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Domestic Extremists Pursue Chemical, Bioweapons More Than ISIS Loyalists, Expert Tells Senate

Far-right extremists in the United States “have pursued chemical and biological weapons more frequently” than homegrown extremists driven by loyalty to an international terrorist group, an expert told senators at a hearing on the domestic terror threat.

William Braniff, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week that “domestic terrorists are more numerous, active, and lethal in gross numbers than international terrorists” and that “among domestic terrorists, violent far-right terrorists are by far the most numerous, lethal, and criminally active.”

“Far-right extremists conducted over 50 percent of the successful attacks in 2017 and 2018. There were six lethal attacks in the U.S. in 2018,” he said. “All six lethal attacks shared far-right ideological elements, primarily white supremacy, and in at least two cases, male supremacy. And we observed this general pattern to continue in 2019. Looking back over a longer time horizon, between 1990 and 2018, the violent far-right is responsible for 800 failed or foiled plots, 215 homicide events — compared to 350 failed or foiled plots, and 50 homicide events emerging from HVEs.”

These extremists are more engaged in illicit financial operations than homegrown terrorists loyal to groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda (HVEs), the professor noted, “engaging in over 600 terror financing schemes, and generating over $1 billion in damages to the U.S. government between 1990 and 2013.”

Between 80 to 90 percent of the hate-crime perpetrators in START’s database, Braniff testified, conform to “the ideological tenets of violent far-right extremism, broadly defined” as “the composition of far-right targets has changed, with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attacks increasing in frequency.”

With more domestic terrorists arrested than HVEs, 62 percent of far-right offenders and 78 percent of far-left terrorists “succeeded in their violent plots,” compared to only 22 percent for HVEs, he said, “due to a combination of pragmatic and political factors that collectively reduce resource allocation to domestic terrorism.”

Braniff advocated that the government “take a public health approach to violence prevention, and invest in programs that build community resilience, programs that foster non-criminal justice interventions for at-risk individuals, and programs that foster rehab and reintegration for domestic extremists.”

Clint Watts, a former special agent in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, pointed out two “critical ways” in which domestic extremists “vex law enforcement efforts.”

“First, domestic terrorists, for the most part, don’t operate as physical name groups in the way al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have, in an international context. And second, law enforcement pursues domestic terrorists via different rules and structures, separate from international terrorists,” he said. “Investigators must pass higher thresholds to initiate investigations, and have fewer tools and resources at their disposal. In some, domestic counterterrorism remains predominately a reactive affair, in which investigations respond to violent massacres and then pursue criminal cases.”

Robert Chesney, James A. Baker III Chair in the Rule of Law and World Affairs and associate dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, told lawmakers he opposes designations of domestic terrorist organizations in the same way that foreign terrorist organizations are designated because of “the constitutional can of worms that would open up under the First Amendment.”

“The thought experiment of imagining the capacity to designate a group, being in the hands of officials who may be whatever is the opposite, ideological orientation or political orientation you may have — it’s a Pandora’s box we don’t want to get into, unless the use case for doing so is clearly enough established,” he said. “…It would certainly provide a broad basis to clarify investigative, and arrest authorities, and prosecution authorities. But I think we can get there without opening this particular Pandora’s box.”

Anti-Defamation League Senior Vice President of Programs George Selim, who formerly led the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, noted that “three of the five deadliest years of murder by domestic extremists in the period between 1970 and 2018 were in the past five years.”

“In the past decade, 2009 through 2018, the majority of the 427 people killed by domestic extremists were killed by white supremacists,” he said. “In the last year alone, we have seen mass murder after mass murder, targeting Jews, Muslims, Latin, and other immigrant communities, at the hands of white supremacists that were radicalized and lauded online, on the open net.”

Of DHS’ new Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence, Selim said that the “forthcoming steps of a concrete implementation plan and associated funding request will be the ultimate test as to whether or not this framework will succeed or fail.”

“White supremacy is a very real and very deadly threat to our homeland. This is an all hands-on deck moment to protect our communities,” he added. “Solutions will require a whole of government, whole of society impact.”

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

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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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