Anonymous dropped a list of more than 1,000 alleged members of the Ku Klux Klan today and there are worries that vigilantes might take justice into their own hands, as well as concerns that the unvetted information might prove to be false. But what if the list turns out to be legitimate? Association with a U.S. hate group is not illegal, and despite terrorizing minorities, gays, Jews and Catholics for over a century—committing atrocities designed to induce a state of terror among the public—the Klan is not designated as a terrorist organization. Why is that?

If, say, an American citizen were a known affiliate of al-Qaeda, they would stand to face some serious legal consequences. Why is an often violent hate group allowed to hold parades and recruit out in the open? Professor Randolph Michael McLaughlin of Pace University specializes in civil rights and has successfully faced the KKK in court. He tells Hopes&Fears, “The term ‘terrorist’ has been overused only in connection with Muslim extreme groups who have committed acts of terror. To my knowledge, it has never been used to designate homegrown American groups that terrorize minority groups.”

That turns out to be true. Homegrown “terrorist groups” simply don’t get designated the same way as a member of ISIS. And while hate crime laws have stiffened the penalties that a domestic terrorist group might face, it would be extremely difficult to label a domestic group as terrorists. We spoke with Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League about the numerous reasons why this is the case.

Rhett Jones




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Mark Pitcavage is a historian and critic of far right-wing groups. He works with the Anti-Defamation League and was the creator of the now archived Militia Watchdog website. The site has been an archive since 2000 when Pitcavage took the position of Director of Fact Finding for the Anti-Defamation League. He holds a PhD in American military and social history from Ohio State University.


There are a number of different reasons the Klan is not designated as a terrorist organization. Let's take a look at them one by one.

 Domestic extremist groups are not designated as terrorist organizations.

I am simplifying a bit, but basically the only ways that the United States "designates" any groups or movements as terrorist organizations are through the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), and, to a lesser degree, through Executive Order 13224 (designed to impede terrorist funding). The INA allows the State Department to designate groups as international terrorist organizations; there are also other related provisions in the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989. Other laws allow the State Department to designate state sponsors of terrorism. Thus for the U.S. even to be able to designate a domestic extremist group as a terrorist organization, a new law would have to be passed to authorize that. For reasons below, such a law might be difficult to withstand constitutional scrutiny. 

 The term "Ku Klux Klan," as commonly used, misleadingly implies both a unity and a history that does not, in fact, exist.

Rather, the "Ku Klux Klan" should be thought of not as a specific hate group, but as a type of hate group, like neo-Nazi groups or racist skinhead groups. 

The original Ku Klux Klan, formed in the 1860s, was the largest and most violent domestic terrorist organization that the U.S. has ever known. It only lasted about 10 years, though. In the 1910s, a fraternal organizer, inspired by the movie The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Klan, decided to restart the Ku Klux Klan.  This new organization spread quickly, across the entire country, and at its peak in the early 1920s had millions of members. However, though racist (and now anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic) and sometimes producing violence, overall it was a much more mainstream organization than the original Klan. Beginning in the late 1920s, this second Ku Klux Klan rapidly declined because of scandal and mismanagement, and formally ended in 1944. Thus 1944, was actually the last time there was a single "Ku Klux Klan" in the United States.

In the 1950s, however, the "Klan" began to rise again, primarily in the South rather than nationwide, as the most extreme example of opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. It was not a unitary Klan this time around. Rather, a number of completely independent Klan groups of varying sizes developed in different areas and regions. Many of these Klan groups were very violent, committing hate crimes and acts of terrorism. Not every single Klan group was necessarily violent, though. This "era" of the Klan ended sometime in the early 1970s as it became obvious that they had failed in stopping desegregation and the groups began to decline and fall apart. None of the groups of this era have lasted to the present day.

From the late 1970s to the present day, we have had the post-Civil Rights era "Klan" (Klan members themselves often divide the history of the Klan into five or even six eras, but those extra distinctions are largely meaningless).

Again, we are not talking about a unitary Klan, but a constantly changing myriad of dozens of Ku Klux Klan groups of varying sizes. It so happens that just this week we (ADL) updated our inventory of Ku Klux Klan groups active today and we currently track 46 different Ku Klux Klan groups (you may see different numbers from the Southern Poverty Law Center; that is because they count each alleged chapter of a Klan group as a separate "group," whereas we do not, because many of the alleged Klaverns are impossible to confirm).

Of these 46 Klan groups, there are many with whom we cannot trace a connection to any criminal activity. I think you can see how difficult it would be to categorize the "Ku Klux Klan" as a terrorist group, when, in fact, there are nearly four dozen different "Klans" active today, including many with no significant connections to violence.  Moreover, even the ones with which there may be some sort of association with criminal activity generally have not ordered or organized such violence. 

 Terrorist organizations find it extremely hard to exist in the United States, and domestic extremist violence, including terrorism, is not very group-oriented.

When one looks at the history of organized terrorism--i.e., terrorist groups—one finds that they tend to exist only in certain circumstances. I am once more simplifying, but basically: one finds lasting formal organizations that are committed to using violence as a primary tactic to achieve their political, social, religious or other goals only when they exist in an environment that prohibits effective law enforcement and counterterrorist measures. 

For the most part, these circumstances are one or more of the following:




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  Lawless or semi-lawless areas, or areas outside the control of a government.  Examples from the past few decades include parts of Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Columbia, Syria, etc.


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Very strong ethnic, religious, or other communities that can provide a sort of internal haven and base of support for a terrorist group or movement that allows it to survive in the long-term despite efforts by a government to suppress it.  Examples include: the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist group ETA, Uyghur terrorists in Xinjiang in China, Kurdish separatists in Turkey, Chechen terrorists, and so forth.   Rarely, other types of havens can exist. In the 1970s in Italy, for example, trade unions provided a haven and base of support for the Red Brigades.


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 State sponsorship. Sometimes nations will provide safe havens for terrorist groups that will allow them to commit terrorist acts elsewhere. In the 1970s, East Germany was a haven for left-wing terrorist organizations; in the 1990s, the Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan allowed Al Qaeda a haven, as did the government of Sudan before them.




However, in the United States, none of these circumstances currently apply. The rule of law is strong throughout the entire country. As a result, terrorist groups find it extremely difficult to survive in the United States. The number of organized groups that formed as terrorist groups in the U.S. and managed to survive for any length of time is very small in recent decades. Among white supremacists, perhaps the most notable is The Order, sometimes known as the Silent Brotherhood, which operated as a terrorist group from 1983-1985. Note that within just a few years, the federal government was able to take this group down in its entirety. Most such groups do not last anywhere near that long and, in fact, are typically caught before they can carry out their first violent act. 

Sometimes there is an exception to this. When a major new extremist movement emerges, it can take law enforcement some time to begin to understand the movement, its goals, and tactics, and to gather criminal intelligence about it, and finally to develop tactics to successfully combat it. This sort of gap in the early 1970s allowed the leftist Weather Underground to successfully engage in a number of terrorist bombings.  Eventually, however, law enforcement catches up, begins to develop informants, understands how to do undercover work in that particular movement, etc. But these are exceptions.

But generally extremist groups in the U.S., particularly formal organized ones, do not form for the purpose of committing violence—even if violence may subsequently emerge from such groups.  For most extremist movements, most of the actions by groups and individuals associated with those extreme movements consists of non-violent activities (propaganda, recruitment, etc.) that would actually be protected by the Constitution. This is in contrast to a group like Al Qaeda which exists largely for the purpose of committing violence. This is another factor that would make it difficult to declare any domestic extremist group as a terrorist group.

So what does domestic terrorism in the U.S. look like? Essentially, regardless of whether we are talking about left-wing extremists, white supremacists, right-wing anti-government extremists, or domestic Muslim extremists, domestic terrorism and extremist violence in the U.S. usually tends to take one or more of these forms:




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Lone wolf violence

The Charleston shooting this summer is a perfect example of this.  A lone white supremacist decides to engage in an extreme act of violence.


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Associational violence

One or more persons associated with one or more extremist groups decide to commit a violent act. Note that in these cases, the group itself is not ordering the act, nor is the act necessarily done at the behest of or to specifically benefit the group. In fact, many extremist group leaders in the U.S. do not want their own members to commit violence, for fear that it may bring down the heat on them in the form of law enforcement, civil lawsuits, etc. Rather, extremist groups often act as “finishing schools” for extremists, who join the group, get radicalized by it, meet other like-minded people through it, but then (sometimes because they are frustrated by the group’s inaction) go off on their own to commit a violent act.


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Cell violence

This can overlap with #2 above. Cell violence is when two or more extremists form an informal cell or group in order to commit a violent act. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols are an example of this; so too are the Tsarnaev brothers.


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Structureless group violence

A relatively new tactic is the existence of entities that are merely notional or symbolic groups without any real leadership, structure, or membership. In this fashion, individual extremists or cells can commit a violent act and claim it in the name of one of these notional entities. The Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front, the Army of God and the Phineas Priesthood are all examples of this sort of “group.” Anyone can commit a violent act and claim it in the name of one of these entities; there is no actual group or structure for law enforcement to take down.




So, to get back to the Ku Klux Klan, when we look at the violence committed in recent years that has some sort of Klan-related association, we don’t usually see Klan groups as groups organizing and committing violent acts, the way we might have seen in the early 1960s (or late 1860s). Rather, we tend to find an individual (or more than one person) striking off on their own to commit a violent act.  

Because of this, it might be difficult to designate as a terrorist organization even a Klan group that has some violence associated with it, if it were not possible to prove that the group organized, ordered, or condoned the violent act in question.

If you put all of these things together, you can see why formally declaring the Ku Klux Klan collectively, or one or more of its individual Klan groups, as a terrorist group would be both difficult and problematical. This would apply to most other extremist groups in the U.S. as well, of course.

A better approach, which is essentially the approach law enforcement takes in the U.S., is to concentrate on the violence (in terms of prevention or in terms of apprehension of suspects), whether it comes from an individual, an informal cell, or an organized group. I should note, too, as there is no real law in the U.S. against “domestic terrorism” (other than an odd narrow exception called “animal enterprise terrorism”), designating a group as terrorist would have no impact on the criminal prosecution of one of their members beyond whatever else they were charged with. In contrast, for white supremacist related crimes at least, federal and state hate crimes laws actually can provide additional charges and/or harsher penalties.


cover: Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images   Icons: Flag by Jamie Rothwell from the Noun Project, Scale by Mister Pixel from the Noun Project, Pray by Cristiano Zoucas from the Noun Project