The United States needs to acknowledge and craft policy toward confronting the “very sobering” counterterrorism reality that “we have more terrorists today than we did on 9/11,” a former counterterrorism chief at the Department of Homeland Security told Congress.
Former DHS Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy Elizabeth Neumann, who now serves as chief strategy office for the organization Moonshot, which counters online extremism, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in an Aug. 5 hearing on the domestic extremist threat that the summer 2019 attacks in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton foreshadowed “the current spike of violence that started last summer and continues this year.”
“We have some attacks targeted at institutions including law enforcement. We have some attacks that targeted people groups, particularly those that historically have been marginalized. Others are ideologically motivated or what we would consider terrorism, and still others, we have motives that aren’t determined,” she said.
Neumann stressed that the DHS Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which she briefed the committee about in October 2019, emphasized partnerships to recognize and help individuals vulnerable to radicalization and to help those who have been radicalized “find healthier ways to address their grievances or problems before they cross the criminal threshold.”
“El Paso, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Nashville Christmas bombing, and the recent shooting at the Indianapolis FedEx facility all had a common feature: that there was a bystander that reported to law enforcement that they had concerns, and law enforcement, after the fact, said, ‘Yes, we had concerns about that individual, but we did not have the probable cause or the tools to be able to do anything,'” she said. “We need to find a way to get help to those individuals before they cross that criminal threshold.”
“Building local prevention frameworks will allow bystanders, their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and loved ones that notice something is wrong to consult with experts before they have concerns, before an individual has committed a criminal act,” she added. “And that’s the linchpin of what we describe when we’re talking about prevention.”
Lauding the current administration for taking “the threat of domestic terrorism very seriously” and continuing to implement the prevention strategy launched in the previous administration, Neumann said the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably slowed progress. She encouraged senators to authorize the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships at DHS, work with DHS to find a suitable home for the office so it can best perform its mission, and provide it with adequate financial resources — “from the current $20 million to over $200 million over a multiyear period.”
“And I recommend that Congress authorize 50 prevention coordinators to be placed in every state next year and increase beyond that after a workforce assessment is completed,” she said, adding, “I don’t believe I’m overstating the extreme challenge the security community faces at this time.”
In addition to radicalization stoked by the isolation of the pandemic and political polarization, Neumann said she’s particularly concerned about the growth of accelerationism, which is “mostly associated with white supremacist ideology, though it is really more of a doctrine that could apply to any ideology,” and seeks to hasten societal collapse through acts of violence such as a race war or civil war. “My concern, in particular, is that I’m seeing threads of this doctrine discussed in the political mainstream,” she said. “Accelerationism is fundamentally anti-democratic, and it’s extremely dangerous… it just takes one catalyst and then you have this social media feedback loop and perhaps one or two leaders kind of sanctioning whatever that catalyst and the response was to lead us to a moment where a mass group of people show up and believe that violence is justified to achieve their ends.”
“The current scope of violent extremism in our country is simply too big for the security community to fix,” she stressed. “We must call in other parts of our society to reflect on their contributions to our current moment and all of us need to work towards a more responsible discourse that allows for disagreement without dehumanizing our opponents.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that a “drastic and disturbing rise in anti-Semitic activity across America” foreshadows more extremism because “hate might start with the Jews, but it never ends there — bigotry begets more bigotry, hate leads to more hate.” That includes recent increases in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and the Latino community.
“Over the last decade, 429 innocent victims were murdered at the hands of extremists. The overwhelming majority of whom were far, far right extremists and white supremacists,” he said. “But we also know full well that you don’t have to be an official card-carrying extremist to cause harm. The problem we see is that violence motivated by hate, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry increasingly has been normalized.”
The rise in domestic extremism has been fueled by social media — “a super-spreader of hate” — and “leaders who have repeated extremist rhetoric, co-opted their conspiracies, and knowingly or not have given them the green light,” he said.
ADL’s released its bipartisan PROTECT plan this year that advocates passing the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act; better coordination across all federal, state and local government agencies; ensuring that extremists cannot serve in the military, law enforcement, or elected office; holding social media companies accountable for facilitating extremism; funding innovative anti-radicalization efforts; and targeting foreign white supremacist groups.
“There is simply no silver bullet,” Greenblatt told lawmakers. “…As part of this, you need to rethink DHS for the modern era, making sure it’s best prepared and organized to address the threat of domestic terrorism.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, warned that “the extremist threat today, both domestically and internationally, is in a state of significant realignment across several fronts, and it is also severe.”
“As I have noted for several years, white supremacists and far-right extremists continue to pose the most lethal domestic terror threat facing the United States,” he said. “But they do so in an increasingly diversifying landscape that impacts not only these malefactors but various emerging actors across the entirety of the extremism spectrum. Indeed, we are seeing an era of a democratization of hate.”
He noted the 189 percent spike in anti-Asian hate crime in major U.S. cities in the first quarter of 2021, the wide-ranging backgrounds of the hundreds of defendants in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, and more violent confrontations around heated issues at the local level such as at school board meetings. The country is also experiencing “increasing activity of militias of various stripes.” Extremist homicides going down in 2020 was likely “a temporary anomaly with respect to the various COVID restrictions,” he said.
Levin said that year-to-date anti-Semitic hate crimes are up 135 percent in New York City and 53 percent in Los Angeles — and both “look like they may be heading for records.”
“As we’ve seen with respect to El Paso and others, we’re seeing a confluence of folks, mass killers, some very young who have access to weaponry. There is an overlap between hate crime and terrorism. But we are seeing violent conflict also rising around conflictual political events,” he said. “…Indeed, extremism is a carnival mirror reflection of mainstream stressors.”
Levin stressed to the committee that “today’s terrorist is increasingly less ideological and organizationally rigid.”
“We have an elastic reservoir of grievance. And targeted violence and hate crimes often overlap, so we need data that is timely and deep, and we have not had that in many years,” he said, warning of the “dissipation of extremism that is becoming more regional and more idiosyncratic in its manifestations.”
Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, told senators that what is needed is “accurate data on the nature and extent of white supremacist violence and the political will to change both the policies and practices that have generally overlooked its growth.”
“As we go after white supremacist violence, we must not take an approach that could harm some of the very communities we need to protect from this violence,” she added, advocating against creation of a domestic terrorism charge.
Neumann said a reassessment is needed as if a crime is “done in the name of a White supremacist’s ideology versus in the name of ISIS, those crimes are treated differently.”
“I would think that it would behoove us as a people to have a commission that looks at this problem, looks at our mistakes, updates the law on all sides, not just for domestic terrorism, but we’ve got to do counterterrorism better,” she said, later adding that “one of the biggest gaps at DHS has been on the intelligence side, and it’s still not clear to me who in the federal government is responsible for producing a strategic threat picture as it pertains to domestic terrorism.”
Greenblatt noted that “FEMA and DHS, in general, can do a better job of reaching out to faith-based communities to make them aware” of the underutilized Nonprofit Security Grant Program.
“We think the Pray Safe Act is incredibly important,” he said. “That it would create a best- practices portal for faith-based organizations from all religions that would benefit from DHS’ understanding of security protocols that they could take on themselves, what’s worked for other organizations in terms of best practices, how they can apply for federal grants.”