Insight: Why Branding Antifa a Terror Group Is a Diversion

In the wake of protests against police brutality sweeping the nation, the name Antifa abounds online as the political right’s bogeyman, blamed even by U.S. President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr as the group upon which to pin all of the blame without acknowledging the very real grievances of the African-American community. Before discussing what Antifa is not, it is worthwhile to discuss what the movement is, how they define themselves, and how they have been described by scholars of militant groups. Researchers define Antifa as a far-left militant and anarchist movement.

By Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
(As published in Homeland Security Today)

They have also been referred to as left-wing extremists. Their name dates back to 1946, to describe Germans opposed to Nazism. There is no doubt that they engage in violent behavior, almost exclusively aimed at far-right demonstrators, such as those at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. However, the movement also protests far-right speakers at universities and disrupts parades that celebrate far-right causes.

Antifa has been compared to both activists and vigilantes, and it ascribes to “an ideology aimed at resisting forces of hate and oppression and the institutions that enable them.”

This last statement concerning Antifa’s opposition to what far-right extremists stand for may have been why the son of Minnesota’s attorney general tweeted that he believes “white power” terrorists are actually the ones engaging in the looting, arson and other riot activities as violent sects hijack some of the protests against racial inequality and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day.

“I hereby declare, officially, my support for ANTIFA,” Jeremiah Ellison tweeted. “Unless someone can prove to me ANTIFA is behind the burning of black and immigrant owned businesses in my ward, I’ll keep focusing on stopping the white power terrorist THE ARE ACTUALLY ATTACKING US!”

While Ellison was expressing his sarcastic anger, Antifa, which has no official membership and no mechanism for joining, labels itself “antifascist,” and is aligned with other anarchist movements that aim to destroy existing governance in order to build something better, purer, and more equitable.

Although they are not affiliated with more mainstream left-wing activists, their views often coincide with those who stand for civil rights and against income inequality. They admit that they engage in violence, but argue that such violence against bigoted, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic forces is by definition self-defense, given that all of Antifa’s violence is intended to defend the oppressed. This line of logic defending violence as defensive in nature is, however, much like the narrative of actual terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda who urge “defensive” jihad and acts of violence against the West, claiming that the West is attacking Muslims, Islamic lands and Islam itself.

Anarchists often rally against capitalism and against government structures, such as the police, as the anarchists work to destroy a system that they believe needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up. Protests against police brutality unite Antifa with groups like Black Lives Matter in a shared cause, albeit not a shared method. Antifa’s methods of violent counter-protest include physical confrontations with far-right demonstrators as well as the police, as well as throwing objects intended to destroy property or injure their opponents. Online, they engage in an action known as “doxxing,” which involves exposing far-right extremists’ identities and social media accounts, leading to public shaming and aimed at their targets losing their jobs or social standing.

Despite Antifa’s ideological overlaps with mainstream left-wing movements such as the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, Antifa is not widely accepted by left-wing activists or by the Democratic Party. Despite some Republicans claiming that Antifa is supported by Democrats, the Democratic Party has in fact denounced their actions and called for those who engage in violence to be arrested.

According to the Anti-Defamation League [ADL], “Antifa reject racism but use unacceptable tactics.” However, the ADL points out that there is no equivalency between Antifa and those against whom they protest, stating, “White supremacists use even more extreme violence to spread their ideologies of hate, to intimidate ethnic minorities, and undermine democratic norms […] They have murdered hundreds of people in [the United States] over the last ten years alone. To date, there have not been any known antifa-related murders.”

Thus, Antifa is a violent movement aligned with anarchists that also adheres to mainstream left-wing ideologies but acts on behalf of those ideologies in a manner most outside the group see as extreme and broadly unacceptable.

Antifa is not, however, a terrorist group. At the most basic level, it is not even an organized group but rather a set of ideas and behaviors coalescing into a social movement. In addition to lacking any membership lists, they have no organizational structure or designated leader, nor does it have an official headquarters like the Aryan Nations’ compounds in Idaho and Oklahoma or the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s headquarters in Arkansas. While some far-left groups may consider themselves to be part of the Antifa movement, there is also no formal structure that links these groups to each other or to other individuals who participate in violent counter-protests.

Likewise, Antifa has no financing mechanisms. Terrorist groups require financing to plan attacks, buy weapons, and pay soldiers, and they raise this money by engaging in different types of illegal trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, oil sales, as well as donations from supporters, and all of these are generally targeted when a group is formally designated a terrorist group by government bodies such as the U.S. State Department.

In contrast, an online fundraiser for “The International Anti-Fascist Defence Fund,” linked to Antifa, stated that donations would be used for medical bills, legal fees, replacing damaged or stolen property, and other “emergency support to anti-fascists anywhere in the world, whenever they find themselves in a difficult situation as a result of their stand against hate.” At the time of this writing, the fundraiser’s organizers boasted donating over “$75,000 to over 400 anti-fascists and anti-racists in 18 countries.”

This is a far cry from the billions of dollars ISIS made through its criminal enterprises and oil sales, including to the Assad regime. It also stands in stark contrast to far-right terrorist groups, which raise funds through robberies, money laundering, and illegal trafficking.

Antifa, therefore, does not meet the generally accepted criteria for classification as a terrorist group, not that it could be classified as such even if it did. President Trump tweeted over the weekend that he would be declaring them a domestic terrorist group, however, as is often the case with the current president’s tweets being inaccurate, the president has no such power.

It is the U.S. State Department that designates individuals and groups as terrorists.

Antifa, with regard to its actions at protests and demonstrations, exists entirely within the United States, and there is also currently no framework for classifying domestic groups or individuals as terrorists, despite pushes to develop one in order to more effectively investigate and prosecute far-right terrorists. Indeed, law enforcement professionals agree that far-right groups are a far greater threat than Antifa and would be the most frequent targets of domestic terrorism charges.

The president’s tweet was, of course, in specific reference to the protests against police brutality directly triggered by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor but also attempting to address systemic racism within U.S. institutions and the repeated and not well addressed killing of unarmed Black people, mostly men, by law enforcement. The president, Attorney General Barr and others have claimed that the protests are led and the violence in them is incited by Antifa, which completely disregards and delegitimizes the widespread anger felt among Black communities and their supporters over very real grievances for Black communities in the U.S.

Likewise, the protests have given rise to people all over the world asking about the legitimacy of U.S. policing.

And even for Iran to denounce U.S. and glorify victims of police violence in the U.S. making room for disinformation campaigns to divide Americans even further:

It is no secret that Antifa demonstrators have been known to travel across state lines to engage in vandalism, looting and other forms of violence in places where there is civil unrest.

This has long been a technique also used by anarchists in Europe, who traversed international borders to bolster and infiltrate rallies occurring elsewhere. For instance, anarchists and anti-fascists traveled to Spain in the late 1930s to fight against fascist dictator Francisco Franco. In Italy and Greece, recent years have seen spikes in anarchist attacks and there is evidence that anarchists from the two countries have coordinated and entered each other’s countries to assist in the attacks. Indeed, protests in Greece in recent years were regularly infiltrated by protestors streaming in from anarchist groups in France and other countries in Europe. During the 2008 Greek riots, anarchists used the civil unrest to incite violence, loot, and recruit new supporters among the disenchanted youth.[18] Moreover, some of these anarchists also traveled as foreign fighters to join the International Revolutionary People’s Guerilla Forces [IRPGF], a Marxist-Leninist faction of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units [YPG], which fought ISIS in Syria, sometimes breaking their domestic national laws to do so.[19] That they would also cross state lines to bolster and infiltrate protests should thus come as no surprise.

The claim that Antifa is responsible for the violent outbreaks in the protests carried out this weekend comes from law enforcement in Minneapolis, New York, Attorney General Barr, President Trump and elsewhere. Law enforcement officials in Minneapolis and New York state that the majority of their arrests are from out of state residents, an unusual statistic for city-wide protests, giving rise to the question of whether outside infiltrators were agitating among the peaceful, which certainly seems to be the case.[20] U.S. federal laws prohibit incitement of violence or travel to carry out violence across state lines as a federal offense[21] and law enforcement authorities were warning this past weekend that they will prosecute infractions. Police have made clear, also, that incitement, looting, and vandalism have not been limited to the far left. There are also anti-government groups and “Boogaloos” that identify with white supremacist ideology who have taken advantage of the protests as an opportunity to attack law enforcement or, in the case of the latter, incite a second civil war.[22]

In general, extremists of any ideology thrive off of chaos and will take any opportunity to create violence where there is none. However, it is important to acknowledge that most of the peaceful protesters are just that: peaceful protesters. Placing so much attention on Antifa gives right-wing politicians license to dismiss the legitimate grievances of the protesters and gives law enforcement justification to pepper spray, beat, shove, kick and shoot rubber bullets into crowds of otherwise angry but nonviolent citizens. These protesters have publicly condemned looters for opportunistically exploiting the demonstrations as well as heroically tried to prevent them from doing so. A few out of the many such incidents include in Brooklyn, where protesters stood in front of a Target to prevent it from being looted and vandalized. In Washington, D.C., protesters apprehended an inciter who was breaking up paving stones to throw at police. Once apprehended they turned him into the police.

It is also noteworthy that at demonstrations where police have joined the protesters, rather than arriving in paramilitary garb, there have been far fewer arrests and acts of violence, indicating that the violent inciters take advantage of the already combative attitudes among the police and protesters. One touching example demonstrating this occurred in Flint, Mich., where Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson removed his riot gear in response to the crowd shouting “walk with us,” and began to converse and walk among the protesters, joining them in their concerns versus threatening them.

These actions all show a clear way to make it more difficult for groups like Antifa to incite because if they are following their ideology that views their violent actions as purely defensive, if it is clear that law enforcement stands in solidarity with, rather than oppresses, the protesters there is less opportunity for them to attack in pure defense. However, given President Trump’s announcement and threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act, allowing him to deploy military police on our nation’s streets, and police deploying tear gas near the White House even during his talk, things may be heading in the other direction.

Among the right and far-right, the Antifa label is used to attack the left and to demonize protesters. While there is no argument that Antifa is violent and its tactics are unacceptable, it is not a terrorist group and cannot be classified as such. Antifa claims to protect the oppressed, and the protests this past weekend are evidence that the oppressed in many cases did need protection from angry and aggressive law enforcement and that the oppressed are angry and determined to be heard. However, when they are heard, that is, when law enforcement is demilitarized and politicians support protesters in peaceful expressions of their grievances, they are for the most part peaceful. However, many daytime peaceful protests have turned violent, particularly once night fell, but it is also clear that among the looters and inciters are many from the far-right.[26] In one video circulating on Twitter, black protesters in fact angrily filmed white young women defacing a store with Black Lives Matter graffiti, narrating their video with complaints that black protesters would later be blamed for it. Likewise, police have repeatedly been filmed charging on peaceful groups, attacking and beating peaceful protesters and journalists alike.

What is concerning in this wave of nationwide protests is the continued ignoring of legitimate grievance among the masses going out to protest and the claim by Trump supporters that Antifa is the problem rather than social inequities, police violence and racism that continue to plague America. Likewise, the streets of our nation have featured police outfitted in military gear and using vehicles obtained from the military following 9/11 now being utilized against U.S. citizens, and now military police and National Guard are also on the streets. Likewise, both politicians and police in some cities have declared that journalists have no rights to be at the protests, with police repeatedly violently attacking journalists with clearly displayed press credentials while they were peacefully going about their business. Legal observers have been subject to the same. Thus, the diversion of claiming Antifa is a terrorist group while ignoring the violence carried out by the police in recent days against protesters is deeply disturbing. It also speaks volumes in terms of the erosion of freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the right to assemble in peaceful protests in this country and does very little to reassure anyone that the grievances that first brought the protesters out to the street, which in some cities resulted in violence and looting, will be well addressed in the coming days and months.

Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg, Molly (June 2, 2020). PERSPECTIVE: Why Branding Antifa a Terror Group Is a Diversion. Homeland Security Today

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past three years, she has interviewed 239 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting foreign governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE. Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma and the Journal of Strategic Security. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.