Far Right Terrorism & the Problematic Case of Spontaneous Attacks: A Quantitative Study

Sean Urbanski; Richard Collins III.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos via University of Maryland Police, Richard Collins III/Facebook.

In the early morning hours of May 20, 2017, Sean Urbanski murdered Richard Collins III on the University of Maryland’s campus for refusing his demand for Collins to step out of his way on the sidewalk.

Collins was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He was celebrating his impending graduation from Bowie State University and commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. When Collins and several friends were standing at a bus stop waiting for their Uber driver, Urbanski approached the group shouting “step left, step left if you know what’s best for you.” When Collins refused, Urbanski stabbed him to death. In the aftermath, news reports identified Urbanski as a member of a racist Facebook group titled, “Alt Reich: Nation.” As a result, Collin’s race appears to be a motivating factor for Urbanski’s attack. However, Urbanski was not a member of any organized hate group, and there is no evidence Urbanski intended to kill anyone that day. The encounter between Urbanski and Collins occurred by chance, not design.

A few days later, another man, Jeremy Joseph Christian, killed two men and wounded a third, in Portland, Oregon. Christian attacked the men for intervening in his harassment of two African American women, one of whom was Muslim and wore a headscarf. Similarly, there was no evidence Christian sought out a victim but happened to find himself in their presence, just as Urbanski.

News media associated these incidents as part of a surge in far-right violence after the election of President Trump. However, my work has found that spontaneous, unprovoked incidents are not uncommon with the American far right. While many of these incidents have the hallmarks of terrorism, publications about the incidents and criminal indictments against the perpetrators never refer to the attack as an act of terrorism. This is because definitions of terrorism necessitate a gradual process of radicalization leading to a pre-planned operation, not a spontaneous interaction.

However, my co-author, Arie Perliger, and I argue these attacks are terrorism, even if the perpetrator did not establish premeditation before meeting the victim. To explore these incidents, we used a team of undergraduate research assistants to develop a unique dataset to compare spontaneous and planned incidents associated with the American far right in the United States from 1990 through 2012, relying on the dataset created for the Challengers from the Sidelines report from the Combatting Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In comparing spontaneous and planned attacks, we found that spontaneous perpetrators receive significantly shorter correctional sentences than planned attackers. This shocked us given that spontaneous attacks are almost impossible to stop, thus, often the incident results in an actual victim, whereas a planned attack may never materialize, or law enforcement intervenes during the planning stages. The statistically shorter sentence indicates a lack of urgency given to the crime and a failure to designate these attacks as politically motivated.

We further found a severe lack of media coverage given to spontaneous incidents. Planned operations and attacks receive significantly more media and government attention given the flamboyant nature of planned operations. However, in most cases, spontaneous attacks receive minimal media attention. Most cases generate short media reports on the incident and if a perpetrator is identified, a later story signifying the individual’s criminal adjudication. This result further emphasizes the lack of consideration given to the political nature of these attacks.

Random, spontaneous acts of politically motivated violence are heavily ignored by news media, academics, and policymakers. Ignoring these cases is especially problematic given that the spontaneity of these incidents increases fear among a targeted population. However, the broader implications of the resulting fear in minority populations never plays a role during the prosecution and criminal adjudication of the perpetrator. We theorize this is because the perpetrator is viewed as a traditional criminal, or at most, a hate crime offender. As such, these cases wined through the courtroom without the significant attention given to others who become classified as terrorists.

This lack of attention severely limits how the United States perceives far-right domestic terrorism. Largely, these attacks remain a localized issue, appearing only in a single 24-hour news cycle. This is particularly true when law enforcement never identifies a perpetrator. Only when the United States gives far-right ideologically motivated attacks, particularly spontaneous attacks, significant attention and identifies it as terrorism, can we fully grasp the extent to which the American far right poses a threat.

Mr Matthew M. Sweeney is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral Teaching Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His profile can be found here.

© Matthew Sweeney. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).