and to an extent, continues to be) a concerted effort to get people to smoke.

    Cancer is partly because that’s what bodies tend to die of, and partly because of environmental contaminants. Accidents are probably always going to be there, but that’s a design function to some extent. And suicide because if you wanted to structure a society that would make people tend to mental illness, it’d look like this.

    But people don’t tend to worry about these problems because they are in a lot of ways invisible and cumulative. And the solutions are disruptive and expensive and don’t immediately pay off. And we spend a lot of time on immediate, adrenaline-inducing, story-telling fears and worries and not the more likely, not as narrative-driven stories.

  10. rietpluim says

    Hey, the right is merely resisting. If those darn liberals and lefties and Muslims would just shut up and vanish, no right-wing violence would be necessary!

    (snark, obviously)

  11. weylguy says

    Home-grown terrorists are not feared here because Amerika is itself a land of terrorists and because we need “others” to express our hatred. Amerika is the world’s cancer, but unfortunately a very powerful one. I hate this country.

  12. robro says

    All categorization schemes have flaws and compromises. There are many ways to slice a pie, and no way is perfect. Even the three main categories, Left, Right, Islamist can be faulted. What do these words even mean? Is an extremist Sunni Islamist the same as an extremist Shia Islamist? In this chart they are. And yes, they could have a 4th category for “Non-aligned” or “Miscellaneous” (see David Weinberger, Everything Is Miscellaneous).

    The point is that our government and the media have incited the people of this country to deeply fear and hate Muslims. They are targeted by law enforcement and by other, largely right wing extremists. They are even targeted by some public intellectuals.

    This didn’t start in January. This study looks back 9 years, right through the Obama/Liberal years. This exploitation of the “Muslim terrorist” goes back at least to the time when all Palestinians were identified as terrorists, even the many Christians. It undoubtedly goes back much further than that.

  13. blf says

    I don’t fear terrorists.

    Indeed. I (now) live in S.France, and am simply not concerned about the real but minuscule risk. This is despite being within 100m of a (fire-)bombing some years ago, albeit in London. I am more concerned about being shot by the police (albeit, for me, as a consequence of white male privilege, that is also, here in France, a minuscule risk), which is a reason I am hugely reluctant to travel to the States, despite being a natural-born USAian citizen: I’ve never much trusted the policegoons there, and now hugely do not trust them.

  14. Ed Seedhouse says

    I’d argue that “Isamist” terrorist are actually part of the far right. They support an autocratic and antidemocratic government and the strict enforcement of religious beliefs which they hold to be “traditional”.

    What’s left or centrist about that?

    And yes there are also left wing terrorists and crazy people. The rightists seem to be the big threat at the moment.

  15. says

    Since I’m a white suburban dad, I’m more fearful of the possum that occasional wanders through my yard. Of my friends that are in more marginalized demographics, especially my trans and gay friends, it ain’t Muslims they’re afraid of (or possums).

  16. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @17:
    hear hear, me too.
    I am, also, a suburban white middle-aged guy.
    I too am most fearful of random acts of violence from my own demographic, especially in distant regions while visiting away from home.
    Most fearful of “highway road-ragers” who can brake-check one into collision, where one is at fault, by default, (rear end collision is always the fault of the person in the rear.).
    I once installed a dashcam as evidence against brake-check events, and that increased my paranoia so I abandoned it.

  17. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Concerning OP
    I’ve had this argument once with a wrong-headed friend of mine. You should know the reubttal: If you include 2000 – present day, specifically if you include Sept 11, then IIRC the stats are that in America you are more likely to die from Muslim terrorists than home-grown right-wing or Christian terrorists. I’ve found this particular point to be unproductive with “reasonable” people for this reason. It ended up being a discussion of whether Sept 11 is an outlier, and whether it should be included in the data set or not. I currently prefer other arguments, such as “it’s such an incredibly small number and you’re blowing it out of proportion”, and also “right wing and Christian terrorism is still significant, even relative to Muslim terrorism, and why aren’t we doing anything about that?”.

  18. starskeptic says

    Obviously Left Wing Terrorism is to be feared since it’s proportionately more effective…

  19. pita says

    In 28 years of life as a woman, I have never been afraid to walk down the street of a city alone at night. But a few weeks ago, I went to a concert in downtown Portland that was the same night as that stupid “First Amendment” Rally (read: “let me be islamophobic even though islamophobia just killed two men” Rally) and I had genuine fear that the venue would be attacked. I was afraid going to my first Pride too, because the white racist underbelly of this city has been on full display ever since Trump was elected. I’ll never change my plans, because the terrorists won’t stop me from living my life, but they are winning the war to make me afraid. I think we need to lock up all these straight, white men until we can figure out what the hell is going on.

  20. says

    A sting operation is one where they try to out orcs, right?

    Sting operations should probably count as the FBI or law enforcement attempting terrorism. Although I guess they don’t need to have sting operations to do that…

  21. robro says

    YOB @ 17 — I’m an urbanite. It’s not the possum, I fear. They’re too slow. It’s not the coyote, which I’ve never seen, though they eat pets. It’s the raccoons who move quick and often travel in groups. But mostly it’s the skunks, who don’t need to move at all.

  22. some bastard on the internet says

    Obviously Left Wing Terrorism is to be feared since it’s proportionately more effective…

    Exactly! Them intelekshuals are too smart to be stopped! We need to cut edukashun down until everyone is too dumb to terror!11!!1!


  23. bondjamesbond says

    Dr Myers,
    Glad to see you now believe in objective morality. Specifically, you believe Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.” ,,, Or more simply, as Jesus put it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Welcome to Theism Dr. Myers. Now it just one short small step for you to realize that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that you yourself have fallen short and have sinned against God’s moral law and to then accept Jesus into your heart.
    The Moral Argument
    As to the question of who should you fear,,,
    Matthew 10:28
    “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

  24. Reginald Selkirk says

    Who should you fear?

    I fear people who cannot correctly use who and whom.

  25. pacal says

    Bondjamesbond no. 26. Just what is your “objective” morality? Saying it comes from God and therefore is “objective” is just begging the question, because where did God get it from? Let us assume for a moment that morality comes from God, (Assuming God exists.), then morality is nothing more than God’s subjective whims about what morality is.

    Regardless of what Exodus 20, 13 says about murder the bottom line is that God in the Bible murders on a vast scale and ordered over and over again mass murder and other atrocities. God according to the Bible signally fails to live up to “objective” morality it seems over and over again. God has sinned most grievously against his / her / it’s moral code and should of course now seek forgiveness.

  26. thirdmill says

    Islamic theocracy and Christian theocracy are both murderous ideologies and need to be called out. There seems to be this division in which anyone who points out that Islamic theocracy is a murderous ideology is promptly labeled an Islamophobic bigot, and anyone who points out that Christian theocracy is a murderous ideology is promptly labeled an anti-Christian bigot. But in fact, both are murderous ideologies, and the fact that some people are more interested in calling out one rather than the other doesn’t change that.

  27. Alex the Pretty Good says

    I seem to have noticed that here in Belgium (and probably other EU countries as well), a large part of the local population has taken on a “I’ll be damned if I let myself be scared away” mentality.
    Yes, there are more checks. You’ll have to show your bag before entering any organised gathering of people. But from what I can see… Attendance numbers are back to what they were before Paris/Zaventem.
    Is there still a risk? Yes (especially as long as right wingnuts keep upping the antagonism). Is the risk of Islamist-inspired extremism here in western Europe higher than right-wing or left-wing extremism? I get the feeling it’s still a yes, but I’m well aware this could be underreported, and I’m less aware of the situation in the South of former Eastern Block countries.

    More importantly, the risk of dying in traffic is still a lot higher (around 400 deaths on 11 million inhabitants last year) and I’m not paranoid about every car that passies me by either.

  28. Alverant says

    This doesn’t surprise me. We live in a country where a cop can shoot African-Americans who committed no crime and get away with it by saying “I was scared” while a white man can terrorize a neighborhood with an AR-15 and the cops do nothing.

  29. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I fear people who cannot correctly use who and whom.

    I fear people that cling to “rules of grammar” that are outdated or weren’t never true.

  30. Alverant says

    So what about those christian terrorists that keep getting a free pass from the cops? They commit the most crimes but have the fewest arrests. Since cops are predominately christian, what about their objective morality? I guess it’s like God’s in that it applies only at their convenience.

  31. says

    This doesn’t make a particularly strong case when you consider that Muslims make up 1% of the US population while right-wingers have enough people to consistently win major elections.

    If right-wing terrorism had occurred at a similar rate as Islamic terrorism in the US, we’d have probably seen about 3000 or so right-wing terrorist attacks, instead of 115.

  32. emergence says

    Jessie Foster @35

    You’re still more likely to be attacked by a white conservative extremist than by a Muslim extremist in the US. The total size of a dangerous extremist group represents its danger to the country, not what percentage of their demographic they represent.

  33. Florian Blaschke says

    thirdmill, @30

    Islamic theocracy and Christian theocracy are both murderous ideologies and need to be called out. There seems to be this division in which anyone who points out that Islamic theocracy is a murderous ideology is promptly labeled an Islamophobic bigot,

    What the …? Rubbish! Only if you put Islam = Islamic theocracy, while not putting Christianity = Christian theocracy (if you’re doing both, you’re just a standard radical antitheist who doesn’t accept the existence of moderate religious people against all evidence, while redefining “religious” to suit your bias; but at least you’re treating both religions equal). “Islam is a murderous ideology” is Islamophobic bigotry, “violent jihadism is a murderous ideology” is not.

    and anyone who points out that Christian theocracy is a murderous ideology is promptly labeled an anti-Christian bigot

    Well, certainly not here. The Christian Right doesn’t get much sympathy here, to put it mildly.