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New Domestic Terrorism Strategy Focuses on Threat Detection, Countering Recruitment

The White House today revealed a new strategy to confront domestic terrorism that focuses on improving threat information flows, targeting online recruitment materials, “tackling racism” that feeds “the most persistent and lethal” extremist violence, and enacting better pre- and post-hiring screening to spot extremists in sensitive jobs such as federal law enforcement or the military.

“Too often over the past several years, American communities have felt the wrenching pain of domestic terrorism. Black church members slaughtered during their bible study in Charleston. A synagogue in Pittsburgh targeted for supporting immigrants. A gunman spraying bullets at an El Paso Walmart to target Latinos,” President Biden says in the document’s introduction. “It goes against everything our country strives to stand for in the world, and it poses a direct challenge to America’s national security, our democracy, and our national unity.”

The first-of-its-kind strategy is reflected in the president’s budget request, “ensuring that we do have the resources and personnel to address that elevated threat,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday, adding that “helping to illuminate these threats is a process that has already begun between the government and the tech sector.”

The report begins by citing the Ku Klux Klan’s “campaign of terror” starting after the Civil War and notes that “in recent years, we have seen a resurgence of this and related threats in one horrific incident after another: the shooting and killing of 23 people at a retail store in El Paso; the vehicular killing of a peaceful protestor in Charlottesville; the shooting and killing of three people at a garlic festival in Gilroy; the arson committed at a mosque in Victoria, Texas; the appalling rise in violence and xenophobia directed against Asian Americans; the surge in anti–Semitism; and more.”

“Domestic terrorist attacks in the United States also have been committed frequently by those opposing our government institutions. In 1995, in the largest single act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history, an anti–government violent extremist detonated a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people – including 19 children – and injuring hundreds of others. In 2016, an anti–authority violent extremist ambushed, shot, and killed five police officers in Dallas. In 2017, a lone gunman wounded four people at a congressional baseball practice,” the report adds. “And just months ago, on January 6, 2021, Americans witnessed an unprecedented attack against a core institution of our democracy: the U.S. Congress.”

Noting the “range of violent ideological motivations” that fall under domestic extremist activity including “racial or ethnic bigotry and hatred as well as anti–government or anti–authority sentiment,” from lone actors to networks, “to violent self–proclaimed ‘militias’ who, despite legal prohibitions in all fifty states against certain private militia, assert a baseless right to take the law into their own hands,” the strategy says white supremacists and violent militia extremists pose “the most persistent and lethal threats.”

“These actors have different motivations, but many focus their violence towards the same segment or segments of the American community, whether persons of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, other religious minorities, women and girls, LGBTQI+ individuals, or others,” the document states. “Their insistence on violence can, at times, be explicit.” Anti–government or anti–authority violent extremists include militias who react with violence to perceived government overreach, anarchists who “violently oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions,” and sovereign citizen violent extremists “who believe they are immune from government authority and laws.”

Other issue-related domestic terrorists may act out of grievances, ideology, or a mix of both, include anti-abortion extremists, environmental or animal-rights extremists, or violent involuntary celibates (incels).

Vowing to shield free speech and civil liberties as well as the independence of agencies investigating domestic terrorism, the strategy is built on four pillars: understanding the full range of threats and better information-sharing; preventing domestic terrorists from successfully recruiting, inciting, and mobilizing Americans to violence; deterring and disrupting domestic terrorist activity before extremist expression turns into violence; and recognizing that “the long-term issues that contribute to domestic terrorism in our country must be addressed to ensure that this threat diminishes over generations to come.”

The goals of the first pillar are to enhance research and analysis of domestic terror threats, improve informations-sharing within and beyond the federal government, and shed light on the transnational connections of domestic terrorism. “Appropriate elements of the intelligence and law enforcement communities have already identified, and are now implementing, more robust information exchanges with foreign partners regarding the foreign connections to the U.S. domestic terrorism threat and those partners’ own experiences addressing any comparable threats within their countries,” the document notes.

The second pillar focuses on strengthening domestic terrorism prevention resources and services including limiting availability of online recruitment materials (while acknowledging this is “almost certain to persist at some level”) and gun-control measures, along with “evidence-based digital programming, including enhancing media literacy and critical thinking skills, as a mechanism for strengthening user resilience to disinformation and misinformation online for domestic audiences.”

Implementing the third pillar involves augmenting prosecutorial teams to investigate and try domestic terrorism cases, and assessing “whether legislative reforms could meaningfully and materially increase our ability to protect Americans from acts of domestic terrorism while simultaneously guarding against potential abuse of overreach.” Screening and vetting processes for sensitive access or employment also “must account for all possible terrorist threats,” and the strategy says the administration is working on augmenting the federal clearance procedures for law enforcement and military positions as well as post-hiring mechanisms to identify extremist activity.

The fourth pillar “demands addressing the sources of that mobilization to violence”: “That means tackling racism in America. It means protecting Americans from gun violence and mass murders. It means ensuring that we provide early intervention and appropriate care for those who pose a danger to themselves or others. It means ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all and investing in policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American democracy, all the while acknowledging when racism and bigotry have meant that the country fell short of living up to its founding principles. It means setting a tone from the highest ranks of government that every American deserves the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that our Declaration of Independence recognizes as unalienable rights. And it means ensuring that there is simply no governmental tolerance – and instead denunciation and rejection – of violence as an acceptable mode of seeking political or social change.”

The strategy calls for building stronger partnerships across all levels of government, the private sector, the tech industry, and academia as “interlocking communities that can contribute information, expertise, analysis, and more to addressing this multifaceted threat.”

“The definition of ‘domestic terrorism’ in our law makes no distinction based on political views – left, right, or center – and neither should we,” the strategy states. “We must disrupt and deter those who use violence to intimidate racial or religious minorities, who have so often been the victims of hateful extremists. So too must we disrupt and deter those who launch violent attacks in a misguided effort to force change in government policies that they view as unjust. In a democracy, there is no justification for resorting to violence to resolve political differences.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement that DHS “will remain focused on addressing violence, while at the same time protecting privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.”

“DHS is undertaking a number of actions as part of an all-of-government effort to fight domestic terrorism. DHS is enhancing its analysis of open-source information to identify threats and leverage credible threat-analysis produced by others,” Mayorkas said. “The Department is continuing its efforts to provide timely and useful information to state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement as well as international and private sector partners. DHS is developing key partnerships with local stakeholders through the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3) to identify potential threats and prevent terrorism.”

‘Acute Threat’ from Domestic Extremists for Mass-Casualty and Gov-Targeted Attacks

Bridget Johnson
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 terrorism analyst and security consultant with a speciality in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. 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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