Can I get an extremist violent ideology plate with two militant jihadisms, one white supremacy, half incel, one misogyny, and extra antisemitism … and that’s to go please!
Since 9/11, the focus of terrorism studies has been mainly centered on religious extremism. However, the last few years — especially after the rise of MAGA (Make America Great Again) and Trumpism — more studies on racial, ethnic and militia violent extremism have emerged. This has been combined with disinformation, fake news and conspiracies serving as force multipliers for various violent ideologies of extremism.
Therefore, domestic violent extremism is currently seen as the main threat to most Western nations. QAnon, violent White Supremacy extremists, the Oath Keepers, Combat-18, Blood and Honor, the Three Percenters, Soldiers of Odin and the Proud Boys are just a few examples of groups that disturbed social peace in the last few years. Environmental and animal rights-related violent extremists, abortion-related violence (pro-life extremism), and anti-government violence are also other examples of ideologies seen as domestic threats.
For context, the pandemic forced most citizens inside their homes. Therefore, many had the time to connect and communicate with like-minded individuals locally and abroad. They relied on regular and fringe technologies as well as encrypted chat applications. Events such as the protests against Covid-related health measures, tense elections in the United States, the backlash against racial justice movements, and the rise of new extremist groups suggest that there is a new trend at play.
Unification of Grievances
In the aftermath of any terrorist attack, it is natural to look for, and investigate, the motives of the perpetrator. Such concerns are not new, but security agencies have recently begun highlighting what they consider to be a new growing phenomenon: “salad bar” extremism. Recent terrorist attacks appear to be mobilized by various — even contradictory — grievances, interests, and beliefs. This phenomenon does not fit with what FBI director Christopher Wray describes as the “old-school world” of ideologically singular terrorism. Nowadays, a standalone ideology just does not do the job anymore.
This phenomenon also fits several high-profile cases including the Charleston Church shooting in 2015 and the Pittsburgh synagogue attack in 2018. Both perpetrators, Dylan Roof and Robert Bowers were influenced by White supremacy, racism, antisemitism, conspiracy theories, and xenophobia.
As any other ideology or movement, extremist ideologies also evolve and adapt to new realities. Since many groups are mostly “defunct,” according to law enforcement agencies, and since religiously-motivated violent extremism is in decline, security agencies assessing and categorizing domestic threats are realizing more and more that the ideologies and beliefs that drive the new trends of extremism are multiple and diverse. And since this form of violent extremism comprises a diverse mix of ideologies, and is more complex than before, experts have named it “salad bar” extremism.
The term “Salad bar” extremism was first used to describe an emerging phenomenon in the US, but it is now being used in Canada and elsewhere. In its intelligence brief on the Domestic Violent Extremism Threat, The Soufane Center (2022) detailed intertwined terrorist ideologies in the last few years and employed the term “Salad Bar.” In remarks before the Senate Homeland Security Committee in September 2020, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the tendency of some terrorists to be motivated by what he referred to as “a mishmash of ideologies”.
Furthermore, experts believe that the focus on the “Salad Bar” extremism label saw the light with the 2021 unclassified report by the American Office of the Direction of National Intelligence. The concept refers to people who embrace different, and sometimes contradictory, ideologies that are antithetical to each other. The label “salad bar” refers to individuals, groups, and movements that embrace ideologies that converge, overlap, or even contradict one another, but nonetheless inform the belief system of extremists. This expression is applied to domestic violent extremists who are seemingly motivated by a “blend of ideologies” and also to “threats [that] don’t fit into nice neat ideological buckets.” In other words, we are increasingly looking at gray areas between these ideologies where individuals are cherry-picking the motives and grievances from ‘different ideological shops,’ and then forming their new “salad bar” ideology. They also cherry-pick the ideas that often justify their hate against those they see as a threat.
A Growing Phenomenon
The number of individuals who are adopting the “salad bar” approach is growing at a fast pace. For a few years now, this plethora of related expressions have emerged in the field of extremism studies, all of which possess subtle differences but that at least touch upon the “salad bar” phenomenon. Some of the terms extremism researchers are employing include “mixed ideology,” “choose your own adventure” extremism, “ideological convergence,” “fused extremism,” “hybrid ideologies,” and “ideology a la carte.” In general, those who buy into this ideology are co-influenced by a variety of factors. These are individuals who seem to be ‘trying on’ different ideologies, embracing several identities, and moving across various belief systems and allegiances until they find their perfect match.
Moreover, there are many identifiers that ease these transitions from one ideology to another: anomie, nihilism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and accelerationism. Although they might differ on many issues, anti-Semitism and replacement theory unify white supremacists, Qanon, Salafi Jihadists, and Proud Boys as they might sincerely believe that they have common enemies, which might make the transition from one ideology to another easier. For instance, in 2020, two American anti-government Boogaloo group members, Benjamin Solomon and Michael Teeter, were arrested and convicted for providing material support to Hamas — a designated terrorist organization. The two never pledged allegiance to Hamas, but it was a case of convergence of interests and grievances with the group. There is also the example of former white supremacist neo-Nazi Devon Arthurs who converted to Salafi Jihadism and killed his roommates for mocking his new beliefs. He then held hostages, claiming it was in protest to American interventions in Muslim countries. Likewise, Andrew Anglin was once a committed vegan and self-described anti-racist who championed a number of far-left causes, including animal rights. However, he then moved on to become the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist. Furthermore, Robert E. Crimo III, the Fourth of July parade attack perpetrator in Highland Park, Illinois was depicted by the Left as a violent MAGA supporter, and by the Right as an unhinged liberal.
As the changing landscape of extremism studies is visible, we cannot claim that this is an entirely new phenomenon but, rather, a humble understanding of the complexity of extremist phenomena and ideologies. There is still a misunderstanding of how ideological mixing happens at the individual as well as the group level, and whether it is intentional or not. Therefore, the lack of conceptual precision and consensus about terminology underlying ‘salad bar’ ideology lends some urgency to new observations and research for better prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation measures.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.