In 1999, two of the most infamous terrorists of the 1990s - one a militant jihadist, the other a violent white nationalist - found plenty to chat about in the yard of their supermax prison in Florence, Colo. Timothy McVeigh, mastermind of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 and injured hundreds more, was thrilled to discover he had "lots in common" with the equally murderous Ramzi Yousef, ringleader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a precursor to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "I never have [known] anyone in my life who has so similar a personality to my own," gushed Yousef of McVeigh.
The 9/11 attacks placed Yousef's brand of militant jihadism front and center in the realm of global counterterrorism efforts - and rightly so. Even with these efforts, violent Islamism was still responsible for more than 84,000 deaths worldwide, including nearly 22,000 civilians, in 2017 alone.
That said, recent white extremist attacks against synagogues and mosques in the United States, New Zealand, and elsewhere show the danger of neglecting one of these threats for the other. Though white extremism cannot compete with jihadism in terms of global body count, violence on its behalf is clearly rising in Europe, the United States, and other Western countries.
It is time to recognize what has been true all along - that these two radical ideologies exist on opposite sides of the same dangerous coin. Like communism and fascism competing against a wounded Western liberalism after World War I, jihadism and white nationalism are competing to unravel a post-Cold War global liberal order they believe betrays their faith and their rights. And they hope to do so in similar fashion: through the use of mass-casualty attacks that foment chaos, undermine democratic governments, and inspire potential followers to join the fight for an ethno-religiously pure future.
Notably, the primary danger comes not from a single large-scale attack (though WMD terrorism is a real possibility) but from ongoing limited attacks that cause Western countries to chip away at their own values - by, for example, shuttering their borders, or curtailing basic rights to freedom of speech and religion. Such moves would play right into the hands of the extremists, by creating new sets of grievances.
The dual threat of jihadi and white nationalist terrorism certainly poses an enormous, multi-dimensional, long-term challenge for the United States and the West. But there are several concrete steps we can take to begin weakening, and to ultimately defeat, these threats.
First, we must shore up our physical defenses against the growing capacity of all violent anti-liberal groups and individuals. This means no longer assuming the threat is either from white nationalism (as in the 1990s) or jihadism (post-9/11), but rather from both. The good news is, over the past two decades, America and its closest allies have built an elaborate system of intelligence sharing about jihadi groups, which has become a pillar of global efforts to thwart attacks. There is, however, no comparable system for sharing intelligence on domestic terrorist groups, including white extremists. With white nationalists increasingly interconnected globally, inspiring each other with their manifestos and attacks, this needs to functionally change.
Second, we must gear up for a long-term ideas-based battle against militant anti-Western movements. While the United States certainly relied on its economic and military power to help defeat fascism and communism in the 20th century, it was the strength of its liberal ideals that permitted its global leadership to endure. And it will be these same Western ideals of openness and inclusion - rather than reckless efforts toward censorship (of "hate speech"), or closing doors to legal immigration, or limiting the free exercise of religion (through, for example, religious apparel bans) - that will serve as a positive example to the world, and expose radical alternative ideologies for what they are: bloody dead-ends.
Finally, none of this will be possible without a good deal of soul-searching by the West. The post-Cold War dominance of Western ideals has certainly aided humanity - by, for example, helping pull a billion people out of poverty. However, in parts of the world that have not benefited from globalization, and for Western populations resentful of the changes that coincide with increased economic and political openness, anti-liberal sentiment has become a contagion helping to fuel both jihadism and white nationalism.
Western nations must begin redressing the ill-effects of globalization as part of a long-term strategy to counteract jihadi ideology in the Arab and Muslim world. And at home, Western governments must respond to the populist discontent rising within their own countries with difficult reforms needed to save and strengthen liberal democracy.
After nearly three decades of movement toward ever freer markets and increasingly open borders, it is time to again accept the right of nation-states to protect the economic well-being of their own citizens, and to control migration flows within their own borders. A little give on these issues might not only prevent the next Brexit, or election of the next Trump, it will help fray the roots of white nationalism.
Right now, the next Timothy McVeigh or Ramzi Yousef is plotting to disrupt and destroy what Western liberalism has taken centuries to build. It is well within our grasp to stop it.
- Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and counterterrorism at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).