In June, Canada labeled the white supremacist group Blood & Honour and its armed branch, Combat 18, as terrorist organizations.
In announcing the move, Canada's public safety department said Blood & Honor derives its ideology from "the National Socialist doctrine of Nazi Germany" and, through Combat 18, has carried out murders and bombings.
The designation of a white supremacist group as a terrorist organization, the latest of several by Western nations, comes as U.S. allies respond to a recent rise in violence committed by right-wing groups. But the U.S. government is powerless to take such action because of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment protections, even though it would strengthen the hand of law enforcement agencies in cracking down on extremist groups.
"A white supremacist organization is an ideology, it's a belief," assistant FBI Director Michael McGarrity testified before the House Homeland Security Committee in May. "But they're not designated as a terrorist organization."
Charging white nationalists
While prosecutors have successfully charged dozens of Islamic State sympathizers with providing "material support" to a foreign terrorist organization included on a government watch list, they can't bring similar charges against individual white nationalists.
But that could change if the U.S. starts adding groups such as Blood & Honor to its Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, experts and some lawmakers say. There are currently 68 groups on the U.S. watch list. Most are Islamist groups such as IS and al-Qaida. Not one is a white nationalist group.
To be designated a foreign terrorist organization, a group must engage in terrorism and threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States. Blood & Honour, whose members were convicted in Florida in 2012 for murdering two homeless men they considered "inferior," can meet the criteria, experts say.
Domestic Terrorist Organizations
"Our allies — including Germany, Canada and the U.K. — have designated Domestic Terrorist Organizations, and we must consider doing the same or at least designate the groups designated by our allies as Foreign Terrorist Organizations," former FBI agent Ali Soufan said at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on global terrorists last week. "This will allow our law enforcement agencies access to the full suite of monitoring tools and our prosecutors the ability to bring meaningful charges for aiding domestic terrorism.
With the designation, the FBI could monitor people connected to the organization, even if they are U.S. citizens operating on U.S. soil, Soufan said. In addition, the designation would allow authorities to share intelligence on the designated groups with U.S. allies and enable prosecutors to bring "material support" charges against white supremacists.
"These are important tools," Soufan said.
'Terrorism is terrorism'
Democratic Congressman Max Rose of New York is one of the proposed designation's congressional champions.
"Terrorism is terrorism, and we have to fix that," Rose said at the hearing. "And the first step, I believe, is to start establishing some of these organizations as true foreign terrorist organizations."
Some Republican members also support the idea.
"It's absolutely clear that white supremacism is the biggest problem, and we've got to go after that, and we have to address it," said Republican Congressman John Katko of New York.
The push comes as white supremacists have surpassed Islamist extremists in lethality in the United States in recent years, killing 26 people so far in 2019 and 17 people in 2018, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. By contrast, violent jihadists committed one homicide last year and none this year.
More worrisome is growing evidence of close coordination and information-sharing between U.S.-based white supremacists and their international cohorts. American Neo-Nazis are believed to make an annual pilgrimage to Europe to celebrate Hitler's birthday with other white nationalists from around the world.
While designating foreign white supremacist groups as FTOs would allow the FBI to use additional investigative tools, there are limits to its benefits, cautioned retired FBI agent and national security expert David Gomez.
"While I don't know if the FBI has any active investigations against organizations like Blood & Honour, it is an interesting question to ask, i.e., are the U.S. organizations taking direction from the potential [foreign terrorist organizations], or are they merely subscribing to their ideology?" Gomez said.
Labeling a group a terrorist organization for simply subscribing to a white supremacist ideology would run afoul of the First Amendment, Gomez said.
"That is the slippery slope that you have to worry about sliding down, because one man's terrorist is another man's patriotic nationalist," he said.