(DHS photo)

New DHS Strategy: ‘An Aware Society’ Is Best Way to Prevent Terrorism, ‘Targeted Violence’

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan today rolled out the new DHS Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence, saying at a Brookings Institution event that the United States “faces an evolving threat environment, and a threat of terrorism and targeted violence within our borders that is more diverse than at any time since the 9/11 attacks.”

“While the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda persists, we are acutely aware of the growing threat from enemies, both foreign and domestic, who seek to incite violence in our nation’s youth, disenfranchised, and disaffected, in order to attack their fellow citizens and fray at the seams of our diverse social fabric,” McAleenan said. “This awareness, coupled with the history of recent tragedies, has galvanized the Department of Homeland Security to expand its counterterrorism mission focus beyond terrorists operating abroad, to include those radicalized to violence within our borders by violent extremists of any ideology.”

McAleenan announced April 19 the establishment of the DHS Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, with a stated purpose of “preventing all forms of terrorism, including both international and domestic, as well as preventing acts of targeted violence such as racially motivated violence.”

Five weeks later, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) sent a letter to McAleenan wanting more details — who would lead the office, what staffing and resources would look like — as well as wanting to know how it would specifically confront domestic terrorism not inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said he still has questions after today’s release of the framework, including on funding and staffing.

“This strategy could be a much-welcomed step in the right direction, and I applaud the department for laying out a serious plan,” Thompson said, adding that “if we are going to have any success countering the threat of domestic terrorism – including white supremacist violence – the administration needs to back up this document with solid action.”

The goals laid out in the strategy are “1) understand the evolving terrorism and targeted violence threat environment and support partners in the homeland security enterprise through this specialized knowledge, 2) prevent terrorists and other hostile actors from entering the United States, and deny them the opportunity to exploit the nation’s trade, immigration, and domestic and international travel systems, 3) prevent terrorism and targeted violence, and 4) enhance U.S. infrastructure protections and community preparedness.”

The document promises details at a later point on how the goals will be accomplished.

“In an age of online radicalization to violent extremism and disparate threats, we must not only counter foreign enemies trying to strike us from abroad, but also those enemies, foreign and domestic, that seek to spur to violence our youth and our disaffected — encouraging them to strike in the heart of our Nation, and attack the unity of our vibrant, diverse American society,” states the strategy, adding, “Our Strategic Framework is crafted with the conviction that the Department must play a vital role in securing the privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of Americans and others. Privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties are essential. They should be cherished and safeguarded. This is designed to promote and preserve them. In addressing terrorism and targeted violence, we are steadfast that the role of the Department is to protect American communities, not to police thought or speech.”

“Targeted violence” is distinguished and defined in the framework as “any incident of violence that implicates homeland security and/or U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) activities, and in which a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to the violent attack,” including attacks “otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation, but that are of such severity and magnitude as to suggest an intent to inflict a degree of mass injury, destruction, or death commensurate with known terrorist tactics.”

“The threats of terrorism and targeted violence increasingly intersect with one another, and there is likewise some alignment in the tools that can be used to counter them. Thus, rather than dealing with terrorism and targeted violence as distinct phenomena, this Strategy addresses the problems, and the tools that can be wielded to address them, together.”

In addition to foreign terrorist organizations both plotting attacks on the United States and inspiring followers to commit homegrown attacks, DHS cites a “concerning rise” in attacks motivated by “racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, including white supremacist violent extremism, anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism, and other ideological strains that drive terrorist violence.”

White supremacist violent extremism, DHS says, “is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” today.

“Lone attackers, as opposed to cells or organizations, generally perpetrate these kinds of attacks. But they are also part of a broader movement. White supremacist violent extremists’ outlook can generally be characterized by hatred for immigrants and ethnic minorities, often combining these prejudices with virulent anti-Semitism or anti-Muslim views,” the framework states. “…Similar to how ISIS inspired and connected with potential radical Islamist terrorists, white supremacist violent extremists connect with like-minded individuals online. In addition to mainstream social media platforms, white supremacist violent extremists use lesser-known sites like Gab, 8chan, and EndChan, as well as encrypted channels. Celebration of violence and conspiracy theories about the ‘ethnic replacement’ of whites as the majority ethnicity in various Western countries are prominent in their online circles.”

The strategy noted that “various forms of violent extremism possess overlapping motives, tactics, and targets,” and recently “adherents to particular violent extremist ideologies have sometimes abandoned them for other ideologies with similar sets of perceived enemies.” Additionally, “some violent extremists may simultaneously embrace or find inspiration in multiple ideologies, some of which may appear in tension with one another.”

DHS lays out five guiding principles for the framework: understand and adapt to the threat environment, understand positive and potentially malicious uses of technology, collaborate with domestic and international partners, emphasize locally based solutions, and uphold individual rights. The department expands upon their objectives with recommended routes of analysis, collaboration, program enhancements, community outreach, and more.

“An aware society is the best foundation for preventing terrorism and targeted violence,” the strategy states. “Peers are best positioned to recognize individuals exhibiting signs of radicalization to violent extremism and mobilization to violence, but the Federal Government is best positioned to generate the evidence-based research that identifies risk factors, behaviors, and other information that informs this awareness.”

Read the full Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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