What’s more dangerous: Islamic extremism or Christian extremism?
On a Tuesday morning in September 2001, the American experience with terrorism was fundamentally altered. Two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six people were murdered in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Thousands more, including many first responders, lost their lives to health complications from working at or being near Ground Zero.
The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Islamist extremists, resulting in nearly 18 times more deaths than America’s second most devastating terrorist attack – the Oklahoma City bombing. More than any other terrorist event in U.S. history, 9/11 drives Americans’ perspectives on who and what ideologies are associated with violent extremism.
But focusing solely on Islamist extremism when investigating, researching and developing counterterrorism policies goes against what the numbers tell us. Far-right extremism also poses a significant threat to the lives and well-being of Americans. This risk is often ignored or underestimated because of the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
We have spent more than 10 years collecting and analyzing empirical data that show us how these ideologies vary in important ways that can inform policy decisions. Our conclusion is that a “one size fits all” approach to countering violent extremism may not be effective.
By the numbers
Historically, the U.S. has been home to adherents of many types of extremist ideologies. The two current most prominent threats are motivated by Islamist extremism and far-right extremism.
To help assess these threats, the Department of Homeland Security and recently the Department of Justice have funded the Extremist Crime Database to collect data on crimes committed by ideologically motivated extremists in the United States. The results of our analyses are published in peer-reviewed journals and on the website for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism & Responses to Terrorism.
The ECDB includes data on ideologically motivated homicides committed by both Islamist extremists and far-right extremists going back more than 25 years.
Between 1990 and 2014, the ECDB has identified 38 homicide events motivated by Islamist extremism that killed 62 people. When you include 9/11, those numbers jump dramatically to 39 homicide events and 3,058 killed.
The database also identified 177 homicide events motivated by far-right extremism, with 245 killed. And when you include the Oklahoma City bombing, it rises to 178 homicide events and 413 killed.
Although our data for 2015 through 2017 are still being verified, we counted five homicide events perpetrated by Islamist extremists that resulted in the murders of 74 people. This includes the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, which killed 49 people. In the same time period, there were eight homicide events committed by far-right extremists that killed 27 people.
These data reveal that far-right extremists tend to be more active in committing homicides, yet Islamist extremists tend to be more deadly.
Our research has also identified violent Islamist extremist plots against 272 targets that were either foiled or failed between 2001 and 2014. We are in the process of compiling similar data on far-right plots. Although data collection is only about 50 percent complete, we have already identified 213 far-right targets from the same time period.
The locations of violent extremist activity also differ by ideology. Our data show that between 1990 and 2014, most Islamist extremist attacks occurred in the South (56.5 percent), and most far-right extremist attacks occurred in the West (34.7 percent). Both forms of violence were least likely to occur in the Midwest, with only three incidents committed by Islamist extremists (4.8 percent) and 33 events committed by far-right extremists (13.5 percent).
Targets of violence also vary across the two ideologies. For example, 63 percent of the Islamist extremism victims were targeted for no apparent reason. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, often visiting symbolic locations or crowded venues such as the World Trade Center or military installations.
In contrast, 53 percent of victims killed by far-right extremists were targeted for their actual or perceived race or ethnicity. Far-right extremists, such as neo-Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists, often target religious, racial and ethnic, and sexual orientation and gender identity minorities.