Inside Story

What’s in a name?

Why have law enforcement agencies and the media shied away from calling out right-wing terrorism for what it is?

Lydia Khalil 27 September 2022 3685 words

Terrorism, or one man’s grudge? The Internal Revenue Service office targeted by Joseph Stack in February 2010. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

On a February morning in 2010, a single-engine Piper Cherokee light aircraft was on the runway at Georgetown Municipal Airport in Austin, Texas.

“Georgetown tower, Dakota 2889 Delta’s ready for departure,” the pilot radioed the airport tower.

“89 Delta clear for take-off.”

“Thanks for your help. Have a great day,” the pilot responded.

A mere ten minutes later, the Piper crashed into the first and second floors of Echelon Building I, which housed an office of America’s federal tax agency, the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS. The crash killed the pilot and one victim. Thirteen more were injured.

As emergency management and police rushed to the scene and news reporters arrived to file stories, one question was on everyone’s mind: what if this wasn’t an accident? Any plane crash, especially into a building, automatically brought with it the spectre of the September 11 attacks of 2001.

As the day wore on, details began to emerge. The plane crash was no accident. But neither was it the work of an al Qaeda affiliate.

The pilot was Joseph Stack, a white fifty-three-year-old software engineer and local musician. A day before slamming his plane into the floors that housed the IRS offices, he had driven his wife and stepdaughter out of their family home and set it on fire.

Stack had a long history as an anti-tax protester and had stoushed with the IRS on multiple occasions in the preceding decades. At the time of the incident, he was being audited by the IRS for failure to report income.

Was the attack a desperate last gasp in Stack’s personal vendetta against the IRS? Was it a part of his stubborn campaign to withhold income from the federal government? Was it the result of mental illness?

Stack had left behind a suicide note, what we might now call a manifesto — the all too familiar hallmark of the terrorist lone attacker. The manifesto was an indictment of corrupt corporations, the Catholic Church and government writ large, but particularly the IRS.

It made clear that this attack was not just the culmination of decades of personal grievances against the IRS, an organisation that he believed had uniquely targeted and tormented him. He also linked his grievances to an anti-government, anti-tax movement. He was ideologically opposed to the federal government collecting taxes and wanted his attack to inspire others to take action against the government. Stack’s suicide attack was the final act of his long history of anti-tax activism.

According to criminologist Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, “This was someone who wanted to declare war on the IRS and to have a movement continue after he was gone… He wanted to light the fuse that would cause a general uprising by others who feel cheated by the tax system to act out violently.”

Stack wrote in his manifesto:

I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are. Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.

In the early 1980s, Stack was living in Southern California, at the time a “hot bed of the anti-tax movement,” according to one media outlet, “interlaced with pseudo legal, pseudo historical, conspiratorial ideas.” As a form of protest, he and his former wife formed a “home church,” claiming tax exempt status. The US government declared it an illegal tax shelter, a ruling that Stack spent his time doggedly challenging.

Stack’s suicide attack was a textbook act of terrorism. It was a very public assault, clearly meant to terrorise, indiscriminately harming civilians while also deliberately targeting government infrastructure in pursuit of political aims.

Yet media coverage of the attack glossed over Stack’s history and ideological motivations. “There were fears that this was an act of terrorism,” a CNN reporter intoned to the camera. “But it wasn’t. It was simply one man’s grudge against the IRS.” The New York Times described Stack as “generally easy-going, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.”

Public officials also stubbornly avoided the “t” word. Austin police chief Art Acevedo instead called it the “cowardly, criminal act” of a lone individual. The Department of Homeland Security assured that there was no “nexus to terrorist activity.”

The reluctance to categorise Stack as a terrorist was curious. Even as the September 11 attacks continued to occupy an outsized space in the American psyche and remained the driving force behind its national security policy, politicians, law enforcement and the media refused to use the label “terrorist” for a man crashing a plane into a government building after writing an anti-government manifesto hoping for a “big body count” that would cause a “revolt.”

At the time of Stack’s attack, I had just finished a stint as a counterterrorism adviser to the New York Police Department. I was disturbed by the dismissive reaction.

After years monitoring global terrorist activity, working with detectives on foreign and domestic investigations and living a street away from the excavated rubble that was the World Trade Center, it was incredibly disconcerting to see what I thought was a clear act of terrorism being labelled as the act of an individual in crisis just because it did not look like what we were conditioned to think of as terrorism.

The September 11 attacks were the first significant experience of terrorism for many, and they wedded an association of terrorism to jihadism, the terrorism associated with militant Islamist movements. Joseph Stack was a white, middle-class “everyman.” He did not fit the popular image of a terrorist.

A preoccupation with jihadism allowed many to conveniently forget that before September 11 the most deadly terrorist attack committed in the United States was by Timothy McVeigh, another anti-government extremist, who in 1995 bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including nineteen children, and injuring more than 680. McVeigh was also a white, middle-class “everyman” connected to the anti-government extremist movement.

On one hand, I understood the difficulties in investigating the incident as a terrorist attack. Despite the Patriot Act’s expansion of terrorism offences, there remains no specific law in the United States that allows federal prosecutors to charge someone with “domestic terrorism.” It was tempting to dismiss Stack’s attack as a result of personal pathologies instead of an ideologically motivated act of violence. He did act alone, and he was motivated by personal animus that bled through into his political beliefs.

“He had his own personal issues and personal motives,” said homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, who also happened to have been one of the lead investigators for the McVeigh trial. “He used a terrorist tactic, but an individual who uses a terrorist tactic doesn’t necessarily mean they are part of an organised group attempting an attack on the United States.”

And yet, just because someone acts alone does not mean they cannot be a terrorist. In fact, lone actor terrorism was on the rise. The September 11 attacks unleashed a massive military, bureaucratic and law enforcement effort aimed at stopping another highly coordinated international terrorist attack. As a result, those motivated to commit terrorism had to resort to working alone or in small cells.

By 2010, the vast majority of terrorism was committed by individuals or informal cells, not centrally organised groups. They were motivated by a complex mix of personal grievances and ideological beliefs and were connected to broader movements, not through organisational membership or operational directives but through ideological affinity.

In my law enforcement work, I was privy to field reports and analysis showing a sharp and steady uptick in right-wing, anti-government attacks against law enforcement and government infrastructure. A great many who committed violence were lone actors or operated in small cells. An analysis of lone actor terrorism made before and around the Austin plane attack found that “86 per cent of the lone perpetrators belong to one or another right-wing extremist movement.”

And yet, at the time, few understood that Joseph Stack’s attack fitted into a growing tide of anti-government sentiment with a potential for violence and should have been seen as an integral part of a broader right-wing extremist movement.

One of the few who did was historian and analyst Mark Pitcavage, a veritable walking encyclopedia of extremist movements in the United States. For twenty-five years, Pitcavage had been tracking domestic US extremist movements through his work for the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program, a justice department initiative created after the Oklahoma City bombing to train law enforcement officers on domestic terrorism issues.

Pitcavage followed the anti-tax protest movement and the Stack case closely. I contacted him to ask what he made of it then and now. At the time, Pitcavage considered Stack’s attack a borderline case, but ultimately landed on counting it on his list of right-wing terrorist incidents.

“The key thing for any act of terrorism is whether and to what degree it was motivated by ideology versus personal animus,” he told me. “The bottom line for us was his past history with the anti-tax extremist movement.” Pitcavage also remarked that “Stack’s actions fit into accepted definitions of terrorism — a pre-planned act or attempted act of significant violence by one or more non-state actors to further an ideological, social or political cause or to harm perceived opponents of such causes.”

I asked Pitcavage if he thought the anti-tax movement that motivated Stack was on the right-wing extremist spectrum. Before I could even finish asking the question, he interjected with an emphatic, “Absolutely.” The tax protest movement, he explained, “is extremely important in the history of right-wing extremism because it essentially gives birth to the area of anti-government right-wing extremism known as the Patriot movement.”

The anti-tax movement, the sovereign citizen movement and the militia movement are what Pitcavage calls “sister movements” that collectively make up the Patriot movement, which in turn forms the anti-government wing of right-wing extremism. It sits alongside, and sometimes overlaps with, the other lodestar of the extreme right: white supremacism.

Indeed, after Stack’s attack, white supremacist groups hailed him as a hero — which seem like a quirk until you understand that the anti-government, anti-tax movement has always intersected with other elements of right-wing extremism. Dismissing Stack as mentally ill or only motivated by personal grievances meant that officials also dismissed the fact that right-wing extremist movements were alive and well in America.

The debate over Stack also reflected how much more limited our understanding of radicalisation to violence was at the time. But through advances in research on the psychological process of radicalisation to violence, we now understand a lot more. Far from disqualifying him from the terrorist label, Joseph Stack’s personal grievances paved his path to radicalisation — they helped get him to the place where he decided violence was the only answer.

But if it is clearer in hindsight that Joseph Stack was a violent extremist, questions still remain. How should we understand his anti-government attack? Were there broader forces at play than mere definitional debates that allowed so many to dismiss Stack as a disturbed individual rather than part of a growing threat to the United States?

Few besides Pitcavage and fellow specialists understood the breadth of right-wing extremism and how its various movements intersected, or had the historical perspective to properly situate a terrorist attack by an anti-tax protester within the broader right-wing extremist milieu.

A few elected leaders called it out. Michael McCaul, whose district included Austin, Texas, and who was then the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, put it succinctly: “When you fly an airplane into a federal building to kill people, that’s how you define terrorism.” His Democratic colleague from Texas agreed. Unlike Napolitano, Representative Lloyd Doggett did compare the attack on the Austin IRS building to the Oklahoma City bombing.

But despite previous warnings by the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the increasing number of anti-government domestic extremists, the Bureau ultimately decided that it would not treat this as a terrorist attack but was investigating the incident “as a criminal matter of an assault on a federal officer.”

The reluctance to label the Austin suicide attack as terrorism was not the only instance of dismissing and politicising the brewing right-wing extremism threat around that time. A few months prior, the Department of Homeland Security had released a memo assessing that “Rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues. The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalisation and recruitment.”

It went on:

… and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks… DHS/I&A [The department’s intelligence and analysis section] is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalise returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.

The report was labelled FOUO — for official use only — and was meant for law enforcement consumption. But it soon found its way into the hands of the media and far-right politicians.

It was excoriated by many Republican politicians aligned with the Tea Party movement. Stack’s attack came at the height of this movement — a populist conservative, anti-deficit, anti-tax group highly critical of the Obama administration that emerged after the global financial crisis. These Republicans accused the Obama administration of painting US veterans as extremists and conservative voters unhappy with the administration’s policies as potential domestic terrorists. Far-right radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “This Department of Homeland Security report is nothing more than a partisan hit job filled with lies and innuendo that portrays any conservatism as right-wing extremism.”

A number of Republican lawmakers called for DHS secretary Janet Napolitano’s resignation. “To me, it looks like the extremists are those running the DHS,” said Representative Michele Bachmann.

Napolitano ultimately bowed to political pressure, issued a public apology to veterans and announced that the DHS was retracting the memo. The author of the memo, Daryl Johnson, who Republican opponents might have been surprised to learn was a registered Republican and once said, “I personify conservatism,” was run out of the department. The analytic unit he ran was disbanded and by 2010 the department had no intelligence analysts working on domestic terrorism threats.

Astonishingly, some elected Republicans went beyond hurling accusations at the department and actually justified Stack’s attack and the ideological motivations behind it. In February 2010, newly elected Republican senator Scott Brown, who won an upset victory in the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts on the back of the Tea Party movement, used the incident as a political talking point. “I can just sense, not only in my election and certainly since being here in Washington, people are frustrated,” he said. “They want transparency. They want their public officials to be accountable… Certainly no one likes paying taxes.”

Then Iowa Republican Steven King — a man who has been labelled “the US congressman most openly affiliated with white nationalism” and who would pave the way for Donald Trump by staking out similarly incendiary positions on race, immigration and dismantling government — went even further. “I think if we had abolished the IRS back when I first advocated then he wouldn’t have had a target for his airplane.” King went on to call for a fundraising effort for anti-tax protesters and urged his constituents to “implode” their local IRS offices.

Though it lives on in the lore of anti-government extremism, aside from a handful of terrorism experts and the immediate victims, the Austin suicide attack has been largely forgotten. The broader warning of the department’s 2009 memo, however, has come to pass.

Data collected by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2021 shows a surge in right-wing extremist-motivated incidents in the United States not seen for a quarter of a century, dwarfing all other ideologically motivated attacks from left-wing extremists and jihadists.

More recent Department of Homeland Security assessments found white supremacists will remain the most persistent and lethal extremist threat to the country. The joint FBI–DHS Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism released in May 2021 also found that right-wing extremists — particularly white supremacists, sovereign citizens and anti-government militias — “remained a persistent source of violence.”

While his administration made some attempts to address right-wing extremism, President Trump became an inspiration and galvanising force for right-wing extremists in the United States and around the world. After his election, there was a steady stream of right-wing extremist violence in the United States.

In August 2017, things turned deadly at the massive Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white supremacist rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. Pressed to condemn the protesters, Trump said there was violence on “both sides” and that “there were some very fine people” peacefully protesting. His comments essentially applied a false moral equivalence to the white supremacists and counter-protesters.

The following year, eleven people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history and occurred within the context of rising hate crimes against Jews and racial minorities by right-wing extremists.

With multiple mass shootings occurring only months apart, 2019 became a banner year for right-wing extremism. The deadliest was in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Australian-born Brenton Tarrant gunned down fifty-one worshippers and injured scores more at two mosques as he live-streamed the attack.

New right-wing extremist threats also emerged. QAnon — the pro-Trump, fascist, anti-Semitic conspiracy movement arising out of an internet subculture — came to the fore during the Trump presidency and grew during the Covid-19 pandemic. Other far-right, anti-government movements were turbocharged by the pandemic and intersected with conspiracy movements, leading to numerous plots, attacks and other acts of violence in protest against lockdown measures and government mandates. It all reached a crescendo with the Capitol siege.

As alarming as this all is, the growing right-wing extremist threat is far from reliant on Trump, and its growth is not limited to the United States. The United States has become a major exporter of right-wing ideology and narratives, and a recent US president is its key influencer. But the rise of the extreme right is connected to broader political and social factors, corresponding with the growth of far-right populism, disaffection with democracy and global capitalism and lack of trust in government and institutions around the world.

The UN Security Council counterterrorism committee has released multiple threat assessments outlining the increasing concern of member states about the growth and threat of right-wing extremism and terrorism around the world. Right-wing extremism increased by upwards of 320 per cent globally from 2016 to 2021.

In Australia, intelligence and counterterrorism officials have warned of the growing threat. In 2021, the director-general of ASIO said right-wing extremist and white supremacist terrorism made up at least 50 per cent of the agency’s caseload. Also in 2021, Australia proscribed two right-wing extremist groups, The Base and Sonnenkrieg Division, as terrorist organisations; the first time the Australian government has ever listed right-wing extremist groups.

Recent investigative reports by the ABC, the Age and the anti-fascist White Rose Society have detailed the extent of right-wing extremist activity in Australia, uncovering previously unknown connections between Australians and right-wing extremist movements, particularly in the United States.

Far-right extremism is a significant and growing threat in Europe, too. In 2016, the number of extreme right-wing terrorist attacks increased by 43 per cent. A 2021 report published by the Center for Research on Extremism in Norway found a considerable rise in the number of right-wing extremist plots in Western Europe, particularly against Black minorities. Worryingly, many of them were committed by uniformed personnel. The report contained a caveat that its dataset only included the “most severe” incidents and that less severe attacks and plots were “too many to be covered systematically and exhaustively.”

The German interior minister declared right-wing extremism “the greatest threat to security in our country” in 2021. Criminal activity and political violence associated with right-wing extremist groups are at their highest levels in Germany since recording began. Right-wing extremist infiltration of the German army became so concerning that Germany’s defence ministry had to disband an entire company of its Special Forces Command. As of 2020, 500 soldiers were under investigation by military counterintelligence for right-wing extremist sympathies.

Growth is not limited to the Anglosphere or continental Europe. Right-wing extremism is also on the rise in Asia. In India, anti-Muslim violence, communal riots and mob attacks fuelled by the extremist Hindutva movement have grown. In prime minister Narendra Modi, India has its own far-right populist leader with ties to extremist Hindu movements. Modi’s rule has emboldened elements advancing an exclusivist Hindu nationalism that undermines India’s longstanding multicultural identity. Extreme ethno-nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment have also rocked Sri Lanka and Myanmar, undermining pluralism and democracy.

Even these stark details don’t reveal the full extent of the growth in right-wing extremism. They only indicate the number of terrorist attacks, foiled plots and arrests. They don’t touch on the many hate crimes and violent counter-protests, or the increase in paramilitary group membership, vigilante violence and other interpersonal violence and crimes committed by extreme-right actors. Nor do they touch on the observable growing acceptance of extreme right-wing ideas and narratives promoted by nominally non-violent groups and political parties within both established and emerging democracies.

And right-wing extremism is only predicted to increase. •

This is an edited extract from Rise of the Extreme Right, a Lowy Institute Paper published this month by Penguin.