Examining Extremism: Antifa
As protests raged in over 140 cities in the United States following the death of George Floyd, U.S. president Donald Trump raised the prospect of labeling Antifa as a terrorist group. On May 31, 2020, he tweeted, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” Attorney General William Barr also remarked that Antifa was present at some of the protests. “There is clearly some high degree of organization involved at some of these events and coordinated tactics that we are seeing,” he said, “Some of it relates to antifa, some of it relates to groups that act very much like antifa.” Barr described Antifa’s tactics as a “new form of urban guerrilla warfare” in the legacy of Mao Zedong. Other officials, such as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray, later pushed back, instead characterizing Antifa as “a movement or an ideology” rather than an organized group.
Antifa is a contraction of the phrase “anti-fascist” and refers to a decentralized network of individuals that oppose fascism, racism, and other related ideologies. Adherents have been motivated by such philosophies as communism and anarchism. Some members of Congress, such as Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), had already introduced a resolution in 2019 calling for Antifa to be designated a domestic terrorist organization. Following Trump’s comments in May 2020, Antifa became the subject of increased national attention and became a regular talking point in debates over domestic counterterrorism policy. But who are Antifa? What are its roots and its main goals? How is it organized? How much of a threat does it pose in the United States?
Many Antifa—or anti-fascists—trace their roots back to the period after World War I, when German and Italian leftists worked together to fight fascist gangs in Europe. Examples of anti-fascist groups included the Arditi del Popolo in Italy and the Antifaschistische Aktion in Germany. Perhaps the most iconic incident occurred outside London on October 4, 1936, in what became known as the Battle of Cable Street. That day, Oswald Mosely led the British Union of Fascists in a march on Cable Street and Whitechapel in London’s East End. In response, tens of thousands of Zionists, socialists, anarchists, and outraged residents formed a blockade and fought Mosley’s fascists and the nearly 6,000 police officers protecting them. The anti-fascist crowd lobbed homemade bombs, threw an assortment of projectiles ranging from rocks to chamber pots, and tossed marbles at the feet of police horses. While Mosley and his supporters were forced to retreat, fascism itself was at least temporarily on the ascendancy with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and the onset of World War II. By 1945, however, the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and other allied countries defeated fascist Germany, and Hitler committed suicide. Yet anti-fascist networks reemerged in the 1970s in response to a rise in neo-Nazi activity.
In the United States, Antifa supporters have been increasingly active in protests and rallies, especially ones that include far-right participants. Between 1987 and 2013, the Anti-Racist Action Network (ARA) was a decentralized network of anti-fascists in the United States. In the Seattle area, Antifa supporters established the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, which described itself as an “anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-worker community defense organization” committed to “active resistance to the corrosive and destructive social effects of white supremacy, sexism, bigotry, and economic exploitation.”
The campaign and election of Donald Trump were a boon to many anti-fascists. As the Antifa-aligned journal, It’s Going Down argued in December 2016, “Suddenly, anarchists and antifa, who have been demonized and sidelined by the wider Left have been hearing from liberals and Leftists, ‘you’ve been right all along.’” While Antifa remained decentralized, there were some local chapters, such as NYC Antifa and Anti-Fascist Sacramento.
During the 2020 riots following the death of George Floyd, there were also some reports of Antifa activity. In Newark, New Jersey, the FBI and Newark Police Department investigated possible Antifa activity and arrested an individual for possessing a knife, a hatchet, and a jar of gasoline with intent to use violence.1 In Austin, Texas, law enforcement officials reported that Antifa was involved in violent activity, including the looting of a Target store.2 There were also law enforcement reports of Antifa activity in other cities, such as Minneapolis, Minnesota; Spokane, Washington; and Portland, Oregon. The FBI nevertheless assessed that criminals—not Antifa or other ideologically motivated individuals—perpetrated the vast majority of looting and violence. Other law enforcement agencies came to a similar conclusion. “We saw no organized effort of antifa here in Los Angeles,” said Josh Rubenstein, the spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Today, Antifa supporters maintain that fascism remains alive and must be countered with force. Many believe that “militant anti-fascism is a reasonable, historically informed response to the fascist threat that persisted after 1945 and that has become menacing in recent years.” Yet Antifa is not a single-issue movement, and Antifa supporters do not simply oppose fascism. “Anti-fascism,” Mark Bray writes in his study of Antifa, “is an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists.” Antifa sympathizers focus on other issues, including environmental activism, anti-war mobilization, and anti-racism.
More broadly, Antifa is a decentralized movement of individuals whose ideological roots lie in various left-wing causes, such as communism, anarchism, and socialism. However, Antifa supporters do not necessarily share all aspects of these ideological inspirations. For example, though they may find common cause in opposing law enforcement or government action, Antifa adherents and anarchists often differ in their perceptions of state power. While anarchists are staunchly anti-statist, Antifa activists may support extensive reform of government institutions rather than their abolition.
While many Antifa sympathizers do not support violence as the only—or even the main—instrument to oppose fascism, they do view violence as a legitimate option. As one article concluded, Antifa “don’t want the government to stop white supremacists from gathering. They want to do so themselves, rendering the government impotent.” A Baltimore-based Antifa activist explained the use of violence as graduated:
You fight them by writing letters and making phone calls so you don’t have to fight them with fists. You fight them with fists so you don’t have to fight them with knives. You fight them with knives so you don’t have to fight them with guns. You fight them with guns so you don’t have to fight them with tanks.
Antifa has no central command, no definitive texts, and no clear command-and-control organizational structure. In 2020, FBI director Christopher Wray argued that Antifa is “more of an ideology than an organization,” though it would be more accurate to refer to Antifa supporters as adhering to multiple ideologies.
Most Antifa supporters operate in secrecy to protect themselves from law enforcement agencies and right-wing extremists, and Antifa cells exist across North America, Australia, Europe—including the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany—and other areas of the globe.
Tactics and Targets
Antifa supporters conduct counter-protests to disrupt far-right gatherings and rallies. They sometimes organize in black blocs—ad hoc gatherings of individuals who wear black clothing, ski masks, scarves, sunglasses, and other material to conceal their faces—use improvised explosives 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 has also adopted anti-fascist symbols on their clothing, flags, and other paraphernalia, such as the two flags of the Antifaschistische Aktion and the three arrows of the Iron Front.
When Antifa adherents clash with far-right demonstrators, violence occasionally breaks out, often involving fistfights, knives, fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and other improvised weapons. In June 2016, for example, Antifa and other protesters confronted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento, California, resulting in a chaotic brawl in which at least eight people were injured—including five who were stabbed, among them Antifa activists. Similarly, in February, March, and April 2017, Antifa members fought alt-right demonstrators at the University of California, Berkeley, using bricks, pipes, hammers, and homemade incendiary devices. At the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, Antifa activists confronted alt-right demonstrators with clubs, shields, fists, chemical irritants, and balloons filled with paint and ink.
Although Antifa extremists primarily use violence in the context of ideological clashes at demonstrations—many of which do not match common definitions of terrorism—some have also taken independent action against government targets perceived as unjust. In July 2019, Willem Van Spronsen, a self-proclaimed Antifa supporter and member of the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, attacked a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and attempted to ignite a 500-gallon propane tank. The attack was unsuccessful, and he was killed by police. Van Spronsen had distributed a manifesto prior to the attack in which he detailed his opposition to ICE detention policies, and he became the subject of online propaganda that branded him a martyr.
According to CSIS data, the only fatal attack in recent decades attributed to an Antifa extremist occurred at a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, on August 29, 2020, when Michael Reinoehl—a self-identified Antifa supporter—shot and killed Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer. Reinoehl was killed by law enforcement officers five days later.
As Antifa is a decentralized, shared ideology rather than a formal group or organized movement, it is difficult to predict the behavior of individual adherents. While most followers will likely continue to pursue only reactionary activity—which most often results in spontaneous clashes at demonstrations rather than premeditated terrorist attacks—the potential for proactive attacks from radicalized individuals such as Van Spronsen may increase as political polarization in the United States worsens.
CSIS data—as well as recent threat assessments conducted by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—indicate that Antifa poses a relatively small threat in the United States, particularly compared to violent white supremacists and anti-government extremists such as militia groups. However, CSIS data do indicate a recent increase in violent activity by Antifa extremists, anarchists, and related far-left extremists. This is likely connected to the concurrent increase in violent far-right activity, particularly from white supremacists and others whose ideology anti-fascists actively oppose. This trend indicates that while Antifa does not pose a large threat in isolation, its followers will likely become increasingly active if the real or perceived threat from white supremacists and other far-right domestic extremists continues to grow, as most do not trust the government to respond adequately. Additionally, if Antifa followers view conservative political groups as aligned with far-right extremism, they may act to disrupt mainstream political events and demonstrations as well.
Seth G. Jones is senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C, and author most recently of Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (W.W. Norton). Catrina Doxsee is a program manager and research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS.
1 Author interview with law enforcement officials from Newark, NJ, June 2020.
2 Author interview with law enforcement officials from Austin, TX, July 2020.