The Need for Nuance in Protective Intelligence Part 2: Antifa Movement
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
This is the second installment of a series of articles that will help protective intelligence and security practitioners gain a nuanced understanding of threat actors. I believe that a detailed understanding of a threat actor’s ideology, objectives, operational model and tactics is critical for security managers to develop strategies to both proactively uncover a potential attack and to develop countermeasures to thwart or mitigate an attack.
The first part of this series focused on the Islamic State. This second segment will examine the Antifa Movement, a threat actor that has been heavily featured but often wrongly characterized in press reporting and analytical pieces.
The Roots of Antifa
In 2017 the Oxford Dictionary placed Antifa, shorthand for anti-fascist, on its shortlist of candidates for its word of the year. It did not win — it was beaten out by the word youthquake — but the inclusion of the word on the influential Oxford list demonstrated the public’s growing familiarity with the word. Indeed, the movement became widely known in the wake of a Aug. 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, which featured a significant Antifa counter protest. The governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency due to violence that broke out between white supremacists and Antifa counter protesters. The Virginia State Police declared the white supremacist rally an illegal assembly and called on the protesters to disperse or face arrest. One of the white supremacists who was angered over the cancellation of the rally drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others. The driver would eventually be convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the vehicular assault, and this sequence of events brought heavy attention to the Antifa movement.
While the Antifa movement became widely known in 2017, it is actually decades old, and has roots stretching back a century. Street battles between fascists, communists and anarchists began in Europe in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. These street battles played an integral role in the rise of Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany. The Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung or brown shirts, was initially organized to protect Nazi rallies against communist disruptions, and to disrupt the rallies of communists and others. Anti-communist fears also gave rise to Italy’s Benito Moussolini’s squadristi militia, known as the black shirts.
The 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War was a high-profile arena in which the global anarchist and communist movements were pitted in actual battlefield combat against Europe’s fascist states. Leftist opposition to fascism continued through World War II, when communists and anarchists proved to be some of the most successful anti-Nazi partisan fighters in places like Italy, Greece, France and Yugoslavia. After the war, these leftists remained a potent force throughout much of Europe.
As neo-Nazi groups began to strengthen in the second half of the 20th Century, there was a corresponding rise in anti-Nazi activity in Europe and the U.S.. Groups such as Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) rose out of the skinhead milieu, while Anti-Racist Action (ARA) grew out of the hardcore punk scene. Both organizations espoused the use of violence to counter neo-Nazism, and members of both organizations frequently became involved in fights with neo-Nazis. Their actions were driven by the belief that if their antecedents had been more aggressively violent in the 1920s and 1930s they could have prevented the rise of fascism in Europe. Consequently, these groups along with other communists, anarchists, and anarcho-syndicalists, have frequently engaged in violent clashes with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
In 1979, a “Death to the Klan” march in Greensboro, NC sponsored by the Communist Worker’s Party (CWP) was attacked by armed Klansmen and neo-Nazis. Some of the marchers were also armed and the resulting exchange of fire left four CWP members and one other protester dead, as well as ten protesters and one Klansman wounded.
But the white supremacists have not always been the aggressors. In 2012, a group of some 18 anti-racists armed with batons, bats and table legs stormed into a restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, IL, and beat a group of white supremacists holding a lunch meeting here. Five Indiana men associated with the Hoosier Anti-Racist Movement (HARM) were later convicted and imprisoned for their role in the attack.
In recent years people affiliated with the ARA, SHARPs, anarchists, Maoists, Marxists and people with an array of other political beliefs and racial backgrounds have coalesced to form the modern Antifa movement. As such, Antifa is a broad-based movement and not a hierarchical group. It does not have a leadership hierarchy, central funding, or even centralized propaganda. In some cities, anarchists play significant roles in the Antifa movement. In Portland, for example, an anarchist affinity group runs the Rose City Antifa website, but they are only one facet of Antifa in Portland and the region. It does often take some effort to disentangle the anarchists from the rest of those involved in Antifa protests, but the point remains that not all who participate in Antifa protests are anarchists, and there is no unified and overarching ideology that binds Antifa protesters together aside from their joint opposition to fascism. Some Antifa movement factions (especially the anarchists) tend to define “fascism” quite broadly, and this has been opposed by other factions and participants of the movement. This friction has caused some to stop participating in Antifa actions.
Many of the individuals and small cells or affinity groups that comprise the Antifa movement do openly promote the use of “direct action” — which can take the form of harassment, intimidation, doxxing and violence against its right-wing opponents. But while many of those who participate in Antifa actions do hold ideologies that condone political violence, this is by no means a universal belief, and conflict between people of various ideologies during Antifa actions is not uncommon. For example, in an Aug 2019 Antifa counter protest in Portland, anarchists severely beat another Antifa participant who criticized their use of indiscriminate violence. In the recent protests over the George Floyd killing, we have seen peaceful protesters detain anarchists committing violence and hand them over to the police or provide information to the police that allowed them to be identified and later arrested.
President Trump has tweeted that he was going to label Antifa as terrorists in Aug. 2019 and then again during recent protests. Because of the nature of Antifa, however, it will be very difficult to label them as a domestic terrorist group. First, as noted above, Antifa is not a group; it is a movement comprised of people and groups from a number of different ideological backgrounds. Second, not everyone who joins in Antifa protests condones or practices violence.
That said, there are some individuals and groups that participate in Antifa protests who could legitimately be labeled domestic terrorists. Anarchists, along with Marxists and Maoists, are usually among the most visible, vocal and violent elements that participate in Antifa protests. Their respective black, red, and red-and-black flags are a ubiquitous sight at Antifa gatherings, and many participants wear clothing with these same colors. The anarchist Black Bloc contingent, for example, is usually conspicuous at protests due to its dress and flags as well as the graffiti, and wake of destructive violence it leaves behind.
I do believe that it is proper to label anarchists who participate in Antifa protests as domestic terrorists when they conduct politically motivated attacks based on their ideology. For example, an anarchist who frequently participated in Antifa actions was shot and killed by police in July of 2019 as he conducted an armed assault against an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Washington during which he attempted to burn buses and detonate a propane tank.
Communists and anarchists are political movements that frequently promote violence to achieve their goals. While they differ in what their end state would look like, the ideologies of anarchism and communism both oppose the current bourgeois political and capitalist economic system in the United States and the West. They seek to overthrow the current world system with a new order, which is why it is no surprise that anarchists and communists — whatever their enduring differences of opinion on how to organize society — detest the police as representatives of the state and frequently clash with them during protests. During demonstrations, they also often vandalize businesses and destroy property belonging to multinational companies which they consider to be tools of capitalist imperialism.
America has a long history of anarchist terrorism dating back to the late 1800’s, featuring incidents such as the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, the 1920 wagon bombing of Wall Street, and the recent Tacoma incident and Aug. 2019 Dayton, OH mass shooting. There is also a long history of anarchist terrorism around the globe, and anarchists continue to conduct parcel bombing campaigns and arson attacks today in Mexico, South America and Europe. There is also a long history of Marxist terrorism across the globe to include groups such as the Weather Underground and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional in the U.S.
We are currently in a cycle in which both the extreme left and the extreme right are growing in power, and in many ways this growth is a result of them feeding off fear of each other. We are likely to see additional acts of domestic terrorism arising from anarchists or communists who have participated in Antifa events, but this violence will not be confined to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Government personnel and facilities are likely to be targeted, as are symbols of capitalism. Such attacks could include property destruction, or even letter/package bomb campaigns. Antifa may not be a terrorist group, but there nonetheless remains a very real terrorist threat from far-left extremists.