If Antifa is a 'terrorist' group, how could the US fight it?

The US is not the only country to wrestle with domestic terrorism. Many countries have experiences fighting terrorist groups that are either home-grown or have locals who adhere to their ideology

NYPD officers stands guard as police try to control protesters during looting after marching against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., June 1, 2020.  (photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
NYPD officers stands guard as police try to control protesters during looting after marching against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., June 1, 2020.
(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
US President  Donald Trump has said the US will designate Antifa as a “terrorist organization.” This is after a week of protests and increasingly violent riots that the administration has blamed on the radical far Left. There has been pushback on Trump’s policy, with experts arguing that current US law generally deals with foreign terrorist organizations. There is no precedent for labeling a domestic terrorist group.
The US is not the only country to wrestle with domestic terrorism. Many countries have experience fighting terrorist groups that are either homegrown or have locals who adhere to their ideology and acts. The UK fought the Irish Republican Army for years, while Spain fought ETA. Peru battled the Shining Path, and India has fought a plethora of terrorist groups.
What most examples have in common when it comes to fighting domestic terrorism is that the groups are rooted in a certain part of the country, either fighting a separatist conflict, or a religious extremist “jihad” or seeking to champion suppressed minorities.
There are more complex examples, such as the Front de liberation du Quebec, a radical-left group that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s in Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province. The Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof, appeared in Germany in the same era.
The Tupamaros, another radical-left group, appeared in Uruguay, and the Red Brigades terrorized Italy. They even killed former prime minister Aldo Moro. There were a plethora of left-leaning groups that have been called insurgent or terrorist across Latin America, including the FARC and Zapatistas.
If we look back at these examples, it is entirely plausible that the US could go after domestic “terrorists” the way other states have.
History shows that democracies have not always succeeded in fighting these groups. For instance, the experiences of Germany or Italy against radical-left terrorism were complex. Most of the groups faded away as their small number of members were hunted down, jailed or died, or even retired and went into exile or became local celebrities. One of the Tupamaros went on to become president of Uruguay despite having been in prison for 12 years.
Generally, groups that are ideological and have a more urban base, such as Antifa, fade away over time or are broken in a series of well-planned raids. Groups that are more rural or ethnic and nationalist can also be beaten by mapping out their structure and delivering coordinated blows to their organization through large raids.
For instance, the French ignored a Breton nationalist group called the Liberation Front until 1969, when they began hunting down its members. Little groups, like the far-left Revolutionary Internationalist Action Group in southern France and Iberian Liberation Movement, faded away.
Right-wing groups seem to have the same pattern of growth and dispersion. The far-right Charles Martel Group carried out attacks in the 1970s in France. The right-wing Secret Army Organization, which opposed Algerian independence, killed some 2,000 people between 1961 and 1962. Then it faded away, and amnesty agreements allowed its leaders to move on to politics.
The lesson for the US is that domestic far-left or far-right groups can be confronted as “terrorists” and special laws drawn up to enable their detention or infiltration. For instance, the US once made the destruction of the mafia a clear goal of law enforcement.
But the US has a mixed record with going too heavily after perceived threats. Use of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in raids in the 1990s led to the disaster at Waco, Texas, where suspected cult members were besieged and numerous people died.
The FBI has put a spotlight on different domestic terrorists over the years. It singled out right-wing extremism in the 1990s. Then it looked more deeply at the Earth Liberation Front and environmental terrorism. The FBI in 2002 said these far-left groups had committed 600 criminal acts.
The problem with confronting Antifa is that US law enforcement seems to have a low-level understanding of the group and whether it is well coordinated or how it operates across state lines. The FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces reportedly has looked into acts of violence in Denver in relation to domestic terrorism. This may not be linked to Antifa though.
How could the US improve its knowledge about groups alleged to be “Antifa” to see if they are committing terrorist acts? It would need to conduct surveillance and infiltrate them and also monitor their communications. It would have to map out their networks and discover any messages or planning that are criminal in nature.
Often when people point to “Antifa,” they find a few social-media accounts online that are likely not even linked to the group and allege that they have found evidence of Antifa incitement. A real investigation would have to analyze who controls social-media accounts that claim to be “Antifa” and map out allege perpetrators.
Videos have surfaced showing people destroying property who are alleged to be the kind of mostly white, affluent, young men and women linked to Antifa. In a country that has vast amounts of security cameras, police would have to analyze riots and determine if, within the chaos, there are organized groups.
Identifying a criminal network, whether the mafia or a terrorist cell, can be done through means that law-enforcement agencies already possess. But this requires setting a target or looking at an incident and determining who to follow and who to conduct surveillance on and then rolling them up into their network and establishing that they have planned some sort of attack. It also requires identifying accounts and funding, including illicit finance, for the group.
It took years to try to understand al-Qaeda in the 1990s, when it was still seen as more of a law-enforcement problem, using FBI resources and then a global war on terrorism. Lack of coordination led to dropping the ball on al-Qaeda plots. Even after 9/11, the arch terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, who the US later killed in a drone strike, was allowed to recruit and radicalize people in the US, such as the Fort Hood shooter.
Given the mixed record of the US in tracking down domestic terrorist types, whether it is going after radical groups in the 1960s and 1970s, targeting the mafia and drug cartels or the KKK and right-wing extremists, militias and the far Left, it is not clear how it would mobilize resources to confront Antifa.
There are likely bureaucratic and institutional objections to Trump’s characterization of Antifa as “terrorists.” There will be pushback from high-level law-enforcement officials who already seem to have been nonplussed by the administration’s dealings with the FBI. How the administration would establish a task force and the resources to even find out if Antifa groups did anything during the last six days of riots is unclear.
The administration likely will use this to talk about fighting terrorism while not actually focusing on mapping Antifa and seeing what it may or may not be up to. Like the European method of dealing with far-left terrorism, which often involved letting the groups age and go away, Antifa may be a passing illusionary, or at least elusive, threat.