Tell Me How This Begins: Insurgency in the United States

– Executive Summary

Since 2016, the United States has experienced extensive socio-political violence, as highlighted in law enforcement’s treatment of African Americans—resulting in violent protests and extensive damage in Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020—and on January 6, 2021, when President Donald Trump’s supporters attempted to stop the electoral certification process in Washington, DC—driven by baseless theories of rampant voter fraud and political tyranny.[1] This thesis sought to explore whether these were isolated events or part of a larger systemic issue within American society, asking to what degree if any was the United States in a pre-insurgency stage.

Following a review of the relevant literature, including historical and governmental documents relating to insurgency movements, this thesis presents a historical comparative case-study analysis, examining domestic insurgencies in Colombia and Northern Ireland and the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, insurrection. The Central Intelligence Agency’s Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency, a qualitative resource for practitioners, provides a contextual framework to explore insurgency markers within American society. The guide outlines the following pre-existing conditions for the pre-insurgency stage:

  • A recent history of internal conflict that has left lingering grievances . . .
  • A strong warrior or conspiratorial culture . . .
  • A polarized winner-takes-all political system . . .
  • An inability of the government to provide basic services, such as security, justice, health care, education, utilities, or transportation infrastructure . . .
  • Inept or corrupt security forces . . .
  • An economic crisis . . . [or]
  • A “window of vulnerability,” created by . . . hotly disputed elections.[2]

Based on the analysis in this thesis, the United States is exhibiting characteristics like those in other nations with sustained foreign domestic insurgencies, e.g., Colombia and Northern Ireland. Closer to home, the domestic environment in the United States arguably resembles the period of violent socio-political unrest in North Carolina before the Wilmington insurrection of 1898.

As shown in the case studies of Colombia, Northern Ireland, and North Carolina, structural factors such as infrastructure, economy, and political and social representation all contributed to the sustained violence over many decades, but identity lay at the core of these insurgent movements. In Colombia, one was either a Liberal or Conservative; in Northern Ireland, a Unionist or Nationalist; and in North Carolina, racial identity was paramount. The United States of the 2020s resembles the Northern Irish example because comparable questions of American identity have arisen.[3] Directly tied to this identity crisis in the United States is political polarization, at a level not seen since the Civil War—or more specifically, the Reconstruction era.[4]

Regarding economic mobility, the United States has seen a correlation between surges in politically motivated violence with an increasing unemployment rate. Looking abroad for an analog, as Spain experienced with Basque separatists, growth in the labor market absorbed potential insurgents into the workforce.[5] Conversely, the United States of the 1990s saw growth in primarily right-wing militias as the labor market contracted.[6]

Pre-insurgency states usually, but not always, exhibit signs of security dilemmas within society. Alarmingly, as of this writing in the United States, a security dilemma is well underway. In recent years, as fears of a Democratic presidential candidate’s win in 2016 took hold in voters’ minds, gun sales soared to record levels.[7] More strikingly, as Barbara Walter highlights, “in 2019, only 8 percent of terrorist incidents were perpetrated by left-wing groups; in 2020, it was 20 percent.”[8] Moreover, a rise in leftist extremist groups—Antifa, Not F****** Around Coalition, and Socialist Rifle Association, to name a few—seem to be a response to the right-wing extremist movement.[9]

Lingering grievances such as the historical mistreatment of African Americans may contribute to an urban insurgent movement, as postulated by Temitope Oriola of the University of Alberta.[10] Much needed political reforms, such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, have not been successfully enacted by elected leaders in Washington, DC, likely contributing to a continued distrust of law enforcement by African American citizens. Every high-profile unjustified killing continues to put the United States at risk of extreme violence, such as that seen in Portland and Minneapolis.[11] Nevertheless, in Colombia and Northern Ireland, political reforms successfully addressed socio-political violence.

While conspiracy theories are a constant in American society, this thesis finds that QAnon was not a driver of the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, nor of other extremist violence in the United States. The data show that only a fraction of QAnon extremist violence has been directed toward the U.S. government.[12]

This thesis concludes with two primary recommendations. The first involves enacting political reforms. To address lingering grievances felt by African Americans, the U.S. Congress should move to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to reduce the perceived or real threat to African American communities by law enforcement agencies. By securing the civil rights of all Americans, the country can reduce the chances of sustained socio-political violence at home. Additionally, highly controversial policies, such as affirmative action, should be pursued to guarantee minority participation and visibility within American society until the creation of a national year of service for all Americans.

The second recommendation, following from the first, aims to build and maintain a more coherent national identity. A national year of service, modeled after Israel’s requirement that all citizens serve the nation, should be implemented to stave off future socio-political violence in the United States. Israeli’s model is relevant to the United States as Israel has to mold one national identity from the many cultures and races that compose its citizenry. This proposed national year of service should be overseen by the U.S. military, which has historically enjoyed trust from the American population and has an established Selective Service System.[13] This national year of service should utilize an essential services track that addresses minority representation in government, offers economic mobility for all, and secures the national and homeland security enterprises of the United States by guaranteeing training and jobs in cyber, critical infrastructure, and emergency services (e.g., police, fire, emergency medical services, and emergency management).

[1] Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien, “In Exclusive Jailhouse Letter, Capitol Riot Defendant Explains Motives, Remains Boastful,” ProPublica, May 11, 2021,; Joan Donovan, Kaylee Fagan, and Frances Lee, “‘President Trump Is Calling Us to Fight’: What the Court Documents Reveal about the Motivations behind January 6 and Networked Incitement” (Cambridge, MA: Technology and Social Change Project, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, 2022), https://media‌; Josh Dawsey, “Trump Campaign Paid Researchers to Prove 2020 Fraud but Kept Findings Secret,” Washington Post, February 11, 2023,

[2] Central Intelligence Agency, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2012), 5–6,

[3] “New Survey Reveals Americans Believe Country Has ‘Lost Its Identity,’” Voice of America News, April 6, 2016,; Isaac Chotiner, “The Collapse of American Identity,” New Yorker, June 29, 2021,

[4] Laura Paisley, “Political Polarization at Its Worst since the Civil War,” University of Southern California News, November 8, 2016,

[5] Jake Shatzer, “Before and After Terrorism: Economic and Political Development in the Basque Country” (undergraduate thesis, Texas A&M University, 2021), 59.

[6] Thomas Nardone et al., “1992: Job Market in the Doldrums,” Monthly Labor Review (February 1993),; Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 2009),

[7] Barbara Walter, How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them (New York: Crown, 2022).

[8] Walter, 190.

[9] Walter, 190.

[10] Temitope Oriola, “The United States Is at Risk of an Armed Anti-Police Insurgency,” Conversation, April 15, 2021,

[11] Oriola.

[12] James Suber, “Examining Extremism: QAnon,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (blog), June 10, 2021,

[13] Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, “Reagan National Defense Survey Conducted November 2022” (Washington, DC: Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, 2022),

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