Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

A Threat to Confront: Far-Right Extremists and Nuclear Terrorism

| Jan. 14, 2021

Last March, neo-Nazi Timothy Wilson was killed during a shootout as he was planning to bomb a hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Like other neo-Nazis, Wilson viewed the pandemic and increased unrest among the American public as an opportunity to popularize Nazi ideas, spark further chaos, and accelerate societal collapse. This past week, Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed while storming the US Capitol as part of a right-wing uprising; several years earlier, she was an employee of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, exhibiting violent behavior during this period. Acts of violence by far-right extremists are on the rise in the United States. Until now, most of these incidents have lacked sophistication, but a critical question for national security experts is whether US far-right extremist groups that espouse violence can carry out something catastrophic.

Every president serving in the last two decades has said that nuclear terrorism is a significant national security threat. Analysis of this threat has been, for good reason, mostly focused on foreign extremist groups, but recent events raise questions of whether there should be greater focus in the United States on far-right, domestic extremist threats. These extremists represent a unique danger because of their prevalence in federal institutions such as the military and the potential that they might infiltrate nuclear facilities, where they could access sensitive information and nuclear materials.

The far-right extremist nuclear terrorism threat, which has some history, is amplified today by an ideology focused on accelerating the collapse of society and a documented interest in pursuing nuclear terrorism. Officials need to act decisively to better understand and mitigate this threat.

Far-right narratives of nuclear terror. The intersection between violent far-right extremist ideology and catastrophic terrorism goes back decades. In The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel labeled the “bible of the racist right,” the protagonists use acts of nuclear terror in service of the creation of a “white world.” Protagonists bomb nuclear installations, seize nuclear weapons, target missiles at New York City and Tel Aviv, and ultimately destroy the Pentagon in a suicidal nuclear attack.The International Centre for Counterterrorism ties the Diaries to “at least 200 murders and at least 40 terrorist attacks/hate crimes” in the last 40 years. This includes Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, resulting in the deaths of 168 people. McVeigh, however, is not the only far-right terrorist to be inspired by the Diaries. In 2011, violent far-right extremist Anders Breivik’s terror attacks killed 77 people in Norway. Dozens of pages in his 1,500-page “manifesto” discuss the execution of different acts of nuclear terrorism.

An increasingly active generation of violent far-right extremist groups and actors have adopted an especially dangerous ideology that is compatible with an act of nuclear terror: accelerationism. Violent far-right extremists who adopt accelerationism view societal collapse as inevitable and seek to hasten that collapse in service of “total revolution”—the complete destruction of the existing system of governance. Violent far-right extremists who adopt accelerationism hope to set off a series of violent chain events, with violence begetting more violence, destabilizing society. Indiscriminate, highly destructive acts of terror—like a nuclear attack—are therefore perfect tools to sow chaos and accelerate this societal collapse.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas, Brendan Hyatt and Rebecca L. Earnhardt.“A Threat to Confront: Far-Right Extremists and Nuclear Terrorism.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 14, 2021.

The Authors