They are driven by a search for identity, sick devotion to a cause, and angry reaction to perceived victimization in a manner that is strikingly similar to another group of violent extremists: Islamist jihadis.
I spent two years profiling jihadis in seven countries in the Middle East and in the West for my 2008 book
, "Against Us: The New Face of America's Enemies in the Muslim World." What struck me then was how most jihadis I met were driven less by religion than by a skewed and delusional view of the politics of their world. And what strikes me now is how familiar their worldview is in the wake of Charlottesville.
I wrote at the time, "This feeling of being under attack has helped solidify a new Muslim identity -- a new cause -- of its own. Anti-Americanism is a form of Middle Eastern nationalism that transcends borders, even religion. ... They see it as resistance against American imperialism."
The narrative that extreme right-wingers in the United States and jihadis in the Middle East share goes something like this: "They" are destroying our world and our culture; they are outsiders who don't belong here and are inferior to us, they are taking away our well-being and way of life, and humiliating us in the process; to make matters worse, they are protected by elites who don't represent us and in fact have disdain for us; and we are the sole defenders of the true (fill in the blank) America or Islam.
Those common themes are reflected in the similarity of the groups' mantras. While the KKK marchers chanted "You will not replace us" and "Blood and soil," the most popular nasheeds (or protest songs) of ISIS and other terror groups are riddled with talk of stolen land, blood and purity, and humiliation avenged. "We are going to battle them," begins one jihadi chant, "and return our usurped right."
More broadly, there are economic parallels between the groups that make them most vulnerable to such extremism: declining or nonexistent economic opportunity, unemployment, as well as dissatisfaction with and distrust of their leaders and public institutions. Such problems seemed uniquely Third World until similar trends have developed here in the United States.
For jihadis, religion, or rather their bastardized version of it, provides a useful veneer for this worldview. For the KKK and similar white extremists, "nationalism" -- though it is, in reality, simply repackaged racism and nativism -- does the same. And both are dangerous. A joint intelligence bulletin by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, first reported
by Foreign Policy and confirmed by CNN, found that white supremacist extremists were responsible for 49 homicides in 29 attacks from 2000 to 2016 -- more than any other domestic extremist movement.
The extremists' mindset is enormously self-serving. They make themselves both the heroes and victims of their manufactured stories. Facts and history are twisted to their advantage. And, at the same time, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for their troubles and frustrations with the modern world.
When I met jihadis face to face, I was often surprised by how utterly unintimidating they were. Their viciousness results from a deep insecurity; it is in fact the antithesis of courage. And this weekend, I felt the same looking at the marchers in Charlottesville. Both their cause and their violent tactics are an expression of weakness. And, while they may not recognize it, they are exploited for their leaders' own political ends. The sons of terror leaders rarely end up as suicide bombers. I doubt the sons of KKK leaders end up on the front lines of their many acts of violence.
There's a lesson in these similarities. And it is part of the reason that US law enforcement smartly groups both Islamist jihadis and white nationalists under the same umbrella of "violent extremism." Defeating the ideology requires belittling it, or at least not elevating it beyond its hollow foundation.
White nationalists don't represent the "real America" anymore than jihadis represent true Islam. They are each community's most desperate and misdirected. Sadly, as we have seen from Charlottesville to San Bernardino, California, and beyond, desperate can be very deadly.