The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan on Sept., 15, 1963. (FBI photo)

HSAC Outlines Urgent Steps to Secure Faith Community from ‘New Age’ of Domestic Terrorism

The Homeland Security Advisory Council is urging stakeholders and policy makers to act quickly to implement a host of new recommendations for better security to protect vulnerable faith-based institutions.

In a draft report this week, the HSAC stressed that faith-based organizations “largely do not have consistent access to timely actionable information and assessments related to domestic violence movements or trends, and how those threats affect their houses of worship and local communities,” and standard operating procedures as well as strong relationships are necessary for “meaningful two-way information sharing to occur and be sustained between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the faith-based community.”

The panel found that “houses of worship more frequently build positive relationships with local law enforcement, while mistrust of federal personnel and lack of government outreach often hinder FBO engagement with federal entities.” However, there is “still an overall great need for improved connectivity at the local level.”

“Securing a congregation is a bottom-up process, and there are no one-size-fits-all security plans,” the report notes. “While each place of worship will need to create a system that suits its individual resources, culture, and comfort level, there are concrete steps FBOs can take to enhance security.”

The HSAC Subcommittee for the Prevention of Targeted Violence Against Faith-Based Organizations — which includes representatives from law enforcement, think tanks, academia and the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu faiths — was tasked by then-Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan in May with three research areas: “ensuring two-way information flows between DHS and faith-based organizations,” “evaluating preparedness and protective efforts for the faith community,” and “evaluating the role the faith-based community could/should have in locally-based prevention efforts.”

In August, McAleenan added a fourth task to the committee’s research: “evaluating the adverse impacts that violent extremists and domestic terrorists, including those inspired by violent white supremacy ideologies, have on faith-based and other vulnerable communities.” The HSAC found the threat “difficult to overstate” as “what was once unthinkable has become almost routine” and “the increasing influence of white supremacist ideologies in inspiring acts of domestic terror and targeted violence is, moreover, not a matter of political opinion, but a demonstrable fact.”

“Beyond the conventional social media platforms, white supremacists and other extremists are leveraging lesser-known sites like Gab, 8chan, and EndChan, as well as encrypted channels,” states the report. “Like violent extremists and other adherents to extremist ideologies, their tactic is to exploit the openness of the instrumentalities of freedom – in this case social media and the internet – to destroy freedom itself – in this case the foundational freedom of religious conscience.”

Previous HSACs were given similar tasks in 2012 and 2014, and the current committee notes that “there is no evidence any of the recommendations were acted upon,” though many “remain relevant.”

“With this the third report of this nature, and in view of the urgency of our moment, and the imprimatur of this Subcommittee, this report should be converted into an implementation plan at the earliest possible moment for the systematic adoption of the actionable recommendations,” says the latest report. “Given the strong Congressional interest in this work, periodic DHS reporting to Congress on the accomplishment of these recommendations is a potential outcome of this report.”

Brian Harrell, assistant director for infrastructure security at DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told HSToday that the U.S. faces “a growing threat from domestic terrorism and other threats originating at home, including the mass attacks that have too frequently struck our houses of worship, our schools, and our workplaces.”

“This report highlights that these threats have become more complex, more interconnected, and closer to home,” Harrell said. “As the threats evolve, the Department of Homeland Security must as well. I am confident in our ability to rise to the challenge through relentless resilience, determination, and a unity of effort between the federal government, private sector, and the American citizen.”

The report recommends that DHS designate a director, with the level of assistant secretary or higher, to lead all of the department’s faith-based programs, as well as the creation of a faith-based working group at the National Security Council. DHS should “take lead, in conjunction with state and local officials, in establishing a package approach to security of FBOs.”

The panel further recommends that DHS encourage more real-time information sharing between law enforcement and houses of worship, designate local funding to “create or expand outreach and connectivity with FBOs, especially in rural areas,” determine specific requirements for protective security advisors “and if necessary, request additional sustained funding from Congress to hire, train, and increase the actual numbers of PSAs as needed for the security of the FBOs,” and better develop the effectiveness of fusion centers to address faith-based threats.

Addressing the challenges noted by law enforcement with the absence of a domestic terrorism statute, the report recommends that “Congress work with DHS and DOJ to pass a statute defining such acts,” adding that “providing funds for monitoring the acts can assist law enforcement in ordering its priorities without compromising constitutional values.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program is “vital” to helping secure houses of worship, the report states, “but the funding level is insufficient, and the application process is complex, opaque, and long.” The HSAC recommends that DHS seek additional funding from Congress and establish an office to help institutions with the grant process.

Six of the 67 terror attacks in the United States in 2018 were lethal, and “all six of these attacks involved elements of far-right ideologies, primarily white supremacy,” the report notes.

“These tragic events, now baked into the history of contemporary America, represent a rapidly changing paradigm and a new age for domestic terrorism in the United States,” says the HSAC.

DHS and many law enforcement agencies “have facilitated public education on vigilance, identifying suspicious activities and active shooter response,” but “challenges remain, and faith-based institutions do not fully understand what they should be reporting or how to report the information.”

“In addition, little guidance or consideration is given to ensuring that faith-based community members are appropriately respecting the civil liberties of others when identifying suspicious activity,” the report notes. “Currently, the quality of the messages being delivered by the Fusion Centers and PSAs to their faith-based communities remains disparate and sometimes simply incoherent. As a result, disseminating information concerning domestic terrorism threats and risks to communities remain a challenge.”

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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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