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White supremacists connecting, recruiting through digital platforms

White supremacist terrorism has become an international threat as nationalists in America and Europe are connecting online to push their hateful ideology a group of experts said Wednesday in testimony before two congressional panels.

“The greater threat is how the tentacles of white American nationalism have extended far beyond our borders and into a deep network of global terror,” said Christian Picciolini, founder of the Free Radicals Project, a group that combats white extremist groups.

The joint hearing between the Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees comes amid an increase in domestic terror attacks largely fueled by racial or religious animosity. Recent high-profile attacks include a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, last month that left 22 people dead and the 2018 murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Authorities have linked both shooting suspects to manifestos expressing bigoted and hateful ideas.

Lawmakers from both parties have begun to seriously discuss legislation that would expand the government’s authority to tackle the growing threat from white nationalists. But the panel of experts warned white nationalism is not just a threat in the United States.

One expert, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of American University’s International Training and Education program, told the panel that 50 deaths around the world have been linked to white supremacist attacks. Another witness, Sharon Nazarian, senior vice president of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, estimated more than 175 people died worldwide because of white nationalism violence.

“White nationalists are globally interconnected in at least five expanding areas,” Ms. Miller-Idriss, said. “Social media and online relationships are key to supporting all of these strategies.”

American and European white nationalists are connecting online to increase recruitment, share techniques and tactics, share manifestos and livestream attacks, she said. Communications occur through encrypted apps making it difficult for authorities to track members.

Mr. Picciolini, a former white supremacist himself who now tries to convince others to leave such groups, said nationalists have begun mimicking radical Islamic terrorists when it comes to connecting with overseas allies.

“American white nationalists have spent decades building alliances with their counterparts overseas,” he said. “They have developed a sophisticated online presence and received material support from foreign allies through digital influence campaigns. Like ISIS, white nationalists also distribute glossy print and electronic propaganda and film recruitment videos.”

The sharing of white nationalist ideas has increased normalization of those beliefs leading to a rise in attacks, the experts said.

Ms. Miller-Idriss said supremacists from Europe attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. That rally resulted in the death of Heather Heyer when James Alex Fields Jr., a self-professed neo-Nazi, rammed a car into a crowd of counterprotesters. Fields is serving a life sentence plus 419 years for his role in a riot that occurred during the rally.

Warning the threat will only get worse, experts said local and federal law enforcement need to step up their efforts to crack down on white supremacist groups.

“I do have concerns about whether local law enforcement is adequately prepared, particularly given the evolving nature of the threat,” said Ms. Miller-Idriss. “I’m not sure we have an awareness among local law enforcement.”

White nationalists frequently change their symbols and colors making it difficult for authorities to track members, she said.

Mr. Picciolini agreed.

“White supremacists have done a very good job of hiding themselves over the past few years,” he said.

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