White Supremacy and the Making of Counterterrorism: Stories
“Other nations have much to learn from the ways in which Germany has faced the evils of its past,” writes Susan Neiman in Learning From the Germans. I present this argument to a think tank researcher in Dresden in the summer of 2022, and it incites incredulity. For years I have been attempting to make sense of the differences in contemporary responses to white supremacist violence by Germany and my home country, the United States, but all I have found is how closely these stories hew to one another. Where some see lessons for a Washington facing an insurrection on its doorsteps, my interlocutors insist that the German government is not taking white supremacy seriously. While some see encouraging policy reforms under the Biden administration, a German colleague asks me about the possibility of another civil war on US soil.
White Supremacy and the Making of Counterterrorism: Stories is about these tensions and their reflections across the Atlantic. Though the book could masquerade as a comparative study, it is at its core a dialogue between the US and German approaches to white supremacist violence from the 1990s to the present. From my position as a US citizen, German-speaking scholar of white supremacist violence, I engage directly with a rash of recent calls for the United States to “learn from the Germans” when it comes to facing a racist past and its legacies. I ask: who does it serve to place the most seemingly out of place manifestations of white supremacy under the “terrorism” umbrella? What are the limits of the security state? And where in these countries’ identities is there space for countering not something deemed “terrorism,” but white supremacy itself?
Methodologically, I draw on years of fieldwork trips to Germany, networks of contacts in the US counterterrorism establishment, German public education materials, US Congressional hearing transcripts, and an assembled library of “learning from the Germans” literature. I arrange this constellation of sources into what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls a rush of stories. Parts of this book read as archetypical social science, with my making a claim and presenting evidence to support it. Other parts are discussions I have drafted, taking the construction of the US and Germany as conversation partners in the counterterrorism space and realizing it directly through prose. To tell stories, to borrow from geographer Katherine McKittrick, is to build rigorous, radical theory; to turn to fiction, to paraphrase novelist Tim O’Brien, is to tell truths.
Altogether, White Supremacy and the Making of Counterterrorism: Stories presents a crucial account of two countries at the forefront of the contemporary fight against white supremacist violence, contrasting their approaches and considering their continued shortcomings. At the same time, it invites us to view terrorism and counterterrorism as a series of questions about identity, power, and the purpose of the state. The crux of counterterrorism, I contend, is not national security, but rather what sorts of social relations we wish to have comprising the world.
Whiteness as Expertise in Studies of the Far Right
Critical Studies on Terrorism, Online First (2024) (PDF)
This article addresses backlash from white academic gatekeepers to research on the white far right and white supremacist violence. Centrally, I interrogate how whiteness shapes the field’s response to a seeming shift in patterns of political violence towards white supremacist activity. Taking white supremacy in the study of white supremacist violence seriously, I contend, would shift our attention to larger social patterns of oppression and opportunities for liberation. However, this does not happen due to a concept I call “whiteness as expertise.” Building on Charles W. Mills’ white epistemologies of ignorance, I argue that the attributes of transferability and disconnection both obscure and perpetuate how scholarship on white supremacist violence can further whiteness. First, I review the backlash experienced by the academic and policy turn towards white supremacist violence, even if scholars and practitioners may not call it “white supremacist.” I then introduce the concept of whiteness as expertise in more detail, highlighting how insistence on “terrorism” as a unitary and unifying category leads to backlash against research on white supremacist violence. I conclude with examples of academic backlash to open discussion into the complexities of studying whiteness within a white-majority academy.
Racism By Designation: Making Sense of Why Western States Rarely Designate White Supremacists as Terrorists (with Zoltán Búzás)
Security Studies 32 (4): 680–713 (2023) (PDF)
Why do states designate some actors engaged in political violence as terrorists but not others? Why have Western states designated so few white supremacist actors as terrorists compared to other actors engaged in political violence? Formal terrorist designation mechanisms have practical implications for national security and foreign policy as well as normative implications for what actors are illegitimate in the eyes of the state, yet they have received little attention in political science. We draw on the norms literature and critical work on racism and terrorism to argue that designation patterns reflect and reinforce broader practices of racializing the “terrorist” category. While Arabs/Muslims are stereotypically seen as terrorists, whites benefit from the presumption of not being terrorists. The result is a racial double standard at the core of the norm against terrorism, such that white supremacists are disproportionately less likely to be designated as terrorists than other groups. Using detailed case studies of designation in the United States and United Kingdom, we illustrate the value of this argument. Additionally, we suggest that although recent designations of white supremacist groups have the potential to transform our normative understandings of terrorism and reduce its discriminatory application to designations, these moves function more as window-dressing. Our argument illustrates the deep entrenchment of racism in Western states’ counterterrorism practices and calls for further study of racialized norms surrounding “terrorism” in mainstream international relations.
Terror as Justice, Justice as Terror: Counterterrorism and Anti-Black Racism in the United States
Critical Studies on Terrorism 15 (1): 83–101 (2022) (PDF)
How do counterterrorism policies in the United States reproduce anti-Black racism? Research on U.S. domestic counterterrorism policy post-9/11 has largely focused on the experiences of Muslim Americans while marginalizing both separate and overlapping effects on non-Muslim people of color, particularly non-Muslim Black communities. I argue that domestic counterterrorism policy, as an act of determining what types of political contention states find non-threatening, is both rooted in the historical treatment of Black resistance and continues to derive power and legitimacy from oppressing Black communities. Using the case of the Black Liberation Army and its members, I show that federal counterterrorism institutions in the U.S. are shaped by opposition to Black liberation, although those institutions also target non-Black communities. This article thus extends understandings of discrimination and prejudice within the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus and advocates for greater attention to anti-Blackness not only in policing but also in security institutions more broadly.
The Idea of Terror: Institutional Reproduction in Government Responses to Political Violence
International Studies Quarterly 64 (3): 499–509 (2020) (PDF)
Winner of the 2021 Genevieve Gorst Herfurth Award for Outstanding Research in the Social Sciences, UW–Madison
Despite the recent global uptick in white supremacist terrorism, governments continue to face accusations of not taking the threat seriously, either discursively or in terms of policy responses. Why do acts of white supremacist violence consistently fail to constitute turning points for policy change? Rather than considering acts of political violence as critical junctures for change, I argue that such acts instead reveal how persistent institutions of power actually are. I develop a theory of hegemonic components of national identity that links institutionalized white supremacy to the differential treatment of non-white perpetrators, even when they are deemed terrorists, through a process of institutional reproduction. Drawing on interviews with German national security elites, I show that even when white supremacist violence is treated as terrorism, both legally and discursively, it does not engender policy responses and attitudinal changes on par with those following other terrorist threats.
Diversity in Proxy War Studies: Politics, Positionality, and Colonial Persistence (with Layla E. Picard)
In The Routledge Handbook of Proxy Wars, edited by Assaf Moghadam, Vladimir Rauta, and Michel Wyss, 100–110 (2023) (PDF)
Historically, research on proxy wars has instrumentalized local actors, reproducing Western-centric lenses found throughout international relations scholarship and thereby limiting understanding of the dynamics and consequences of conflict. As a corrective, we propose three axes of diversity—political/factional alignment, degree of local knowledge concerning the site of conflict, and positionality relative to hegemonic discourses of knowledge and politics—to guide scholars in critiquing and challenging dominant approaches in the field of proxy war studies. Through case studies of the “Secret War” in Laos and the Yemeni civil war, we show how our approach allows for consideration of imperial and racial dynamics that may be reproduced within a proxy war framing, as well as the complex interests and costs experienced by local actors during and after war.
Critical Reflexivity and Research on State Responses to the Far Right
In The Ethics of Researching the Far Right, edited by Joan Braune, Aurelien Mondon, Meghan Tinsley, and Antonia Vaughan (2024, forthcoming). Manchester University Press
Projects in Progress
“A name was banned. Nothing more!”: Identity, Democracy, and Banning White Supremacists in Germany (revise & resubmit; paper available upon request)
Calls for governments to proscribe white supremacist actors as “terrorists” have increased in recent years, yet little attention has been paid to whether proscription of such actors “works” and what consequences may arise from expanding counterterrorism apparatuses in this way. What happens when states bring violent white supremacist organizations under the counterterrorism umbrella? Using original data on Germany’s 70–year practice of banning white supremacists as “anti-constitutional,” this article uses the vehicle of terrorist proscription to explore the political work done by treating white supremacists as “terrorists” in a legal, not only a discursive, sense. I argue that placing security efforts against white supremacists alongside questions of constitutionality and democracy invokes larger debates about German values and identity, rendering visible the role of white supremacy in constructing the German nation. Banning white supremacist organizations, then, becomes a policy instrument that provides a veneer of combating violence without confronting the embedded nature of the ideology underlying that violence. My findings that bans are overwhelmingly symbolic and offer little in the way of deeper political change have implications not only for German security policy, but also for cross-national studies of terrorist proscription and combating white supremacy in all of its manifestations.
The Violence of Empire: Anti-Trans Activism Online in the US and UK (with Anne Craanen and Charley Gleeson; working paper available on request)
The past few years have witnessed an explosion in anti-trans activism, yet these activities have neither come out of nowhere nor taken place in a vacuum. On the right, transphobia evinces a continued preoccupation with categorization, control, and social reproduction that characterized the heights of both US and UK empire. On the left, trans-exclusionary radical feminism (TERFism) has acted as what Alyosxa Tudor calls “white distraction”—an activity done for distraction’s sake to avoid facing head-on the benefits white liberals accrue from white supremacy and racial capitalism, and subsequently to preserve comfort over systemic change. How should we understand the dovetailing of violent transphobia, the right, and the progressive left within a (post)-imperial setting? This project uses differences in the imperial and colonial experiences of the US and UK to explain variation in their respective anti-trans movements while also stressing common threads of white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy. It does so via an examination of online anti-trans reaction in both the US and UK following events in Nashville, Tennessee, US and Bratislava, Slovakia.
Kameradschaften and the Politics of Banning in Germany (with Thomas Trott; paper in preparation)
“‘Salad Bar Extremism’ as White Distraction: The (In)coherence of a Category.” GNET, August 24, 2023.
“Who Really Benefits From Banning White Supremacist Groups?” Lawfare, December 18, 2022.
“Research as Resistance: A Target-Centred Approach to Studying Anti-Queer and Trans Violence.” GNET, December 8, 2022.
“Germany’s White Supremacist Problem–And What It Means For the United States.” Lawfare, January 30, 2022.
“What Does a ‘Terrorist’ Designation Mean?” Lawfare, July 19, 2020.
“The U.S. labeled a white supremacist group as ‘terrorists’ for the first time. It’s less significant than you think.” The Monkey Cage, April 30, 2020.
“Identity, Law, and How Political Elites Define Terrorism.” Political Violence at a Glance, October 18, 2019.
“Why do Facebook and Twitter’s anti-extremist guidelines allow right-wingers more freedom than Islamists?” The Monkey Cage, August 1, 2019.
“Dr. Anna Meier on Counter-Terrorism.” Yeah Nah Pasaran!, October 27, 2022.
“Anna Meier and Aaron Winter on the Shawcross Report.” Enemies of the People, May 31, 2022.
“Is Official Terrorist Content Illegal Online? Terrorist Designation and the Online Realm.” Tech Against Terrorism Podcast, April 13, 2022.
“Anna Meier on White Supremacy and the Idea of Terror.” Enemies of the People, February 1, 2022.
“From Oklahoma City to Jan. 6: How the US government failed to stop the rise of domestic extremism.” USA Today, December 30, 2021.
“Anna Meier on Terrorist Designation and Tofu.” Say More on That, January 6, 2021.
“Holiday Baking and Understanding Terrorism Policies with Anna Meier.” Proofing and Lies, December 28, 2020.
“Facebook Can’t Decide What Terrorism Looks Like.” OneZero, November 27, 2019.