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DHS, DOJ Move Forward with Collaborative Strategy to Fight ‘Very Individualized’ Domestic Terror Threat

"Online content, disinformation, false narratives and conspiracy theories" fueling much of the violence today, DHS counterterrorism chief tells Congress.

The Department of Homeland Security and partners have been working to strengthen critical lines of communication in confronting terrorist threats as “some of the information- sharing relationships the department had forged over the years had atrophied,” DHS Counterterrorism Coordinator John Cohen told lawmakers during a discussion on agencies surging resources and collaboratively moving forward with strategically confronting the domestic terrorism threat.

The Sept. 29 hearing was the sixth in a series of hearings that the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has been holding on white supremacist movements and activities. 

“While we certainly are facing a threat that has an organizational dynamic, it involves groups of individuals that coalesce around and even engage in violent and destructive behavior in furtherance of extremist or a blend of extremist beliefs. It’s important to remember that it’s also a threat that is very individualized in nature,” Cohen said. “It has been repeatedly assessed by DHS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, when looked at from a lethal perspective, the most significant terrorism-related threat facing the U.S. today comes primarily from lone offenders, individuals who engage in violent activity inspired by extremist beliefs, or a blend of extremist beliefs, or a blend of extremist beliefs and personal grievances that are most often cultivated through the consumption of online content.”

Cohen noted that “this is a trend that began several years ago and has continued to evolve,” with specific motives behind these attacks varying though “analysis and research tells us that many of the attackers share common behavioral characteristics.”

“In particular, these are people who tend to be angry, socially disconnected, seeking a sense of life meaning, they spend significant time online, and ultimately self-connect with a cause or grievance to justify the use of violence as a way to express their anger and achieve a sense of social connection and self-worth,” he said. “It is a threat that does not often fit into traditional terrorism or extremism-related definitional categories.”

Meanwhile, “online content, disinformation, false narratives and conspiracy theories spread by foreign nation-states, international terrorist groups and extremist thought leaders fuel much of the violence we are experiencing in the country today.”

“Domestic and foreign threat actors purposely seek to exploit the fractures in our society, the anger and discord in our political discourse, to sow discord and inspire acts of violence,” Cohen added, stressing that “from an intelligence perspective, we need to think differently about how we look at information.”

“Pre-incident indicators may be apparent through public actions or communications. Covert collection may not be necessary to capture valuable intelligence, but analysts need to be able to distinguish between constitutionally protected speech and threat-related activity,” he said.

Joint Terrorism Task Forces “have for years kept our communities safe through multi-jurisdictional investigations into potential terrorism threats,” yet JTTFs cannot do it alone given the nature of the lone-offender threat.

“Community-based prevention programs are needed to complement the efforts of the JTTF,” Cohen said. “The threat posed by high-risk individuals who do not meet the investigative threshold necessary for terrorism-related investigations. This means providing grant funding, training, technical assistance to local communities so that law enforcement, mental health professionals, social service providers, educators and community groups can work together to identify those individuals who are traveling down the path of violence and develop strategies to manage those folks.”

While the caseload for international terrorism is “under 1,000” the FBI is currently working on “over 2,700 threats” related to domestic terrorism, the Bureau’s assistant director told lawmakers.

FBI Assistant Director Timothy Langan said that the Bureau has already bolstered domestic terrorism analytical resources in response to the June release of the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism by the Biden administration.

“We continue to disseminate intelligence products to our partners to identify actionable intelligence trends on domestic terrorism threat and tactics and tradecraft used by DVEs,” Langan said. “Many of these intelligence products are produced jointly with the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security in the form of joint intelligence bulletins. We also look to strengthen our two-way exchange of information with our state and local law enforcement partners, as they are often in the best position to identify important facets of the threat.”

One pillar of the strategy calls upon the government to prevent domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence, and the FBI is working with NCTC and DHS to update the Homegrown Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators Guide.

“The FBI is also working with DHS and the Department of Justice to research and share best practices for curbing prison radicalization,” Langan added.

The FBI has internally prioritized “key domestic terrorism threats at the same level as certain international terrorism threats such as ISIS and HVEs,” he said, and is “disrupting domestic terrorism plots and actors, often in close coordination with state and local law enforcement within the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force framework.”

“The FBI takes seriously its mission to both uphold the Constitution and to protect the American people,” Langan said. “Regardless of a person’s ideology, the FBI will actively pursue the opening of FBI investigations when an individual uses or threatens the use of force, violence or coercion in violation of federal law, and in furtherance of social or political goals.”

Justice Department Assistant Attorney General Brad Wiegmann said his department is “dedicating more resources to counter this threat,” including a budget request for an additional $100 million to address domestic terrorism.

“Increasing our focus on domestic terrorism and the intelligence we collect. Ensuring we can share as much information as we can with federal, state, local, tribal territorial partners. Deepening collaboration with our foreign partners and allies to explore links to international counterparts of domestic extremists,” he said. “And that’s something I would characterize as new in this strategy is we are seeing connections around the world, and that’s something that the strategy recognizes and calls on us to focus on. Ensuring that we are working with the tech sector, since there’s so much radicalization that occurs online. That’s a big focus of this strategy as well. And ensuring that we have sufficient training both at the state and federal level.”

Wiegmann noted that “the strategy recognizes that merely espousing an extremist ideology is not a crime, nor is expressing hateful views and associating with hateful groups.”

“Any steps to counter domestic terrorism must be focused on violent acts or true threats of violence so as to safeguard Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties,” he said. “There are longstanding guidelines that prohibit the FBI from engaging in investigative activities solely for the purpose of monitoring activities protected by the First Amendment or other constitutional rights. And this is a core value for the Department of Justice and the FBI.”

Wiegmann also stressed that “it is absolutely critical that we condemn and confront domestic terrorism regardless of the particular motivating ideology.”

“The definition of domestic terrorism in U.S. law makes no distinction based on political views, be they left, right or center, and neither should we,” he added.

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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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