The Biden administration’s new domestic terrorism strategy creates a roadmap for state and local governments, the private sector, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations and foreign partners to collaborate in battling an escalating problem, said DHS counterterrorism chief John Cohen while discussing the new plan.
Cohen, who serves as the Department of Homeland Security’s coordinator for counterterrorism and assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention, discussed the new strategy in a GW Program on Extremism webinar on June 16, just after the Biden administration released its four-pillar plan on countering domestic terrorism.
“A lot of progress was made by the U.S. government in dealing with the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations and in particular dealing with the way those organizations operated, the way they recruited individuals, the way they communicated, the way they developed plans, the way they saw to introduce operatives into the domestic environment, the way they sought to recruit people here domestically,” Cohen said. “I think it is safe to say that the U.S. created quite a robust counterterrorism capability. The challenge is the threat we face today is significantly different than the one we faced after Sept. 11.”
According to Cohen, the FBI and DHS have stated that “the most significant terrorist threat facing the U.S. today comes from individuals or lone offenders, and small groups of individuals who based on an ideological belief system, primarily an ideological belief system they self-connect with online activity, but they’ll go out and commit an act of violence on behalf of that belief or a combination of ideological beliefs, or a combination of ideological beliefs and personal grievances.”
“In many respects, this is a much more individualized threat, and what I mean by that is if you look at the lethal attacks that have occurred in the U.S. over the last several years, they have been conducted by individuals who spend incredible amounts of time online viewing extremist content, content about past violent attacks, they tend to be individuals who have shared behavioral health or environmental characteristics,” Cohen said.
Cohen then used the phrase “it’s not the ideology, it’s the psychology” to sum up the extremist threat.
“What we mean by that, yes, the motive and ideological beliefs are important as part of the analytic process, but the threat tends to come from individuals who have a very superficial understanding of the ideological belief system they use as the validation for an act of violence, but they do have shared behavioral characteristics,” Cohen said. “They tend to be people who are searching for a sense of social connection. They’re very angry, they feel that they have been treated unfairly in life. They’re looking for something that provides them a sense of self-worth and they tend to derive that sense of social connection, in a sense of self-worth, by self-connecting with an ideological belief.”
Some elements that factor into today’s threat include the increased number of individuals who are angry and use their anger as an excuse to commit an act of violence, coupled with the intertwined nature of digital and physical worlds, Cohen said.
“So much of this threat is based on content that’s being disseminated online, it’s based on people who are communicating with each other online, it’s people who are intending on committing an attack, or articulating their intent to commit an act of violence through their online behavior,” Cohen said. “So as we think of ways to mitigate the threat, we have to understand more about those narratives that are more likely to incite violence, those narratives that will spread beyond private or closed platforms to more public platforms.”
“We have to better understand and incorporate into our prevention and our investigative strategies the leakage that occurs when an individual who’s preparing to commit an act of violence uses a social media platform, or some other online communications tool, to express and articulate that desire or that movement toward violence,” Cohen said.
Cohen then discussed the issue of free speech that can hamper officials when mitigating activities such as online forums that could become a threat.
“At the department, and across the law enforcement community, it is not our job to police thought or police speech. It is our job to prevent acts of violence,” Cohen said. “A core part of our prevention strategy has to include being able to distinguish free speech and activities that occur online, or in the physical space, that are associated with the threat of violence.”
There have been several cases where individuals have not met the threshold for domestic terror yet they eventually go out and commit an act of violence, Cohen explained.
“We have to figure out ways to build across the country community-based prevention capabilities that better enable local communities to identify high-risk individuals, people who pose the risk of committing an act of violence, and figuring out strategies, whether they be law enforcement, mental health, education, social service or some type of other threat management approach that reduces the risk of violence,” Cohen said. “We’re looking to expand our ability to analyze and understand online activity.”
“We not only want to better understand the narratives that are most effective at inciting violent behavior but we want to be able to better and more quickly identify those narratives that are spreading across platforms because that may give us insight into the type of targets that may be at risk and that may help inform types of actions we can take to reduce the risk to those targets,” Cohen said.
Cohen explained that communication at the community level will be needed to address this threat, even at a time when society has a lot of mistrust government or law enforcement.
“We have to build greater trust with communities across the country,” he said. “It’s not lost on me that at the same time we’re dealing with this dynamic, volatile or highly complex threat environment, we’re doing so at a time where a significant portion of our society simply does not trust government and does not trust law enforcement.”
Watch the full discussion at GW Program on Extremism.