Understanding the State Department’s Latest Far-Right Terrorist Designation

The Nordic Resistance Movement has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization. Other groups should follow, but probably won’t.

Members of the Nordic Resistance Movement march in Stockholm, Sweden, on Dec. 12, 2016. Photo credit: Frankie Fouganthin via Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0.

Editor’s Note: The Biden administration’s recent designation of the Nordic Resistance Movement is a step in the right direction for fighting far-right terrorism. The Middlebury Institute of International Studies’s Jason Blazakis, however, argues that the United States has a very long way to go and outlines the many challenges the United States faces when trying to treat racist and anti-government groups with the same seriousness that it has jihadist terrorists. – Daniel Byman


On June 14, late on a Friday afternoon, the U.S. Department of State announced the terrorist designation of the extreme far-right group known as the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) pursuant to Executive Order 13224. The decision by the Biden administration was long overdue and marked the first time it has sanctioned what it calls a “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist” (REMVE) group—make no mistake, REMVE, a less politically loaded term, is a euphemism for far-right. Indeed, it has been more than four years since the U.S. government labeled a REMVE organization a terrorist group pursuant to Executive Order 13224. Further, the State Department still hasn’t added any far-right groups to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). The FTO list is seen by many as the benchmark terrorism list, and the consequences of supporting designated FTOs are stiffer.

Until earlier this month, the only far-right terrorist group designated under Executive Order 13224 by the U.S. government was the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which was sanctioned by the Trump administration in April 2020. This terrorist organization’s ties to the newly designated NRM run deep. In highlighting the RIM’s actions in the 2020 designation, the State Department explained that the RIM “provided paramilitary style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe” and cited as an example training attended by two Swedish nationals who then carried out a series of bomb attacks in Gothenburg, Sweden. The RIM-trained bombers were members of the NRM, according to the Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism’s report on the group.

The provision of training is just one part of a long-standing relationship between the RIM and the NRM. The groups have also engaged in financial transactions and participated together in anti-Semitic dialogues at conferences. In its June 14 press release, the State Department suggested that designating the NRM had implications for the broader ecosystem of extremist groups, stating that “these designations are part of a broader U.S. government effort to address the transnational dimensions of the threat posed by REMVE actors.”

Since Biden took office, the U.S. government has repeatedly acknowledged the threat posed by far-right terrorist groups, whether through congressional testimony or in comprehensive strategy documents, such as the Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the first-ever U.S. government strategy to put forward a policy for countering domestic terrorist groups. However, in practice, the United States has lagged behind its foreign partners in taking action against far-right threats, especially in deploying terrorist designations. In 2022, the Soufan Center documented how the United States’s “Five Eye” partners—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—have used their collective sanctioning tools to counter far-right terrorist groups more aggressively. Although a step in the right direction, the recent U.S. designation of the NRM does not balance the ledger, as the United States remains far behind its allies in taking practical action against far-right terrorists.

The Biden administration’s recent decision to designate the NRM and three of the group’s senior leaders may reflect to some observers that the balance is about to shift and that the U.S. government may soon designate more far-right groups. This seems unlikely. The challenge of sanctioning far-right groups poses unique challenges to the United States that do not burden its allies.

First, the extremely polarized political landscape in the United States makes it very difficult to speak frankly about ideologically driven forms of terrorism, especially by far-right actors. Political correctness and self-censorship have resulted in terms like “REMVE” and a paucity of far-right-related designations. This challenge is not new, but it is deeply rooted. Fifteen years ago, the Obama administration scuttled a Department of Homeland Security report that raised valid concerns about the threat of far-right violent actors recruiting active and former members of the U.S. military because Republicans in Congress and right-wing media figures took offense. Simply put, the Biden administration, especially during an election year, will have to walk on eggshells when it comes to taking concrete action against far-right actors.

Second, constitutional protections, such as the right to free speech, make it difficult for the State Department to use its sanctioning tools effectively against far-right groups. As the State Department’s press release on the NRM’s designation made clear, the far-right movement is transnational. U.S.-based groups are often connected to far-right individuals and groups based overseas. Those connections represent a legal quandary even if the group targeted for sanctioning is based abroad. The implications for U.S. persons who may have a relationship with that foreign actor could bring into play the question of free speech and make the designation more susceptible to legal challenge. In contrast, free speech concerns do not come to play in the same way when the U.S. counters transnational jihadist movements that are designated as terrorist groups. The Americans who have been prosecuted for association with these organizations have provided clear, tangible material support, often in the form of traveling and fighting in its ranks. Simply put, U.S. citizens have not traveled to fight in groups like the NRM the way they have with the Islamic State.

Third, while the challenge of far-right terrorism is not new, the U.S. government’s collection of actionable intelligence that can serve as the basis for a group or person’s designation is very limited. The collection of this information is further hampered by constitutional protections on the freedom of speech. Given past overreaching by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement, such as COINTELPRO, those limitations are not a bad thing. But it does make it difficult for the U.S. government to use all of its counterterrorism tools comprehensively, including sanctions.

Although the Biden administration should be credited for taking important action against the Nordic Resistance Movement, more should be done against far-right groups. The deployment of sanctions against far-right groups shouldn’t be on the same cycle as the Olympics. A far-right designation every four years isn’t commensurate with the threat posed by violent far-right organizations.

– Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, where he is director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. He also worked at State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and was a domestic intelligence analyst with the Congressional Research Service. Published courtesy of Lawfare

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