The Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could do more to address the threats of domestic terrorism.
OIG’s comments come as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Christopher Wray, says travel and technology has blurred the lines between foreign and domestic threats, and that the rise of lone actors means there is little intelligence on planned attacks. More and more attacks, he said at a joint meeting with MI5 in London last week, are being carried out with little planning or training.
Back in September, Wray said domestic terrorism cases being investigated by the FBI had more than doubled to around 2,700 investigations.
“We’re countering lone domestic violent extremists radicalized by personalized grievances ranging from racial and ethnic bias to anti-government, anti-authority sentiment, to conspiracy theories,” said the FBI director.
DHS and the FBI collaborate to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States. DHS is responsible for delivering intelligence and information to federal, state, local, and tribal governments, and the private sector. FBI is responsible for leading law enforcement and domestic intelligence efforts to defeat terrorist attacks. They both also work together and with state and local law enforcement partners in matters related to domestic terrorism, including information sharing and training.
Last month, DHS warned that online domestic extremists are calling for a “copycat” Uvalde, Texas, school attack, which has also become a focus of disinformation and conspiracy theories. In its National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, DHS said “individuals in online forums that routinely promulgate domestic violent extremism and conspiracy-laden content have praised the May 2022 shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and encouraged copycat attacks”.
The bulletin, which was issued on June 7 and expires November 30, is in response to several recent violent attacks by lone offenders against minority communities, schools, houses of worship, and mass transit. It also uses the example of the grocery store attack in Buffalo, New York in May 2022, in which the suspect claimed he was motivated by racist, anti-Black, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Also in May, an attack in Laguna Woods, California targeted congregants of a church that serves the Taiwanese community.
OIG’s report is timely although given the prevalence of such attacks already this year, and rising chatter from individuals and groups online, the findings are concerning. Following its audit, the DHS watchdog found that the Department has taken steps to help the United States counter terrorism, but those efforts have not always been consistent in relation to domestic terrorism.
The DHS Lexicon defines domestic terrorism as “any act of unlawful violence that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources committed by a group or person based and operating entirely in the United States or its territories, without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group. This act is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States, or of any State or other subdivision of the United States, and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
A DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) memorandum issued in March 2021 noted the terms “domestic terrorism” and “domestic violent extremism” are interchangeable.
In 2019, DHS established a strategic framework with goals for countering terrorism and an accompanying implementation plan with actions designed to achieve those goals. However, DHS’ data showed more than 70 percent of the milestone actions in the implementation plan were not completed as planned. OIG said these failings occurred because DHS has not established a governance body with staff dedicated to longterm oversight and coordination of its efforts to combat domestic terrorism.
Data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows that white supremacists and other like-minded attackers used more lethal weapons, such as firearms. Anarchists, anti-fascists, and other like-minded attackers primarily used less lethal methods, including melee attacks.
CSIS adds that of the 38 white supremacist and other like-minded terrorist attacks and plots in 2021, 16 used firearms, 9 involved explosives and incendiaries, 4 were melee attacks using weapons such as knives or bludgeoning weapons, and 2 were vehicular attacks.
Of the 31 anarchist, antifascist, and like-minded terrorist attacks and plots in 2021, 19 were melee attacks using weapons such as knives or bludgeoning objects, 3 primarily used explosives or incendiaries, 2 used firearms, and 1 was a vehicular attack.
Rising domestic terrorism concerns, intelligence, and eventual attacks – such as the March 2021 shooting spree at three spas in the Atlanta metropolitan area, prompted the White House to create the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which it issued in June 2021. The strategy outlines four “strategic pillars” to guide the U.S. government response to the threat posed by domestic terrorism: understand and share domestic terrorism-related information, prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence, disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity, and confront long–term contributors to domestic terrorism.
As this strategy turns one year old, OIG has noted some improvements but says DHS must improve how it identifies domestic terrorism threats, tracks trends for future risk-based planning, and informs partners and the public about domestic terrorism.
I&A has developed a tracker of domestic terrorism attacks and disrupted plots since January 2010, but OIG found it has not used the information to develop overall statistics on domestic terrorism that DHS and I&A partners could use to make informed decisions. In January 2022, I&A completed its latest quarterly update to the domestic terrorism incident tracker by adding additional requirements, such as weapons and tactics used and the ideology motivating the attack or plot, which improved the process. According to an I&A official, the first time I&A used the spreadsheet tracker to develop DHS statistics on domestic terrorism incidents and briefed Federal, state, and local government partners was March 2022.
OIG found that the Department has limited access to the sources of information it needs to identify domestic terrorism threats.
I&A officials told OIG they cannot access some types of information that is not publicly available, such as private social media groups and encrypted messaging applications and that an executive order (12333) from 1981 and revised in 2008, limits their ability to collect this information. OIG’s review of nine I&A finished intelligence domestic terrorism products from July 1, 2020 through August 3, 2021, showed six of the products contained information that its partners could easily find on their own. The executive order limits I&A to collecting information overtly or through publicly available sources. In addition, the Privacy Act of 1974 limits DHS’s ability to independently collect, maintain, use, or disseminate records protected by the First Amendment. One I&A official told OIG that I&A could use better insight into information that is not publicly available, such as FBI case files, state and local information on arrests and charging information, and social media platforms.
OIG also determined that DHS may not always issue its advisories to the public in a timely manner to help stakeholders take steps to protect themselves from threats and help detect or prevent an attack. For example, the bulletin issued on January 27, 2021, warned of a heightened threat environment across the United States following the presidential inauguration. DHS issued this bulletin weeks after the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Given the current concern about domestic terrorism and the country’s ongoing vulnerability to violent acts and destruction of critical infrastructure, OIG has made six recommendations to DHS:
- Perform a needs assessment to identify the staffing and budget necessary for overseeing the department-wide mission to counter domestic terrorism.
- Use the results of the needs assessment to establish a long-term governing body to oversee and coordinate the Department’s efforts to counter domestic terrorism by creating: a charter with business rules and roles and responsibilities for longterm action; a formalized documented process to monitor and track completion of action items; and a formalized documented feedback process to review, update, and measure the impact of priority actions taken in response to changes in the domestic terrorism threat environment.
- Work with the Attorney General and the appropriate congressional committees, to ensure each Department collects and shares direct access to domestic terrorism information.
- Partner with agencies or DHS components to obtain access to appropriate information that may inform development of nationallevel statistics on terrorism and targeted violence.
- Use the information collected in the domestic terrorism incident tracker to create national-level statistics on domestic terrorism; and share statistics with other DHS components.
- Use the results of the needs assessment to ensure a dedicated level of staff support and resources to execute National Terrorism Advisory System functions.
DHS concurred with each recommendation and aims to complete work to address these by June 30, 2023, with some actions being completed by the end of 2022.