LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — When a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, a lot of Americans watched in a state of disbelief. It also sparked, among some, fear about possible future violent attacks organized and carried out by extremist groups.
Experts say both extremist and hate groups have shifted their operations from the fringes of society directly into the mainstream. According to recent data, while the number of hate and extremist groups has slowly declined over recent years, the number of hate incidents has skyrocketed, especially here in Arkansas.
Members of extremist groups show up at various protests armed and dressed in military fatigues. Some carry flags or wear shirts displaying who they support. Others try and blend in, not wanting to be identified.
In 2020, the rising presence of extremist and hate groups across the nation was on full display, and those in Washington took notice.
In September of last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of Congress, “the greatest terrorist threat to the homeland is the homegrown, violent, extremists.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups across the nation, the number of white nationalist groups in the United States hit an all-time high of 155 in 2019. One year later that number dipped to 128.
The SPLC also noted slight declines among anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ hate groups in its most recent report. There was also a decline in the number of active hate groups across the nation.
In 2020, the SPLC tracked 838 active hate groups. That’s a decline of 102 from the previous year and a substantial dip compared to the record-high 1,020 it tracked in 2018.
But while the number of hate groups has gone down, the number of hate incidents has not, and experts say the chances of more violence is higher now than ever before.
“That’s largely based on the rhetoric that we’re seeing and the degree to which people are unified right now,” Michael Haden with the SPLC explained.
As for Arkansas, the number of hate groups has gone down nearly 50 percent from the all-time record set back in 2010. But according to the Anti-Defamation League’s “HEAT” map, which tracks hate, extremism, and anti-Semitic and terroristic incidents around the nation, a different story is seen.
According to the ADL, the number of incidents has skyrocketed more than 500 percent in just the past four years, with the majority of these incidents involving propaganda.
When asked about the groups behind the incidents, Little Rock Special Supervisory FBI Agent William Kennedy explained that even singling out a group by name only encourages them to do more.
“One of the things I am not going to do is I’m not going to name any particular group, because really, I don’t want to give them oxygen,” Kennedy said.
He did, however, say that unlike other parts of the country, the level of activity among extremist and hate groups in the Natural State has been consistent.
“We are looking at essentially the same caseload today that we were looking at six years ago,” Kennedy explained.
As for extremist and hate groups in 2020, two factors had a huge impact on their declining numbers, and the first was COVID-19. According to the SPLC, the coronavirus minimized hate group activity both in-person and online.
The other factor has been and continues to be the recent crackdown on social media platforms by big-tech companies.
“These groups, I think it’s important to note, they require an audience to grow,” Haden explained, adding that some extremist and hate groups are now going underground and using encrypted messaging apps to better communicate. “They need oxygen. But eventually, they need to come up for air to build recruits.”
Preventing these groups from communicating won’t be easy now that they have found their way into the mainstream. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO of the and recently said that officials in the U.S. are “just going to need to come to grips with the fact that there’s a potential longevity for this insurgency in our country.”
But he also said the solution to rooting out domestic terror lies in the hands of lawmakers and society as a whole.
“You shouldn’t hate someone based on how they pray or where they’re from or how they vote. We need to ask more of people to bring the country together.”