Today’s political climate is bringing to light a disturbing trend – the rise of far-right extremism. UConn Department of Political Science professor Evan Perkoski is an expert on political violence including how armed groups form, how they employ violence, and how they recruit members of the police and military into to their ranks. Earlier this summer he published a book titled Divided Not Conquered: How Rebels Fracture and Splinters Behave (Oxford University Press) about how armed groups break apart and splinters emerge. More recently, he received a three-year grant of over half a million dollars from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center - a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence - to study domestic terrorism and the link between recruitment trends and patterns of violence. Perkoski met with UConn Today to discuss his research and recent events.
Q: Can you talk about the rise in far-right extremist groups that we are witnessing today?
We can think of the far-right as a large category of groups with racist, alt-right, white supremacist, anti-immigrant, and anti-government attitudes. While these groups aren’t new to the United States, there’s evidence they’ve been gaining steam for at least a decade. But this isn’t unique to the US. It’s part of a much broader global phenomenon and we've seen groups with far-right sympathies begin organizing from Western Europe to Southeast Asia. In some European countries, we’ve even seen far-right groups with extremist tendencies doing relatively well in parliamentary elections.
In terms of the rise of the far-right compared to other ideologies, if you look back through history you see pretty clear patterns of different ideologies gaining and losing prominence over time. The far-left was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. Islamist and Jihadist terrorism came to the fore in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now we are seeing a transition to the far-right. If we put this in a broader historical context, this is something that happens all the time where different ideologies rise and fall in line with global events, with dominant modes of thinking, and with other forces in society. It's not something entirely unexpected.
Q: What causes these fluctuations in the dominant ideology?
There are many different factors that shape which ideologies are dominant at any given moment. Political and economic forces are two of the most significant. For instance, which political actors and what political systems dominate? How are economies faring and transforming? Which global issues dominate public discourse? Which segments of society feel aggrieved? While specific grievances fluctuate over time, there are always going to be winners and losers from economic and technological changes, and this can inspire different ideologies to take hold. Social forces also matter. While this has to do with who’s winning and losing at any moment, dominant ideas and social frames can transcend borders. So, at any given moment, there are a multitude of forces working in different directions that influence which ideologies are relevant at any given time.
Q: How are you studying recruitment by these extremist groups?
This is a tricky topic since it’s hard to observe. We can only really study people who were successfully recruited, who are high-profile members, or who got arrested. We can’t always study people who almost joined a far-right group then decided not to since we might not know who they are.
As a result, we use all available means to study a topic like this, so we’ll be using both quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative, statistical methods give us big-picture correlations and help identify cross-national trends that we maybe couldn’t see just by reading news stories, for instance. But with qualitative methods we’ll dive into particular groups and their recruitment tactics, and study specific individuals over time through interviews, journalistic reports, and court documents. This gives us the micro-level perspective that complements the big-picture statistical findings.
One of the things we'll focus on for the US government is to look cross-nationally and identify important trends in the recruitment of certain types of people, like military veterans, police officers, and people with engineering and electrical expertise. From existing research, we know that some of these recruits have outsized impacts and are linked to particularly dangerous outcomes. Military veterans, for instance, were critical to the Islamic State’s battlefield effectiveness, and engineers were critical to Al Qaeda’s explosives capabilities. So we’ll look cross-nationally to figure out which types of recruits are most dangerous and to understand how they typically affect an organization once they’re recruited. This is important because in the US today, some groups on the far right are seeking out people with certain skills, and we’re trying to figure out how this might affect their attack capacity. Even the Pentagon has flagged the recruitment of its soldiers as a major problem.
One of the things I’m most excited about is that with this grant from the Department of Homeland Security, I'll be able to hire over a dozen undergrads in the next couple of years to work on this research with me. I’ll need help collecting data on who armed groups are recruiting and locating interviews and records about recruitment in the US. Personally, I got my start in political science when I was an undergraduate and took a course called the Politics of Terrorism that I absolutely loved. I started doing research with the professor and it got me hooked. I was ready to go to law school, but that one course really changed things for me, and I ended up doing a PhD instead. I want to give students at UConn that same opportunity.
Q: Is your book related to this research?
My book is looking at a different but equally important topic: how armed groups like terrorists, insurgents, and rebels break apart, and when they do, how breakaway splinter groups behave. This is an important question because these groups are breaking apart all the time. In fact, about 30% of all armed groups are splinters, and it’s one of the most common pathways that armed groups to form. People might know about splinters like the Real Irish Republican Army that broke away from the Provisionals in 1998, or the Islamic State that by some accounts split from Al Qaeda in 2014.
My argument is that we have to look internally before these fractures even happen to understand what's going on, and then use that information to anticipate which members are staying behind and which members are leaving to form the new group. That's going to tell us how that splinter is going to differ and how it should eventually behave. And just as with the other project, it studies this statistically over time and across countries, but also through case studies of the Irish Republican Army, the Islamic State, and the Spanish terrorist group, ETA.
Q: Is there work being done to study far-left groups?
Evaluating the current security environment, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and others have repeatedly stated that the radicalized far-right poses a threat to the US and the constitutional order. This is evident in the number of attacks and in the scale of those attacks. But to be clear, this is not the typical right-side of the political spectrum. It’s the extremists who are using and threatening violence to get what they want, it’s white supremacists, the Proud Boys, people who marched in Charlottesville with torches, and those who stormed the capitol on January 6th. Groups in other ideological categories simply don’t pose the same threat today.
As to why we’re studying it, researchers tend to follow the dominant threats and trends in society. We’re looking at what we need to study right now, and that's the far-right. If there was a systematic, organized threat from the far-left, I would say let's study that too, but there isn't. In the 1960s and 70s, there definitely was a threat from far-left groups like the Weather Underground and they were heavily studied. After 9/11, massive amounts of time and money were spent studying jihadist groups. But right now, the threats that we're anticipating here in the US are coming from the far-right.
Q: Given today’s political climate, what trends are you noticing?
We’ve been seeing a rise in violent threats against government officials, like the attempt to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer and the death threats against former Vice President Pence on January 6th. This is a pretty standard operational profile for the alt-right. But we’ve seen even more of it since the FBI raid to recover classified documents from Mar-a-Lago. There have since been threats against individual members of the FBI, the federal judge who signed the warrant, and a gunman even tried to attack an FBI office in Cincinnati. You actually see a very quick feedback loop between news events and violent trends. Existing research also finds a clear, quick link between rhetoric and statements from political leaders and how their supporters behave. I think everyone today needs to think carefully about what words we’re using and what precedents we’re setting because it can have serious consequences.
A major challenge is that many of these groups are not yet deemed illegal or they’re not operating against any obvious laws. Until they commit attacks or cross certain thresholds, it’s very hard to prevent these organizations from recruiting and operating in the public sphere.
When we study political violence, we often look at what are called structural factors that influence rates and types of violence in a country. In America, some of those structural factors relate to core features of the constitution. Our freedoms of speech and assembly are incredible, but they also make it very hard to prevent some of these nascent extremists organizations from going out, talking to people, and getting attention. Outlawing groups is just something we don't really do here. So while we’re all grateful for a constitution that affords citizens so much freedom, those freedoms can also be used nefariously by groups to organize, buy weapons, and start training members. But in other countries, like in the UK, France, or Germany where political systems are different, governments might have a greater ability to prevent some of these groups from taking off. That being said, many of these countries are struggling with the same issues we are, and this is a global problem that will take serious effort to contain.