It’s hard not to feel disheartened as national divisions turn increasingly deadly.

For months, we have been seeing armed citizens patrolling streets alongside militarized police forces, demonstrations devolving into bloody brawls between protesters and counter-protesters. But for one manipulative and malicious community, it’s exactly what they’ve been hoping to see. 

On Saturday, a Trump-supporting demonstrator in Portland was shot and killed—an anti-fascist activist supporter is being investigated for the crime. Four days earlier, on Tuesday, a 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse shot three individuals in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two, amid unrest after a police officer shot a Black man named Jacob Blake

Rittenhouse, the teenage shooter in Kenosha, was a police-defending, Trump-supporting young man—the type of mainstream MAGA fan that the extreme right sometimes rails against. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists call Trump a “snake oil salesman” and “an ignoramus who makes money for the Jews”—often noting his support for Israel and outreach to minorities—and thus judge his supporters as “MAGAtards” or “cuckservatives,” among other names. Nonetheless, once the teenager was named as the shooter last week, the far right launched a campaign of memes, propaganda, and fundraiser promotion on their online havens. They called him a “hero” and a “living legend.” His cause became theirs. “Kyle Rittenhouse deserves The Keys to the Kingdom!” as one exclaimed.

It didn’t matter to white supremacists and neo-Nazis that both individuals Rittenhouse killed were white, because they were still the enemy. The victims were, in the supremacists’ minds, antifa and Black Lives Matter-supporting “race traitors”—operatives of the “anti-white” agenda playing out across the country. For this reason, even the most hardline of neo-Nazi groups sung his praise. The National Socialist Order, a successor to the notorious Atomwaffen Division paramilitary group, published recruitment posters using images of Kyle Rittenhouse. The graphics take a picture of Rittenhouse holding an assault rifle, doctor in a far-right-styled face mask, and place him in front of a Black Sun white supremacist logo. Slogans read “MOW DOWN ANTIFA” and “MOW DOWN BLM SCUM.” At the bottom of the posters is the group’s contact information and the slogan, “Join your local Nazis.”

Propaganda created by a neo-Nazi organization called National Socialist Order (NSO)

There was, of course, more to pull out of Rittenhouse’s story. After he was charged as an adult with six criminal counts, including first-degree homicide, he became a poster child for what the far right has long described as oppression against white people. A message widely distributed across far-right channels and chat groups on Telegram appealed to this perception, arguing that any future shooters should not consider “surrendering” as Rittenhouse did: 

Currently in the US, White people do not have the legal right to self-defense…If you ever DO use a weapon to defend yourself, especially against a nonwhite or Antifa, you will get locked away in a cage for decades of your life. You should consider this before surrendering to the police.

So why are these extremists so eager to bend this high schooler’s story to their cause? 

Because they don’t need Rittenhouse to be a fellow neo-Nazi or avowed white nationalist. In some ways, it’s better for them that he’s not. Rittenhouse is representative of a far larger swath of the American population and, by extension, an important benchmark in the type of instability they wish to sow. This strategy was well-explained in a post circulated across far-right Telegram channels and chat groups amid the celebration of Rittenhouse’s shooting:

White Pill: youth are buying guns and traveling to urban war zones hungry for direct action. Huge step forward.

Whatever you think about Kyle Rittenhouse, his militia friends, or even the other side of commies armed with guns or explosives, finally militancy is capturing the spirit of young men. Accelerate 🔥

To the far right, Rittenhouse’s shooting signals a new and desired phase in the societal collapse they seek to push. Now more than ever, neo-Nazi extremists want to accelerate the instability, dysfunction, division in the country. They want to sabotage America, and armed young men like Rittenhouse are critical components in doing so. The Rittenhouses of the world help paint a picture of armed whites, cornered by violent agitators in war zone-like American cities, forced to kill to survive. 

Seeing these events through the far right’s narrative of an existential war against “anti-white” aggressors, Saturday evening’s killing of pro-Trump activist Aaron “Jay” Danielson in Portland couldn’t have been a better-fitting development. Likewise, Michael Reinoehl—the 48-year-old anti-fascist activist under investigation in connection to the crime—couldn’t have been a better-fitting enemy. He’s someone who can be paraded around the internet as proof of the deadly hostility emanating from these social justice demonstrations across the country. 

Actors like Reinoehl are just as important to the far right’s accelerationist vision as right-wing counterparts like Rittenhouse. The more sides that partake in violence, the more the situation worsens. 

Here, the potential for a vicious cycle comes to light. One attack feeds another from the opposing side—a chemical reaction of events that sparks further action, cements resentment, seems to be harder and harder to get under control.

It’s the same general playbook groups like ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah have used for decades. Extremism thrives in instability, be it in terms of political, economic, domestic security, or other matters. It is in chaos—not civility and peace—where extremists’ us-versus-them, all-or-nothing narratives become far easier to sell. Extremists foster chaos because it validates their very existence. 

When peaceful protests across America devolve into violence between demonstrators, counter demonstrators, and authorities, far-right extremists gain more and more to capitalize on. The last year has been a never-before-seen brew of circumstances: a global pandemic, chaotic political leadership, and a forceful reckoning with America’s deep-rooted racial injustices. The far right didn’t create the tumult, but they’ve certainly exacerbated it at every step.

Rita Katz is the Executive Director and founder of the SITE Intelligence  Group, the world’s leading non-governmental counterterrorism organization specializing in tracking and analyzing online activity of the global extremist community. Ms. Katz has tracked and analyzed global terrorist and jihadi networks for over two decades, and is well-recognized as one of the most knowledgeable and reliable experts in the field. 

Ms. Katz has infiltrated terrorist fronts undercover, testified before Congress and in terrorism trials, and briefed officials at the White House and the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and Homeland Security. Her investigations and testimony have driven action by several governments against terror-linked organizations and individuals. She has provided counterterrorism training sessions to military leadership, intelligence analysts and law enforcement agents from numerous government agencies in the U.S. and abroad. She has led numerous workshops for non-governmental organizations and academic audiences. 

For her unique contributions to FBI counterterrorism investigations, Ms. Katz received special recognition from FBI Director Robert Mueller for her “outstanding assistance to the FBI in connection with its investigative efforts.” 

Outlets to profile Ms. Katz have included the New Yorker, the New York Times, and 60 Minutes. Her commentary on the recruitment, financing, and operations of terrorist organizations regularly appears in leading media outlets such as The New York Times. Reuters, CNN, and The Huffington Post. She is also a regular contributor to The Washington Post, VICE News, The International Business Time, and other publications. 

Ms. Katz is the author of Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America (Harper Collins, 2003). 

Born in Iraq and a graduate of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, Ms. Katz is fluent in Arabic. 

Phil Cole, a Senior Analyst at SITE, contributed to this article.

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