U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator and Ambassador Nathan Sales speaks at a Wilson Center forum in Washington on July 12, 2019. (M
U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator and Ambassador Nathan Sales speaks at a Wilson Center forum in Washington, July 12, 2019. (Michael Lipin/VOA)

WASHINGTON - Citing a rise in ethnic and racial violence in many parts of the world, the State Department is mobilizing U.S. partners to combat white supremacist and other extremist groups.

Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said Friday the “world saw a rise in racially or ethnically motivated terrorism” in 2018, calling the development a “disturbing trend.”

“Our role is mobilizing international partners to confront the international dimensions of this threat,” Sales said at the launch of the State Department’s 2018 Country Report on Terrorism.

FILE - Hezbollah security forces stand guard as their leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link on a screen in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Sept. 10, 2019.

Sponsors of terrorism

The report called Iran “the world’s worst sponsor of terrorism,” saying the Iranian regime, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, spends nearly $1 billion a year to support terrorist groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah.

“Many European countries also saw a rise in racially, ethnically, ideologically or politically motivated terrorist activity and plotting, including against religious and other minorities,” the report said.

For example, the report noted an estimated 2,000 “Islamist extremists” and 1,000 “white supremacist and leftist violent extremists” in Sweden. A 2018 assessment by the Swedish Security Services called the extremists’ presence a “new normal.”

Cross-border links

Echoing recent assessments by the FBI and other security officials, Sales said that white supremacists and other extremists increasingly communicate with like-minded cohorts across international borders.

“We know that they are, in a sense, learning from their jihadist predecessors, in terms of their ability to raise money and move money, in terms of their ability to radicalize and recruit,” Sales said.

U.S. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about such cross-border links between extremists. In some cases, right-wing extremists have traveled to Ukraine to fight on either side of the five-year conflict in the east of the country.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 30, 2019, during a hearing on domestic terrorism.

The links between U.S. extremist groups and their foreign counterparts appear to be more ideological than operational. But what worries the FBI is the inspiration white supremacists can draw from violent groups overseas, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday.

“I think you’re onto a trend that we’re watching very carefully,” Wray said.

“We have seen some connection between U.S.-based neo-Nazis and overseas analogues,” he said. “Probably a more prevalent phenomenon that we see right now is racially motivated violent extremists here who are inspired by what they see overseas.”

The rise of violent groups on the right has started a debate among policymakers over whether some outfits should be designated as terrorist organizations.

No domestic terrorism penalty

The problem is that while “material support” for international terrorism is a chargeable offense, there are no penalties for domestic terrorism.

One proposed solution is to pass a law that would allow prosecutors to bring domestic terrorism charges against defendants. Another is to add overseas white supremacist groups to the State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

Sales deferred a question about terrorism designations to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Asked whether a proposed law on “domestic terrorism” will help the FBI, Wray said, “Certainly we can always use more tools. Our folks at the FBI, just like (federal prosecutors), work with [the motto] ‘Don’t Give Up,’ and so they find workarounds.”