Video frame from the attack livestream posted on Facebook by white nationalist Brenton Tarrant when he attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019. The video was widely disseminated in extremist forums where his “kill count” and other gamification aspects were discussed and promoted.

FBI, DHS Cite ‘Kill Count’ Gamification as Key Threat Inspiring Future Domestic Terrorism

Gamification, in which violent extremists liken attacks to video games and try to achieve a high score or kill count, will likely “continue to inspire future plots” along with the societal-collapse ideology of accelerationism, said a joint domestic terrorism report to Congress from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

The new report — which was mandated in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 and required the inclusion of a strategic intelligence assessment, data on domestic terrorism and discussion of law enforcement activities, and recommendations to counter the threat — arrived more than 10 months past its June 17, 2020, due date. House committee leaders sent a letter to President Biden in March urging that the report be produced and submitted to Congress.

“The threat posed by international and domestic threat actors has evolved significantly since 9/11. The greatest terrorism threat to the Homeland we face today is posed by lone offenders, often radicalized online, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons,” the report said. “Many of these violent extremists are motivated and inspired by a mix of socio-political goals and personal grievances against their targets.”

The NDAA mandated reviews of the domestic terrorism landscape for 2017, when racially motivated violent extremists were “the primary sources of lethal and significant violence” and law enforcement and racial minorities were the top targets; 2018, when domestic violent extremists “were primarily enabled by their use of the Internet” and militia violent extremists “continued to espouse violent rhetoric, often lacking intent or credibility, to engage in violence against Muslims, political activists, and protestors to protect their vision of public safety, such as border-related issues”; and 2019, when the FBI and DHS assessed that racially motivated violent extremists, “primarily those advocating for the superiority of the white race, likely would continue to be the most lethal DVE threat to the Homeland.”

“Our agencies had high confidence in this assessment based on the demonstrated capability of RMVEs in 2019 to select weapons and targets to conduct attacks, and the effectiveness of online RMVE messaging calling for increased violence,” the report stated. “Additionally, other DVEs likely would continue to engage in non-lethal violence and other criminal activity, and DVE reactions to socio-political events and conditions could increase attacks.”

Five domestic violent extremist attacks in 2019 resulted in 32 deaths. White supremacists inflicted the attacks that caused 24 of those deaths.

“Themes like ‘gamification’ and ‘accelerationism’ partly inspired some of the attacks in 2019 and likely will continue to inspire future plots,” the report said. “Gamification is a term where fatality counts in attacks are referred to as ‘scores,’ as the actor desires to accomplish ‘achievements’ or high kill counts. Messaging from RMVEs espousing the superiority of the white race has furthered this narrative by framing previous attacks as resulting in a ‘score.’ Additionally, widely disseminated propaganda on online forums and encrypted chat applications that espouse similar themes regarding kill counts could inspire future attackers to mobilize faster or attempt increasingly lethal and more sophisticated attacks.”

References are also found on these online forums to accelerationism, “a belief amongst some neo-Nazi and/or fascist RMVEs that the current system is irreparable, without apparent political solutions, and hence violent action is needed to precipitate societal collapse to start a race war.”

Both the FBI and DHS assessed DVEs “likely would continue to focus on attacking soft targets and use gamification to encourage higher fatality attacks.”

“The propagation of accelerationism almost certainly would perpetuate the threat from RMVEs who espouse the superiority of the white race,” the report added. “Political disagreements within the United States could present opportunities for DVEs to engage in violence against individuals perceived to have opposing ideologies, prominent political or public figures, or members of the media covering these events.”

Much of the report discusses how domestic terror threats are reviewed and prioritized, the intelligence process related to these threats, how information on these threats is shared, civil liberties protections in investigating domestic extremism, and classifying threats into racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism, anti-government or anti-authority violent extremism, animal rights/environmental violent extremism, abortion-related violent extremism, and all other domestic terrorism threats with agendas that “could flow from, but are not limited to, a combination of personal grievances and beliefs.”

The FBI was conducting about a thousand domestic terrorism investigations each year from FY 2017 through 2019, the year that law enforcement agencies participating in the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program reported 7,314 hate crime incidents. The FBI formally created the Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell in April 2019 to handle the crossover between domestic terrorism and hate crimes cases, but doesn’t have full data on how many hate crimes cases evolved into domestic terrorism cases because law enforcement agencies submit hate crimes data to the UCR on a voluntary basis.

“As a matter of FBI policy, law enforcement activities within the scope of DT investigations are particularly subject to heightened internal legal review and supervisory approvals to ensure Constitutional rights, privacy, and civil liberties are protected at each juncture,” the report said. “DT investigations receive more scrutiny through such legal reviews due to the greater likelihood these investigations may need to navigate First Amendment-protected activities.”

“There are no other differences in how the FBI complies with policy, civil rights, and civil liberties policies and protections” whether the type of investigation is domestic or international terrorism.

“In confronting the threat of domestic violent extremism, the DHS must take care to avoid stigmatizing populations and infringing on Constitutional rights,” the report stated. “To that end, the DHS does not profile, target, or discriminate against any individual for exercising their First Amendment rights. The DHS’ prevention, intelligence, and law enforcement work is never based solely on First Amendment-protected activity. DHS policy also prohibits the consideration of race or ethnicity in our intelligence, investigation, screening, and law enforcement activities in all but the most exceptional instances.”

In fiscal year 2019, about 107 subjects were arrested in cases with a nexus to domestic terrorism, with 63 subjects charged federally, 42 subjects charged with state/local charges, and two subjects charged with both federal and state/local charges. The number of arrests had declined each year from a high of 229 arrests in 2016, but 2019 “represented the most lethal year for DVE attacks since 1995, with five separate DVE attacks resulting in 32 deaths, 24 of which occurred during attacks conducted by RMVEs advocating for the superiority of the white race.”

“The number of federal criminal charges with a nexus to DT (and the corresponding details of those matters) is not currently maintained by the FBI or DOJ in a comprehensive manner,” the report noted.

From 2015 through 2019, the report said the FBI produced more than 4,000 intelligence products related to domestic terrorism, and from 2016 to 2019 DHS produced 67 DT-related intelligence products and 1,068 DT-related raw intelligence reports. “The DHS does not have reliable data dating back prior to 2016 on this topic,” the report added.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said he appreciated the administration’s release of the report “but there will likely need to be more conversations and supplemental data submissions from the Biden administration for Congress to get a more complete picture of the domestic terrorism threat landscape.”

“Congress needs data to help guide future legislative and oversight efforts to address the persistent scourge of domestic terrorism,” Thompson added. “The Executive Branch has this data; the biggest takeaway here is that presenting it in an aggregated manner that communicates to Congress and the American people the current threat picture continues to be a challenge.”

The report concluded by noting that the FBI, DHS, NCTC, and DOJ are “actively participating” in the administration’s review of domestic violent extremism including resources and government policies: “Pending completion of this review and further consultation with DOJ leadership, the FBI has no recommendations at this time.”

“The DHS is continuing to review authorities, expertise, and resources at its disposal to identify, prevent, and mitigate threats to the Homeland from DVEs,” the report added. “The DHS is committed to expanding its ability to collect DVE and DT information that is publicly available through social media and other platforms, while simultaneously safeguarding privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties of all persons, in order to enhance the Department’s ability to rapidly analyze and communicate DVE and DT threats so that policy makers and our homeland security partners are enabled to take appropriate action.”

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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, BBC and SiriusXM.

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