The United States has long built its approach to counterterrorism based on a fundamental distinction between “international terrorism” and “domestic terrorism.” The phrases were always misnomers to some degree, but the recent mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, has revealed just how unsuitable that distinction is for today’s terrorist threats. Governments must reorient their counterterrorism approaches to reflect an environment in which all terrorist threats have transnational dimensions—and they must do so quickly to address the growing threat of far-right violent extremism.
The phrases “international terrorism” (think of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda) and “domestic terrorism” (think of the Oklahoma City bombing and the October 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue) have often been a source of confusion to those not steeped in counterterrorism. The Islamic State has its roots internationally, but what makes it such a threat to Americans is, in part, its ability to influence domestic actors like Omar Mateen to kill Americans in domestic locations like Orlando, Florida. The group may be “international,” but its attackers and attacks can be, and have been, domestic—to tragic effect.
In contrast, killers like Robert Bowers, who gunned down 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue and injured many others, was motivated not by allegiance to a foreign terrorist organization like the Islamic State but by what typically have been thought of as “domestic” political, social, or ideological grievances: in Bowers’s case, a hatred of Jews and desire to preserve what he referred to as “my people.”