Sometime around 8 p.m. on Wednesday night, Dylann Storm Roof allegedly entered the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C. and sat with a prayer group of 12 people for about an hour. Then he opened fire, killing nine, and fled the church.
Similar incidents that have captured the nation’s eye and attracted this much media attention in recent history have concerned homegrown Islamic extremists. Meanwhile, relevant studies and polls have consistently shown that domestic attacks by right-wing radicals are a graver concern to law enforcement and have led to more deaths than the threat of “homegrown jihadists” in the dates following 9/11.
Focusing primarily on Islamic extremism “would be a serious mistake,” according to a study released in February by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “A large number of independent studies have agreed that since the 9/11 mass murder, more people have been killed in America by non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadists.”
The rise of the Islamic State and their subsequent calls for violence against targets in the west have garnered plenty of media hype and attention from terrorism analysts. In fact, just last month a Texas-based event held to draw the Prophet Mohammad was attacked by two gunmen allegedly influenced by the Islamic State. The event was disseminated in the media for days and lead many to call for greater recognition over the threat posed to America by radical Islam.
“I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them,” Republican Presidential Candidate and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on June 1. “We will never enjoy peaceful co-existence with radical Islam because its followers are committed to destroying us and our way of life.”
In a New York Times op-ed, ominously published the day before the shooting in Charleston, university professors Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer wrote about how placing such a firm focus solely on Islamic extremism doesn’t line up with domestic terrorism-related statistics.
Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.
In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012.
And it isn’t just lawmakers that are letting right-wing radicals slip out of their purview. For its part, the SLPC also blames government agencies. “[T]he Justice Department has allowed its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee to go into hibernation since [9/11],” the February study says.
“It’s not a question of focusing on one or another type of terror. No matter the source, we simply cannot afford to ignore the ongoing carnage.”
An earlier version of this article quoted the SPLC study as saying “[T]he Justice Department has allowed its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee to go into hibernation since [9/11]”. The SPLC later amended the study to add the following editor’s note: In mid-April, the SPLC became aware that the committee had met three times since June.