Who Are Antifa, and Are They a Threat?

In response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American who died after his neck was pinned under a police officer’s knee for nearly nine minutes in May 2020, protests erupted in over 140 U.S. cities. While the vast majority of protesters were peaceful, some violence and pillaging occurred. In New York City, for example, looters tore off the plywood that covered Macy’s iconic store in Herald Square on 34th Street, smashed windows, and stole whatever items they could grab before police chased them away. Others ransacked a nearby Nike store after shattering windows and walking off with armloads of athletic shirts, jeans, jackets, and sweatpants. In other cities—from Raleigh, North Carolina, to San Francisco, California—a small minority of individuals burned cars, attacked police officers, and looted businesses. In response, some U.S. officials fingered—without evidence—Antifa as the main culprits. On May 31, President Trump tweeted that he intended to designate Antifa as a terrorist organization. Attorney General William Barr similarly remarked that “the violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”

Q1: Who are Antifa?

A1: Antifa is a contraction of the phrase “anti-fascist.” It refers to a decentralized network of far-left militants that oppose what they believe are fascist, racist, or otherwise right-wing extremists. While some consider Antifa a sub-set of anarchists, adherents frequently blend anarchist and communist views. One of the most common symbols used by Antifa combines the red flag of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the black flag of 19th century anarchists. Antifa groups frequently conduct counter-protests to disrupt far-right gatherings and rallies. They often organize in black blocs (ad hoc gatherings of individuals that wear black clothing, ski masks, scarves, sunglasses, and other material to conceal their faces), use improvised explosive devices and other homemade weapons, and resort to vandalism. In addition, Antifa members organize their activities through social media, encrypted peer-to-peer networks, and encrypted messaging services such as Signal.

Antifa groups have been increasingly active in protests and rallies over the past few years, especially ones that include far-right participants. In June 2016, for example, Antifa and other protestors confronted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, California, with at least five people stabbed. In February, March, and April 2017, Antifa members attacked alt-right demonstrators at the University of California, Berkeley using bricks, pipes, hammers, and homemade incendiary devices. In July 2019, William Van Spronsen, a self-proclaimed Antifa, attempted to bomb the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, using a propane tank but was killed by police.

Like some other types of domestic extremists in the United States, Antifa follow a decentralized organizational structure. In an influential article in the 1992 edition of the magazine Seditionist, anti-government activist Louis R. Beam advocated an organizational structure that he termed “leaderless resistance.” As Beam noted, “Utilizing the Leaderless Resistance concept, all individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization.” Beam argued that the tactic was just as useful for left-wing as it was for right-wing extremists. “The New American Patriot,” he wrote several years later, “will be neither left nor right, just a freeman fighting for liberty.” Leaderless resistance became a useful model for many types of extremists, including far-left networks like Antifa.

Q2: What role have Antifa groups played in the protests?

A2: While it is difficult to assess with fidelity the identity or ideology of many of the looters, my conversations with law enforcement and intelligence officials in multiple U.S. cities suggest that Antifa played a minor role in violence. The vast majority of looting appeared to come from local opportunists with no affiliation and no political objectives. Most were common criminals.

Still, there was some evidence of organized activity by left-wing and right-wing extremists, including from individuals that traveled from other states. John Miller, the deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism at the New York Police Department, warned that a small, fringe network of extremists organized violence in New York City. “Before the protests began, organizers of certain anarchist groups set out to raise bail money and people who would be responsible to be raising bail money, they set out to recruit medics and medical teams with gear to deploy in anticipation of violent interactions with police,” he said, based on intelligence collected by New York’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. “They prepared to commit property damage and directed people who were following them that this should be done selectively and only in wealthier areas or at high-end stores run by corporate entities.” There were also multiple reports of white supremacists infiltrating peaceful protests in cities like Boston, Denver, Tampa, and Dallas.

To add to the confusion, there was significant disinformation and a proliferation of fake accounts on social media platforms. For example, Twitter shut down several accounts that it said were operated by a white supremacist group called Identity Evropa, which was posing as Antifa. In one fake account with the Twitter handle @Antifa_US, Identity Evropa members allegedly called for violence in white suburban areas in the name of Black Lives Matters. “Tonight’s the night, Comrades,” one tweet noted with a brown raised fist emoji. “Tonight we say ‘F--- The City’ and we move into the residential areas... the white hoods.... and we take what's ours …” As Twitter explained, “This account violated our platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically the creation of fake accounts. We took action after the account sent a Tweet inciting violence and broke the Twitter Rules.” More broadly, extremists flooded social media with disinformation, conspiracy theories, and incitements to violence—swamping Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms.

Q3: What is the broader threat from Antifa and other types of extremists?

A3: The threat from Antifa and other far-left networks is relatively small in the United States. The far-left includes a decentralized mix of actors. Anarchists, for example, are fundamentally opposed to the government and capitalism, and they have organized plots and attacks against government, capitalist, and globalization targets. Environmental and animal rights groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, have conducted small-scale attacks against businesses they perceive as exploiting the environment. Antifa followers have committed a tiny number of plots and attacks.

Like virtually every domestic extremist group in the United States—including such white supremacist organizations as the Base and the Atomwaffen Division—the U.S. government has not designated Antifa as a terrorist organization. Instead, the U.S. government has generally designated only international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. In April 2020, the Trump administration designated the Russian Imperial Movement, an ultra-nationalist white supremacist group based in Russia, as a terrorist organization. The designation allowed the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to block any U.S. property or assets belonging to the Russian Imperial Movement. It also barred Americans from financial dealings with the organization and made it easier to ban its members from traveling to the United States. While President Trump raised the possibility of designating Antifa as a terrorist organization, such a move would be problematic. It would trigger serious First Amendment challenges and raise numerous questions about what criteria should be used to designate far-right, far-left, and other extremist groups in the United States. In addition, Antifa is not a “group” per se, but rather a decentralized network of individuals. Consequently, it is unlikely that designating Antifa as a terrorist organization would even have much of an impact.

Based on a CSIS data set of 893 terrorist incidents in the United States between January 1994 and May 2020, attacks from left-wing perpetrators like Antifa made up a tiny percentage of overall terrorist attacks and casualties. Right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, particularly those who were white supremacists, anti-government extremists, and involuntary celibates (or incels). In comparison, left-wing extremists orchestrated 25 percent of the incidents during this period, followed by 15 percent from religious terrorists, 3 percent from ethno-nationalists, and 0.7 percent from terrorists with other motives. In analyzing fatalities from terrorist attacks, religious terrorism has killed the largest number of individuals—3,086 people—primarily due to the attacks on September 11, 2001, which caused 2,977 deaths. In comparison, right-wing terrorist attacks caused 335 fatalities, left-wing attacks caused 22 deaths, and ethno-nationalist terrorists caused 5 deaths.

Viewed in this context, the threat from Antifa-associated actors in the United States is relatively small.

Seth G. Jones holds the Harold Brown Chair and is director of the Transnational Threats Project at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the author, most recently, of A Covert Action (W.W. Norton, 2019).

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Seth G. Jones
Senior Vice President; Harold Brown Chair; and Director, International Security Program