Anti-Semitic and white supremacist terrorism is increasingly becoming a transnational threat that helps put the United States “at the doorstep of another 9/11,” but stopping the threat requires education and training for vulnerable communities and clear authorities to go after extremists and their online recruitment, Congress heard.
Promoting legislation to increase DHS and social media companies’ efforts to remove online terrorist content, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism Chairman Max Rose (D-N.Y.) stressed at a Wednesday hearing that “we have to get them to agree that Atomwaffen, The Base, and Sonnenkrieg, and Blood and Honor, and National Action and so many others are actually terrorists.”
“And in order to do that, we need you all to call them that,” Rose said. “We need the State Department to label at least some of them FTOs.”
Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy in the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans at the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged “online platforms are catalyzing hate,” and domestic extremist movements “know exactly how far they can go — they’re training their people to say you can go this far, but not any farther.”
“The fact is that our law enforcement community feels hamstrung, and how do you go after and balance First Amendment rights to free speech, while at the same time how do you not acknowledge that innocent children being projected with images online that will forever be online, what about their rights?” she said.
Extremist groups are “being sophisticated in both their communications and in their messaging, so they are playing a game, and we’re not equipped to go after that game effectively because of the rules that we’re using that were quite frankly designed 50 years ago.”
“We do regulate other parts of speech over airwaves,” Neumann added. “It’s hard for me to understand why on the online side, we are not willing to look at that.”
Meanwhile, terror designations and the framework of the national security apparatus are “designed for a threat from 20-30 years ago, and the world is changing.”
“And every counterterrorism professional I speak to in the federal government and overseas feels like we are at the doorstep of another 9/11, maybe not something that catastrophic in terms of the visual or the numbers, but that we can see it building and we don’t quite know how to stop it,” she said.
Brian Harrell, assistant director for Infrastructure Security at DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told lawmakers that “based off of current events and the frequency of events, I am convinced that this country is becoming more and more violent every single day.”
“We need to ensure that we have the resources at our fingertips. And they can’t reside in our fingertips,” he said. “They have to go out into the field where they can be used to reduce risk and ultimately save lives. So, in terms of marshaling resources, budget, the things that we have within the department, we need to ensure that they are well known. There’s an education campaign that DHS has, and I think we are moving in this direction now.”
The hearing was the second part of the committee’s effort to study the rise in domestic anti-Semitic terror. The first hearing in January heard a leader of one of the country’s largest Orthodox Jewish organizations tell Congress that Jews in America “are afraid in a way we have never been before.”
Soon after that, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that violent extremism motivated by racism is now a priority for the FBI “on the same footing as ISIS.”
Assistant Director Jill Sanborn of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division told the House Homeland Security subcommittee Wednesday that “the threat itself is diverse — in the last 18 months, Jewish communities have been targeted and threatened by violent extremist across the terrorism spectrum.”
“It is widely known that there are groups that want to do harm to Americans. But the greatest threat we face today is the one posed by lone actors of any ideology who are typically radicalized online and look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons,” Sanborn testified. “The solitary nature of their radicalization and mobilization makes them particularly difficult to identify and disrupt before they take their opportunity to act. More often than not, we are seeing that these people are motivated and inspired by a mix of ideological, social political and personal grievances against of their targets.”
The massacre a year ago at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and other attacks “could and have incited others to conduct a similar attack here in the U.S.”
“We have seen some domestic terrorist subjects’ reference foreign individuals over the course of their own radicalization process, as well as attempt to livestream their attacks mirroring what they have seen overseas attackers do,” Sanborn continued. “The Internet transcends borders; so, too, the ideas that are propagated on it. To that end, we have seen some domestic terrorism subjects travel overseas, some to conflict zones, for combat training.”
Neumann recalled a recent visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which made her think about “how quickly pride leads to anger, then hate and then to violence if properly stoked and unchecked.” She said she left “with a renewed purpose to root out such division within our country.”
“Anti-Semitism and similar ideologies of hatred and the violence perpetrated in their name have a chilling effect on Americans ability and willingness to openly exercise their constitutions guaranteed rights,” she said. “These individuals support ideologies that create to seek or seek to create the other here in the United States. And we cannot let that happen.”
DHS is exploring how to leverage authorities to combat terrorist travel, and CBP has stopped foreign nationals with ties to neo-Nazi groups overseas from entering the country. The department is “still early in this process” of building resilience to online malign influence campaigns “and it is a process which needs to be done carefully to ensure we are right within the bounds of existing authorities,” Neumann said.
Harrell stressed that, through CISA, “DHS continues our longstanding efforts with communities to share threat information, harden public gathering locations, train law enforcement and first responders and conduct a wide range of training and exercises.”
“We do not magically get better in a time of crisis. We always default to the things that we know, to training, to the lessons learned from exercises,” he said. “These are proven initiatives that have enhanced the safety and security of the American people and, through the strategic framework, DHS is augmenting its capabilities to address this increased targeted violence against our communities. To ensure the safety and security of our worshipers, we must be innovative, provide timely and useful resources and increase information sharing.”
Over the past three years, CISA has conducted 1,534 engagements with faith-based organizations, primarily through its Protective Security Advisor Program, and last year alone conducted over 800 engagements with houses of worship. Since 2011, CISA has conducted more than 300 in-person active-shooter workshops and nearly 975,000 people have successfully completed online active-shooter training.
“Following the strategic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, members of the synagogue credited the training provided by our PSAs with saving lives,” Harrell noted. Last April, CISA partnered with the Secure Community Network to conduct a tabletop exercise with the Jewish community leaders from across the United States, law enforcement personnel and interagency officials.
“Freedoms that have made this country a shining city upon a hill do not come without a price. As I wrote to the faith-based community a little over a year ago, and this dynamic threat environment, we face the reality that differences in ideology can result in attacks even in the most holy of places,” Harrell said. “While this unfortunate truth may be a reality, it does not have to be inevitable. The threat is not going away, but neither is our determination to reduce the probability of a successful attack.”
Sanborn said a fifth of the FBI’s current counterterrorism cases are racially or ethnically motivated. “The JTTF, which is one of our best tools in our toolbox, was actually created in 1980 in response to domestic terrorism in New York with the increase of attacks there,” she noted.
Harrell expanded on the critical tool of partnerships with 80-plus fusion centers across the country and Information Sharing and Analysis Centers.
“But you don’t know what you don’t know. And I think at some point, there needs to be a better information-sharing campaign to say these resources exist. This information is being shared on a daily, weekly, monthly basis in terms of threats in near-real time,” he said, adding that the Protective Security Advisor Program has “tried to bridge some of those gaps” though “it’s difficult to get to some of the lesser-served populations.”
“But that is our goal. That is what we are trying to do,” Harrell said. “That’s what we are gravitating toward.” There are 119 PSAs and “we need a whole lot more.”
“I can point to a website all day,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we need to help people along to get them the right information.”