Critical events in the life trajectories of domestic extremist white supremacist groups: A case study analysis of four violent organizations

Authors: Freilich, Joshua D.; Chermak, Steven M.; Caspi, David

Source: Criminology & Public Policy, Volume 8, Number 3, August 2009 , pp. 497-530(34)

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

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Research Summary

This study examines the evolution of four domestic far-right racist organizations: Aryan Nations, National Alliance, Public Enemy Number 1 (PEN1), and Oklahoma Constitutional Militia (OCM). Information about the groups was compiled through open-source documents, including scholarly, government, watch-group, and media accounts. We compared the changes that occurred in these organizations and found that they were influenced by contextual and organizational variables. We focused primarily on the rise of the groups. Three organizations experienced growth and longevity because they (1) had able leadership that set forth a clear ideological message and goals, (2) undertook concrete actions to advance their ideology and goals as well as had the finances necessary for this, (3) took advantage of political opportunities, and (4) were internally cohesive. Conversely, the OCM's leader displayed poor judgment, and the group did not set forth a coherent message, conduct successful actions, or take advantage of opportunities. The OCM neither grew nor amounted to an important extremist organization. We also examined the fall of the organizations. Three groups declined because of organizational instability and/or responses by law enforcement and nonstate actors, such as watch groups. PEN1—despite periodic internal debates about its mission—has avoided organizational instability and continues to grow.

Policy Implications

Law-enforcement analysts must consider how critical incidents affect a group and account for organizational level variables that denote the group's strength. Understanding these organizations is like hitting a moving target. Analysts must engage in dynamic analyses because changes in the factors outlined above may cause a group to increase or decrease in strength and potential to commit violent acts. Although law-enforcement (and watch-group) responses can eliminate violent groups, authorities must be conscious of possible backlash effects. Law enforcement should use harsh responses only as a last resort. Simultaneous with police and watch-group actions, the government should reassure noncriminal movement members that their rights will be protected and encourage them to join the political process. Anti-extremist strategies should challenge the groups' ideologies and stress that violence will not be tolerated. Strategies that prevent the crimes these groups commit (e.g., situational crime prevention) could disrupt the groups, preempt harsh police responses, and thus avoid possible backlash effects. Finally, the authorities should focus on all criminal activities—including terrorist strikes and nonviolent and nonideological crimes—these organizations commit. This strategy could expand our theoretical explanations for group differences and help law enforcement establish priorities for responding to and preventing future terrorist activities.

Keywords: domestic terrorism; far-right extremism; political violence; racist organizations

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Doctoral student in the criminal justice program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, housed at John Jay College.

Publication date: August 1, 2009

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