Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen delivered this keynote address at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism Symposium in Washington on June 15, 2022:
Good afternoon. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Matt Olsen, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. I’ve been in this position since November of last year, but I first came to NSD at its inception in 2006 as the senior career official overseeing the Department’s intelligence work.
NSD was the first new Division created at DOJ in nearly a half century. Its founding vision was to consolidate the national security components of DOJ into a single team to carry out the Department’s mission of combatting terrorism, espionage and other threats to national security.
In the wake of 9/11, NSD fostered collaboration and unity of purpose across DOJ as well as with the intelligence community. As a Division, NSD unites prosecutors with attorneys across the intelligence community to ensure that we approach national security threats using every tool and resource available to the federal government. So that founding vision continues to guide us today, even as the office and the scope of its work has grown over the years.
Over the past decade, NSD has grown significantly in size and in the range of its work. In addition to combatting international and domestic terrorism, the Division handles matters addressing nation state cyber threats, sanctions evasion and other threats to our national security.
The work of NSD attorneys varies from representing the government in federal district and circuit courts, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court; vetting for national security concerns with sensitive potential foreign investments in the United States; participating in policy and legislative initiatives addressing the most pressing national security issues of the day; and helping American victims of overseas terrorism.
NSD’s evolution reflects the growth and changes in the threats we face. Yet from day one, counterterrorism has been at the core of our mission. That remains true today.
When I was first at NSD, we predominantly focused on combating international terrorism by groups like al-Qaida. Those threats have not gone away, and we continue to face the threat of terrorist attacks on the homeland by foreign terrorist groups, especially ISIS. DOJ works every day with our partners at the FBI and across the intelligence community to identify and disrupt foreign terrorist plots and to bring to justice those who would do us harm.
Over the last few years, our country has seen the threat posed by domestic terrorism and hate crimes increase – it’s an alarming trend that we must confront. Communities across the United States have seen first-hand the terrible costs inflicted by terrorism and violent extremism.
Last month, in Buffalo, New York, a gunman killed 10 people at a grocery store. We’ve said that Department is investigating that matter as a hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism. This morning, Attorney General Garland announced that the Department has filed a criminal complaint charging the perpetrator with multiple counts of committing a hate crime resulting in death, committing a hate crime involving an attempt to kill and for using a firearm to commit murder.
As the Attorney General said, these acts of violence not only terrorize the people who are attacked, they harm entire communities. And we will be relentless in combatting such acts of violence.
We also see this rising threat in the horrific attacks in Pittsburgh, El Paso, Charlottesville and elsewhere. Many other plots or threats have been disrupted. Just since the spring of 2020, the number of FBI investigations of suspected domestic violent extremists has more than doubled.
As when I started at NSD in 2006, some of the most acute law enforcement challenges arise in combatting terrorism, only this time the threat is both international and domestic.
Today, the most significant terrorist threat to the United States is posed by lone actors or small cells who typically radicalize online and look to attack soft targets using easily accessible weapons. We see these threats manifested in two groups of extremists, both of which involve actors based in the United States: domestic violent extremists and homegrown violent extremists.
Domestic violent extremists, or DVEs, are individuals who seek to commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of social or political goals stemming from domestic influences — such as racial or ethnic bias, or anti-government or anti-authority sentiments. By contrast, homegrown violent extremists, or HVEs, are individuals who are inspired primarily by foreign terrorist groups, but who are not receiving specific direction from those groups. That said, these individuals are often motivated and inspired by a mix of socio-political, ideological and personal grievances against their targets.
Whether they draw inspiration from foreign or domestic influences, once these individuals decide to commit acts of violence, they pose similar and significant challenges for law enforcement.
Because of the insular and often rapid nature of their radicalization and mobilization to violence – including limited discussion of plans with others and the use of encrypted communications – there are fewer opportunities to detect and disrupt plots before they happen. These actors have access to easily available, extremely powerful weapons. And we have to be clear about this – the ability of violent extremists to acquire military-grade weapons in this country contributes to their ability to kill and inflict harm on a mass scale. They often choose soft targets such as houses of worship, retail locations and mass public gatherings. Tragically, we know from experience how these factors can be a deadly combination.
I want to emphasize that this is among the most challenging and complex threat landscapes that I have seen in over 20 years working in counterterrorism. We know that countering the threat of violent extremism inside the United States will continue to require sustained attention and resources. And we need to rise to meet this growing threat, while still maintaining our focus on terrorist organizations based overseas.
Let me turn to how we respond. And here’s a bit of good news: our experience over the past 20 years provides us hard-earned lessons. We have built, over the years, a long and mostly successful record of combating international terrorism. As we confront the rising threat of domestic terrorism, we must bring to bear the insights we have gained over the past two decades.
I’ll highlight some of those key counterterrorism lessons and discuss briefly how they inform and guide our approach.
First, our work must be driven by threat intelligence to be effective. This means ensuring that we carefully track data and rely on professional analysis to refine our strategy, priorities and resources over time.
This work is already well-underway at DOJ when it comes to domestic extremism. Early last year, the Department issued new guidance to the field on reporting and tracking investigations related to domestic terrorism. As the Deputy Attorney General noted earlier this week, we are taking a data-driven approach to understanding the threat and to marshaling a coordinated, nation-wide response.
We are continually working to learn more not just about the scope of the problem, but also the nature of the threats and threat actors. For example, the Intelligence Community assess that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists are the most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians.
We also know that white supremacist groups have the most persistent and concerning transnational connections. But they are not the only category we are concerned about. While racially motivated extremists were the primary source of lethal attacks by violent extremists in 2018 and 2019, three of the four lethal DVE attacks in 2020 were carried out by individuals the FBI categorizes as “Anti-Government or Anti-Authority” extremists.
This threat-driven approach requires that we preserve the operational flexibility to adjust to a threat landscape that can shift rapidly. Our strategy is designed to reinforce the focus, expertise and resources demanded by the DT threat, while also ensuring that all resources remain available for the full range of counterterrorism needs.
Second, we must leverage the full range of our legal authorities to prevent, investigate and prosecute all forms of terrorism. In the international terrorism context, this often means leveraging military, law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities. When it comes to domestic violent extremism, where law enforcement tools are paramount, we look to deploy a range of criminal and civil laws.
For example, acts of domestic terrorism may also constitute hate crimes. A hate crime — which is violence motivated by things like race, religion, gender or sexual orientation — might also be designed to coerce a civilian population or influence government policy, which is the domestic terrorism definition. When that happens, we ask: What is the best and strongest tool in DOJ’s arsenal we can use to respond? How can we be as effective as possible to hold those who terrorize our communities accountable and to achieve justice for the victims?
One thing we have found is that when it comes to racially motivated domestic terrorism, such as white supremacist violence, often hate crimes statutes are the most effective tools. The recent events in Buffalo are a good example of that – the Civil Rights Division is taking the lead and NSD is supporting them. Based on those facts, we feel that is the strongest possible position for the Department. At the end of the day, we’re one team working together to deliver justice.
Third, as with international terrorism, domestic terrorism cases are of national importance and require national-level coordination. NSD was created to address exactly these kinds of challenges: to balance equities, provide subject matter expertise and training, and ensure consistency in approach and unity of purpose.
Now we, along with the FBI, are rising to meet the challenges of the current threat landscape. And critically this is an area in which coordination is essential to protect civil rights and civil liberties and to ensure that constitutionally protected activity is never viewed through the lens of national security threats.
We have learned from IT how to strike the right balance between headquarters and the field to ensure appropriate leadership visibility, expertise and support are given to terrorism matters – while recognizing that the frontline work is taking place in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and FBI Field Offices throughout the country. This is not just a bureaucratic point. All of us who have worked in or with federal law enforcement know how critical it is to get that balance right.
Fourth, we must remember the importance of partnerships to an effective counterterrorism response. That includes partnerships across the federal government, with state and local law enforcement, and with international authorities.
Each U.S. Attorney’s Office coordinates a group of federal and state and local officials in each district – we call it the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council or ATAC, for short. The ATACs work in close partnership with Joint Terrorism Task Forces in the FBI to promote training and information-sharing among our law enforcement partners, in both international and domestic terrorism matters.
This training and information-sharing is critical given that there are many more state and local law enforcement officers on the ground than there are federal agents. They are likely to be the first law enforcement officials to identify individuals planning terrorist acts within their communities. When it comes to preventing attacks before they can happen, federal, state and local partners work together to evaluate terrorist threats and determine whether federal or state intervention is possible to disrupt a plot and protect the public.
Fifth, our counterterrorism priority is prevention. We recognize that prevention demands a broader response. We need to engage with civil society and draw on tools to understand paths to radicalization, including providing support to community engagement, to efforts to prevent targeted violence and to work addressing mental health issues that may lead to violence.
At DOJ, we are providing technical assistance and training to state and local law enforcement through a newly-created Anti-Terrorism Training Program, developing resources for local law enforcement agencies on terrorism prevention and hate crimes, and conducting community engagements and providing prevention resources through a designated website for training state and local officials.
Sixth, and I think most importantly, we must adhere to our core values, no matter the magnitude of the threat or the challenges it may pose. These values are our source of national strength – and they are the foundation for all our work. We will zealously protect the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and association. We must cherish those fundamental commitments, even when confronted with words and beliefs that are abhorrent and painful to us and our fellow Americans.
Many of the domestic violent extremists who have committed acts of terror in recent years – in Charleston, in El Paso, in Charlottesville, in Buffalo – have been animated by the hateful ideology of racism, intolerance and white supremacy specifically. We should not hesitate to say that such views are wrong and betray core American values. And we must be candid that such views are part of an ideology that is increasingly mobilizing individuals to commit acts of violence.
But in the United States, hate itself is not a crime. DOJ investigates and prosecutes violent extremists for their criminal acts and not for their beliefs or based on their associations, and regardless of ideology. We are committed to protecting the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Americans and to safeguarding the exercise of protected speech, peaceful protests and political activity. The Department of Justice does not and will not open investigations solely based on First Amendment-protected activity.
We hold sacred the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise those freedoms. But when individuals or groups try to promote or impose an ideology through acts or threats of violence, those acts can be among the most dangerous crimes we confront as a society. When violent extremists seek to hurt others in the name of ideology – any ideology – we will use every tool we have to deter and disrupt such acts, to keep people safe, and to bring perpetrators to justice.
I’ll end by sharing a little bit about what we are doing to apply these lessons to our efforts combatting domestic violent extremism.
Earlier this year I announced that we would be creating a Domestic Terrorism Unit within our counterterrorism section. Last month, we formally stood up that unit following consultations with the Department’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division, the FBI and other DOJ components.
Drawing on expertise across NSD and the Department more broadly, the DT Unit has several functions: prosecuting and coordinating domestic terrorism cases; developing training and policies on domestic terrorism matters; and supporting the work of the Department in implementing a whole-of-government strategy on countering domestic terrorism. The unit’s structure preserves flexibility and allows us to better support the FBI, which has dedicated teams for handling domestic terrorism and international terrorism matters.
We recognize that countering domestic terrorism must be a whole-of-Department effort. We are committed to building a structure for Department of Justice components, including the Civil Rights Division and federal prosecutors around the country, to work collaboratively and bring to bear all available tools to hold violent extremists accountable.
With the DT Unit in place, we are currently developing internal DOJ policies to ensure that NSD’s involvement in significant domestic terrorism matters will align with our long-standing role in international terrorism cases. These changes will ensure a threat-driven, consistent, nation-wide approach to combating the threat.
Just as importantly, the DT Unit can act as a critical safeguard to ensure that we address the threat in a manner that is consistent with our values. In this work, as in all our of our work, we remain committed to protecting the constitutional rights and civil liberties of all Americans.
I’ll conclude by echoing what the Attorney General said this morning in Buffalo about the threats that violent extremism poses to the safety of the American people and American democracy. For the Justice Department, confronting these crimes is a legal obligation and a moral obligation. No one, when they go to the grocery store or the office or their place of worship or anywhere else, should have to live in fear of violence.