He sounded the alarm on "Hateland": Daryl Johnson warned us about right-wing terror in 2009

Daryl Johnson was a DHS analyst — and a Republican. Then he lost his job for warning us about right-wing violence

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 12, 2019 12:30PM (EDT)

Texas state police cars block the access to the Walmart store in the aftermath of a shooting in El Paso, Tx., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019.  (AP/Andres Leighton)
Texas state police cars block the access to the Walmart store in the aftermath of a shooting in El Paso, Tx., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP/Andres Leighton)

Over the past two weeks, 25 people were killed in a series of attacks by apparent white supremacists in El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, California. These events are part of a global "race war," in which white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other members of the New Right have killed hundreds of people around the world since 2011.

On Sunday, in what appears to be another white supremacist terror attack, a 21-year-old white man opened fire on a mosque in Norway. A 75-year-old man who is a member of the mosque's congregation tackled the alleged terrorist to the ground and then subdued and disarmed him.

Instead of actively and robustly confronting the threat posed to the United States by white supremacists and other right-wing extremists, the Trump regime has instead chosen to give them aid and comfort. These are Donald Trump's "very fine people," after all. The administration has defunding law enforcement programs that target such groups, and has exerted other forms of political pressure as well.

Last week it was reported that Attorney General William Barr, Trump's appointee and de facto personal consigliere, suppressed a report that white supremacists had been responsible for all "race based" domestic terrorist attacks that year. Moreover, since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, right-wing terrorists have killed more people in the United States than Islamic terrorists.

It is not a coincidence that political violence has been increasing since Trump's campaign and now three years into his presidency. Such an outcome is predictable and reflects the permissive environment for right-wing political violence and terrorism created and nurtured by Trump, the Republican Party and their media allies.

Under questioning by congressional Democrats, FBI Director Christopher Wray recently admitted that white supremacists — and right-wing extremists more generally — are the greatest threat to America's domestic security at present. This consensus is shared by America's senior law enforcement personnel and other experts. The Southern Poverty Law Center has issued a report showing that all but one of the 50 killings by domestic terrorists in 2018 were committed by right-wing extremists.

In 2009, Daryl Johnson, who was then a security analyst with Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, wrote a report entitled "Right-Wing Extremism."

In response to Johnson and his team's warnings about the threat posed by right-wing extremism, Republican propagandists protested that "conservatives" were being "targeted," "persecuted" and treated "unfairly" by DHS and the Obama administration. Johnson was forced out of his job, and then-DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano retracted the report.

Johnson is considered one of the United States' foremost experts on right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism. He is also the founder of DT Analytics, a private security consulting firm. His new book is "Hateland: A Long, Hard Look at America's Extremist Heart."

In our conversation, Johnson explained how the threat from right-wing extremists has grown in the decade since he issued his report. He also discussed the role of the Trump administration and the Republican Party in encouraging and giving cover for right-wing extremist violence, as well as the strategy and tactics of white supremacists and other right-wing terrorists. He explained how such individuals and groups become radicalized and discussed the challenge of addressing or controlling right-wing terrorism in a nation awash with guns.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given the recent attacks in El Paso and California, as well as the surge in right-wing terrorism and attacks more generally in America under Donald Trump, how are you feeling?

Frustrated and sad. It is like the movie "Groundhog Day." I keep waking up and doing the same thing and nobody listens. The day keeps repeating until something finally changes.

What are the challenges in trying to stop right-wing terrorism and extremism after it has evolved, versus cutting it off during the early stages?  

It is much more difficult to deal with then. Right-wing extremists have had 10 years of momentum of growth, recruitment, radicalization and attack after attack. Law enforcement has barely left the starting gate.

These white supremacists and other right-wing extremists are very vocal about their beliefs and goals. They want a global "race war." In fact, they are fighting one right now. Too many politicians as well as the American news media have not taken the threat seriously. Why?  

On the Republican side it is denial. I believe the Democrats are more or less in agreement that there is a problem and they want to do something about it. But they don't have the votes. [Sen.] Dick Durbin's proposed Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act has languished for the past 18 months. The Democrats wanted to pass gun legislation when the Las Vegas mass shooting happened, when Sandy Hook happened, after all these other mass shootings. It is just the Republicans who are in denial of what is taking place in the United States with gun violence and mass shootings. The Republicans do this as part of a deliberate strategy on their part to create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, because they depend on those emotions to win elections.

Donald Trump continues to use stochastic terrorism and scripted violence against nonwhites, in particular Hispanics and Latinos. The alleged El Paso shooter wrote a "manifesto" where he claims that Trump did not have anything to do with his attack. But experts have highlighted how these right-wing manifestos are full of lies, intentional distractions, and other ploys to confuse the public and the news media.  

Exactly. There have been examples of right-wing extremists going on social media and "liking" certain things that are associated with Democrats, liberals and progressives to try to cause confusion as a way of deflecting attention away from their true cause. One cannot depend on the extremists to be reliable. Their writings are important to analyze and assess — but you also have to take the target selection into consideration, the types of capabilities they possess, whether these right-wing extremists reference other mass shooters and whether they borrowed tactics from them.

Strategy and tactics. For these white supremacists and their allies, who is the enemy? What do they want? What means and resources do they have to achieve their goals?

As far as means and resources here in America, right-wing extremists are armed to the hilt. They outgun the police which is probably another reason why there is some reluctance, particularly amongst smaller police departments, to confront them. Many police departments are not equipped to handle these people. As far as their targets, it's pretty much anyone with brown skin — and also people with light skin who they believe are in a conspiracy to undermine "white America" or get rid of "Christian values" or whatever other issues they are focused on.

The tactic is that white right-wing extremists are trying to instill enough fear to destabilize society or turn people against the United States government. There is a great deal of chatter about creating a second Civil War. At present here in America it feels like we are in a rhetorical civil war. Right-wing extremists want an actual physical civil war.

In this day and age of the Internet, right-wing extremists have created their own media sources which appear legitimate but are actually full of conspiracy theories and other types of disinformation.

What is the timeline for how these attacks are planned, from formulation to implementation?

It varies greatly. This is true of radicalization more generally. Some people can radicalize in weeks and months and others take years. And many people never radicalize. Some person could be sitting on the edge and they just get inspired from either something Trump says and then they act, or something bad in their life happened and that triggers them, or they see another shooter and decide to be copycats. It is really difficult to nail down.

What about the broader planning and procuring the weapons and ammunition? How long does that take?

These extremists already have the guns and ammunition and other equipment. Many of these right-wing extremists are already prepared because of a doomsday mentality. This mindset can be defensive or offensive in its posture and orientation. These right-wing extremists have already scouted their community. They know what places they would attack or take over. Much of this planning is done in advance as a function of the mindset involved.

You predicted 10 years ago that domestic right-wing extremism was a pressing and imminent threat to America. Your team's analysis at the Department of Homeland Security was greeted with rage and consternation by Republicans and their news media. What specifically happened?

I predicted a rise in violent attacks by right-wing extremists. I also predicted a rise in group numbers and membership numbers based on the political and economic climate. It was not my job to determine what resources were needed to counter this. That was the FBI's responsibility.  My role was to warn the police and inform policymakers. There was a shift in the extremist landscape and I had to let the relevant parties know what they needed to do to address the problem.

What data was used to compile your report?

There was internet monitoring. We were looking at the YouTube videos that they are uploading on their training. We were receiving law enforcement information about new groups being active in forming. We were looking at websites where many of these extremists gather. We were looking at how many people were signing up for these groups. We were also looking at rallies that were occurring around the country as a way of determining membership numbers and who was showing up at these events.

Those are some of the data points. We were also examining different themes such as threats against Obama because he was black and references to recruiting military personnel. These were mentioned in chat rooms and on websites where these right-wing extremists were talking about targeting returning veterans for recruitment.

How did the Republican Party and the conservative moment and their news media misrepresent your report? How did they try to end your career at the Department of Homeland Security?

They took out of context one of the definitions that we had buried in a footnote. The right-wing news media and Republicans and others tried to spin the report to say that we were targeting conservatives and the Tea Party in particular, and that we were labeling Republicans and conservatives as terrorists or potential terrorists. We did not say anything like that. We were just pointing to some of the polarizing issues which fueled the recruitment and radicalization process for extremists. But also, the reason why the definition was so vague is because we are talking about extremism, which covers people who are criminals but also people who provide financing and safe havens.

There are people who sit on the sidelines and support these causes but who do not engage in threats and criminal activity. That's the entire spectrum of extremism. It was surreal. My own Republican Party and conservative movement were taking things out of context and then spinning it all for political purposes. It was frustrating to see that Homeland Security gave in to the pressure, and their very poor public relations response to the whole controversy.

Senior people at Homeland Security could have come to me and my team. We could have given them some good counterpoints or information to bring up in their press briefings. They never did that. Then they turned on us and retaliated against my team. This made me distrust my leadership and become very frustrated and disappointed with the bureaucracy and how they treated us. It was literally a life-changing experience for me. I left for another job. I renounced many of my Republican beliefs. I'm more of an independent now. I also got rid of my religious beliefs, because this whole experience made me open my eyes to my own upbringing and the templating. Everything that took place made me question my core beliefs.

Agents and other employees at DHS, the FBI, the Department of Justice and other agencies have been telling reporters that they want to do something about right-wing extremists and white supremacists but they are afraid for their careers because of what happened to you. Many people in law enforcement want to do the right thing but feel they won't get any support from the Trump administration. What is this doing to their morale?

This has had a huge impact on morale. My former office at the Department of Homeland Security always struggled with morale. But after what happened to me, a lot of people left that office because they saw management turn on us and said, "Well, if they turned on Daryl and his team, they could certainly turn on us."

What happened to me also sent a chilling effect across the whole law enforcement intelligence community. Fusion centers stopped writing about right-wing extremism because they didn't want to become the center of attention for a political firestorm and get the public backlash like we did. I think some of that still resonates today, 10 years later — that reluctance, a risk-averse mentality on the part of decision-makers. And of course Republican legislators don't want to do anything about this issue.

Calm my nerves and please tell me that my cynicism and anxiety are not needed. Given the Trump administration and its priorities and values, I do not think that there will be a proper investigation of the most recent white supremacist terrorist attacks in El Paso or California.

The FBI is going to investigate. They've already declared that. When the world saw Donald Trump reading from that teleprompter condemning those attacks and extremism he looked almost bored. Trump didn't have any emotion behind his words. Donald Trump was almost like a drone. He was just issuing a statement because he's been told by his subordinates that the American people need to hear him say something about these attacks and the broader issue of right-wing terrorism.

What are the similarities and differences between how white right-wing terrorists are radicalized as compared to ISIS or al-Qaida?  

We are all human beings. The radicalization process is quite the same. The only thing that is different are the personal life experiences involved regarding the person being radicalized.

A Muslim living in the Occupied Territories might decide to become more radical because his house got bulldozed by the Israelis. Here in America, someone may have gotten laid off because their job went to Mexico. There are different ways a person can get introduced to extremism, whether it's through a website or a video or meeting someone who has those beliefs.  So the process is the same but what brought the person there and how they got recruited, that may be different — and how they choose to be violent will be different too.

These attacks by white right-wing terrorists are now happening much more often in the United States. What must the country's leaders and law enforcement do to stop them?

It all starts with acknowledging the problem. Call it terrorism. Then we're going to start keeping statistics. Let the stats drive the resources and money for the programs. Commitments to long-term undercover investigations need to be made. State and local law enforcement need to be trained about these right-wing extremists groups. There needs to be grant money devoted to countering right-wing extremism — resources and money on an equal level, if not above that of other types of extremism.

So much needs to be done. Educating the public on their role, how to report suspicious activity, reaching out to communities and organizations that can help identify people being radicalized, working with private industry to get them to do better and more internet and social media monitoring. A domestic terrorism statute could perhaps serve as a partial deterrent for some people, if there was the death penalty or other penalty enhancements of some sort attached to it. But the big thing is we need to change the way we in the United States are viewing these incidents with right-wing extremist terrorism.

Stop dismissing this as crazy gunmen, or hate crimes, or that some person "just snapped." There is an ideology behind the attack. The attack needs to be called out as terrorism.

Your new book is "Hateland: A Long, Hard Look at America's Extremist Heart." What will readers learn from it?

Readers of my book are going to learn about the radicalization process. They're going to learn about the apparatus that's in place in our political system which fuels some of this right-wing extremism. Readers will also learn about the different online chat rooms that these extremists use, how they organize and recruit. They will also learn that there are various types of extremists in the United States, some who are more deadly than others.

America has become the land of hate, and it's because our political system is basically fueling it. The cost is that there are people dying in this country. Hatred is being bred. So is divisiveness. The racial demographics in America are changing. That is a fact. That change is not going to be rolled back. The result is that there are people in white America who feel that their lives are being threatened. Some of them are going to lash out. This not going to end anytime soon. This situation is going to become the new normal.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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