Assessing the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism
The smoke and tear gas had barely dissipated from the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when it became painfully obvious to anyone watching that the United States was ill-prepared to deal with the threat of domestic terrorism. For the past two decades, the United States has been narrowly focused on the threat posed by a specific type of terrorism — namely, Salafi-jihadist-inspired terrorism perpetrated by transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. But even as the steady drumbeat of domestic terrorist attacks cascaded, driven primarily by violence perpetrated by far-right extremists, the U.S. government was caught flat-footed, unsure of how to respond.
To remedy this vulnerability, the Biden administration recently released its strategy to counter domestic terrorism, laying out a blueprint for how the U.S. government plans to respond to the growing threat. The strategy comprises four main pillars that each focus on a different aspect of the response. It contains language familiar to those working on counter-terrorism-related issues, including all the right buzzwords and boilerplate phrases: information sharing, building resilience, and preventing mobilization to violence.
The strategy is a welcome step in the right direction and comes at a critical time — the intelligence community has assessed the risk posed by domestic terrorism as “elevated” in 2021. Still, the details of the strategy illustrate both opportunities and challenges that the Biden administration will have to address in the years to come.
A Welcome Change
It must be noted that the strategy stands in stark contrast to the way in which the threat of domestic terrorism was addressed by the Trump administration, whose actions often served to inflame, and at times encourage, domestic extremists. On several occasions, President Donald Trump himself galvanized extremists and refrained from condemning acts of violence. Remarks following the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and others encouraging the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” are just a few examples of Trump’s dog whistles. For four years, the holder of the highest political office in the United States subtly fanned the flames of organizations and ideologies that promote political violence and terrorism.
By contrast, the Biden administration seems earnest in its desire to counter this corrosive threat to American democracy, elevating domestic terrorism to a national security priority from day one. In his inauguration speech, the president noted “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” During his first day in office, Joe Biden requested a comprehensive threat assessment on violent domestic extremism and tapped a National Security Council counter-terrorism veteran as a special adviser to oversee a 100-day scoping effort on how to address the threat. The strategy, a first of its kind, is the result.
More than $100 million has been allocated as part of the 2022 budget to be directed toward the hiring of prosecutors, investigators, and analysts. Within the Department of Homeland Security, over $77 million will be allocated to state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to prevent, protect against, and respond to domestic violent extremism. It is clear that, thus far, Biden has followed through on his pledge to make safeguarding Americans from domestic terrorists one of his top priorities, and his administration has allocated significant resources toward that end. But resources do not guarantee success, as the United States has learned with two decades of fighting terrorism overseas.
What’s in the Strategy?
The first pillar of the strategy highlights the importance of understanding and sharing domestic terrorism-related research and analysis. Along these lines, efforts will be made to enhance and improve information sharing within and across the entire U.S. government. This cooperation will also extend to partners outside of the government, and to illuminate the aspects of this threat that are transnational in nature. Pillar one also includes a directive for the Department of Homeland Security to utilize and integrate nongovernmental research, intelligence, and analytic products to provide for more comprehensive situational awareness.
The second pillar of the strategy focuses on prevention, specifically with the mandate to stymie recruitment into domestic terrorist organizations and disrupt the mobilization to violence. Since much of the recruitment and incitement takes place through social media and gaming platforms, the strategy allocates additional resources to deal with challenges emanating from online radicalization.
Pillar three of the strategy outlines how to strengthen the efforts of the government to disrupt and deter domestic terrorism activity, which is primarily the writ of the Department of Justice, including the FBI. It is indeed crucial, as the strategy lays out, to allocate more resources and training to investigative and prosecutorial efforts.
The fourth and final pillar of the strategy seeks to grapple with long-term contributors to domestic terrorism, stressing the need for civics education and the types of societal engagement that can foster an understanding of and commitment to the institutions of American democracy. Many of the extremists and conspiracy theorists who stormed the Capitol in January referred to each other colloquially as “patriots,” hinting at the profound lack of awareness and general misreading of the principles and ideals that the United States is built upon. This pillar aims to increase the resilience of America as a country to radicalization, bigotry, hate, and violence. The fourth pillar is anchored in an ambitious goal of the Biden administration that extends beyond the domestic terrorism threat and aims to safeguard democracy against anyone seeking to do it harm — namely, “enhancing faith in government” and addressing “extreme polarization.”
Strengths of the Strategy
One area where the strategy is strong is in its emphasis on cooperation with foreign partners and allies. Experts both inside and outside the government have long been concerned about domestic terrorist actors and organizations, especially white supremacist extremists and neo-Nazis, finding common ground with like-minded individuals in other countries. Transnational connections can serve as a force multiplier for terrorist groups, further complicating an already complex threat landscape. The March 2021 domestic violent extremist assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence noted: “U.S. [racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists] who promote the superiority of the white race are the [domestic violent extremist] actors with the most persistent and concerning transnational connections.” U.S. allies and partners are also grappling with this threat, and the document’s clear emphasis on not only enhancing information sharing within the United States but also with partners and allies will be a critical component in addressing the globalization of extremist ideologies across the spectrum.
Similar to its role in combating groups like al-Qaeda, the United States should take a leading role in disrupting extremist groups that may be based on U.S. soil, but that are expanding connections internationally. Bilateral and multilateral forums can be appropriate venues for this type of diplomacy and capacity building. The endorsement of the Christchurch Call, coupled with operational directives for State, Treasury, and the intelligence community to tackle all aspects of the threat ranging from financing to the disinformation-terrorism nexus, stand out as among the strongest aspects of the strategy.
Another strength of the strategy is the focus on combating extremism within the ranks of the U.S. military, federal law enforcement, and broader U.S. government. Additional screening measures will be put in place, and there is a genuine desire to root out extremists of all backgrounds, recognizing that individuals with specialized military or police training can be force multipliers in domestic terrorism. Military veterans are overrepresented among those individuals charged in connection with the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, with one in five defendants having served in the military. Some of the most dangerous and lethal white supremacy extremist organizations in the United States have articulated deliberate recruitment strategies that target former or active servicemembers.
The authors of the document should be credited for going to great lengths to emphasize that, as a strategy, it should remain agnostic to the types of ideology motivating violence, while also seeking to understand these ideologies — whether far-left, far-right, Islamist, or otherwise. Likewise, the strategy’s emphasis on addressing terrorism, and specifically the violent manifestations of it, rather than ideology is another important feature to highlight. It is encouraging to see reflected in the document that the two decades of America’s trial and error in formulating counter-terrorism strategies has yielded the core of a strategy grounded in our democratic values.
Weaknesses of the Strategy
While it is refreshing to see the sense of urgency within the administration in devoting resources and manpower to the threat posed by domestic terrorism, there are a number of issues that remain unaddressed. Perhaps most pressing is the need for a domestic terrorism statute on par with what the State Department has for designating foreign terrorist organizations. Without a domestic terrorism statue, and without an expanded foreign terrorist organization list, the ability of law enforcement to operationally work cases of domestic terrorism using tools similar to those deployed against international terrorists will continue to be limited in nature.
One of the sections within pillar three of the strategy calls for assessing “potential legislative reforms,” including “in consultation with Congress, consider whether seeking legislative reforms is appropriate and, if so, which to pursue.” The strategy stops short of a definitive policy recommendation. Accordingly, the debate regarding the need for a domestic terrorism statue has smart people arguing both sides, and civil rights organizations voice very legitimate concerns of the potential for abuse. No matter where the administration may fall on this issue, it still does not discount the fact that this is an uncomfortable, and potentially combustible, policy debate that it will have to formulate an opinion on sooner or later. At the very least, the Biden administration should push for hearings on Capitol Hill where domestic terrorism experts can explain the pros and cons of such legislation, as well as propose alternatives or workarounds that may be effective if a new law is politically unfeasible.
To be clear, there are serious concerns about whether designations of domestic groups as terrorist organizations may unconstitutionally limit free speech and association, and there are a number of scenarios where the law itself could be abused. The authors’ position in this article is not pushing for a new statute per se, but rather for a more vigorous debate about the costs and potential benefits of designating certain domestic groups as terrorist organizations. But organizations such as the Atomwaffen Division (now known as the National Socialist Order) and The Base — both American exports — do not appear on any list of formally designated terrorist organizations, foreign or domestic. The current foreign terrorist organization list seems more about particular ideologies rather than terrorism as a national security priority. In contrast, U.S. allies like Canada and the United Kingdom have designated these organizations as terrorist groups and outlawed membership. At the very least, and in the spirit of the strategy’s call for closer cooperation with overseas partners, Washington should consult closely with allies like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia to discuss what led them to designate the aforementioned groups, as well as others such as the Proud Boys, the Sonnenkrieg Division and the Feuerkrieg Division.
Another weakness of the strategy is the lack of a concrete plan for how to deal with violent self-proclaimed “militias,” including groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters. There is an explicit reference to the federal government working more closely with law enforcement to use existing state laws that prohibit private militia activity, although there are likely cultural and political reasons that has not happened already, including the cozy relationship, and in a few cases overlapping membership, between local police and militias in many parts of the United States. The part of the strategy that most closely addresses this issue is in the section titled “Strengthen Domestic Terrorism Prevention Resources and Services,” which mentions “reducing access to assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and enforcing legal prohibitions that keep firearms out of dangerous hands.” But for violent extremist militia groups and Second Amendment fanatics, any attempt by the Biden administration to introduce gun control legislation will be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since so much of the internal messaging from these groups is that “Democrats want to take away your guns.” Even the discussion of gun control could provoke these groups to become more aggressive and potentially mobilize to commit more acts of violence.
One major challenge will be dealing with lone actors and a threat that some have characterized as “post-organizational,” or in the words of extremism scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss, “characterized by fluid online boundaries and a breakdown of formal groups and movements.” Indeed, the entire U.S. counter-terrorism infrastructure was largely designed to deal with groups and organizations, specifically transnational jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Today’s domestic terrorism threat is driven in part by individuals and movements. The intelligence community and national security apparatus have experience dealing with homegrown violent extremists, sometimes dubbed “lone wolves,” who were motivated by jihadist groups. That experience could prove beneficial, particularly as domestic terrorism efforts expand. The U.S. government needs to be smart, deliberate, and parsimonious in extrapolating best practices from the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic State to countering terrorism at home. Some lessons learned will apply, but many will not. Current laws, authorities, and policies will dictate which aspects are most relevant. But the framing is also important, and the administration should avoid, at all costs, the impression that the United States is simply retrofitting the “Global War on Terror” for domestic application. National security authorities can address legitimate domestic terrorism concerns without having to use the language or tactics of warfare against Americans on U.S. soil. Such rhetoric would only serve to alienate key constituencies and feed into the propaganda of individuals and groups attempting to portray the federal government as tyrannical.
The countering domestic terrorism strategy is a step in the right direction, but the impact is far from guaranteed. After all, the document is a strategy without recommendations or thresholds for measuring success. As other issues take precedence on the policy agenda, from dealing with the fallout from COVID-19 to crafting an alliance to counter a rising China, it will be essential that the administration follows through on its strategy and continuously works to measure its effectiveness. Where it falls short, the key will be proposing innovative solutions or workarounds that deal directly with the most serious risks related to domestic terrorism.
Colin P. Clarke is the director of policy and research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. You can follow him on Twitter at @ColinPClarke.
Mollie Saltskog is a senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group and a research fellow at The Soufan Center. You can follow her on Twitter at @msaltskog.