After 20 years of intense focus on jihadist terrorism, U.S. policymakers have raised domestic violent extremism to the top of the counterterrorism agenda. The White House's National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism , issued in June, is a reflection of a political will that has been absent for more than a decade.
But this call to action, while welcome, contains some noteworthy flaws. Focusing on more realistic goals and appropriate metrics for success under existing legislation — rather than emphasizing new legislation — will get the effort on a more effective track. And analyses of the linkages between ideology and domestic terrorism are needed for a complete understanding of the threat. With the new level of energy harnessed to the right approach, the trajectory of rising domestic violent extremism could still be reversed.
The new focus on domestic violent extremism is largely the result of a series of killings by white supremacists, antisemites, militia and anti-government extremists. These include the mass shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 and at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart in August 2019. Far-right extremists have been responsible for the majority of attacks and plots in the United States since 1994. Finally, the January 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol — a carnival of aggression that drew violent activists from across the far-right firmament — helped forge a new political will to confront domestic perpetrators of political violence.
The new administration’s attention to the issue contrasts starkly with the years before it. President Donald Trump signaled to the extreme right an indifference — if not direct support — toward violent political action in a variety of ways. But the Trump administration and its legislative allies were not the first to downplay this threat. In 2009, during the first year of the administration of President Barak Obama, the Department of Homeland Security disavowed a measured and carefully crafted assessment of the right-wing extremist threat and disbanded the unit that produced the report.
The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism signals a new national priority with its sensible, undramatic call to action. Its pillars include enhanced intragovernmental information sharing, attention to linkages between foreign and domestic extremists, expanded prevention of recruitment and mobilization to violence, and tackling root causes — particularly systemic racism.
But while the new strategy moves in the right direction, it is far from perfect. Four issues merit additional scrutiny and discussion.
According to the strategy document, the ultimate goal is "stopping acts of domestic terrorism." That goal is self-evidently a worthy one, but it is deeply problematic. It implies that terrorism can somehow be eliminated from the political landscape. This is unrealistic. Violent domestic extremism has been a recurring phenomenon since Reconstruction, when white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan and counter-revolutionary "Reedemers" waged savage campaigns of terror to deny freedmen their civil rights and overthrow Republican governments in the states of the former Confederacy.
Subsequent waves of anarchist, white supremacist, leftist, nationalist, and anti-government terrorism pockmarked the length of the twentieth century. And today we appear to be entering a new wave of white-supremacist and anti-state violence. If history is any guide, terrorist groups can be dismantled and perpetrators put behind bars, but terrorism itself is unlikely to disappear as a tactic, given its low operational costs and high-impact potential. Put another way, it is important for the administration to avoid raising unrealistic expectations about what domestic counterterrorism policies, programs, and actions can accomplish.
A related problem with the strategy is a lack of specifics about how progress toward goals is to be measured. Researchers at CNA and other institutions have long argued that the government lacks analytically rigorous tools for assessing counterterrorism policies and programs.
Thomas S. Warrick at the Atlantic Council and Javid Ali at the University of Michigan asked rhetorically in a recent critique of the strategy, "do we measure victory against domestic terrorism by the number of arrests—if not, what is the right metric for victory?" A substantial reduction in the number of attacks and plots might be a more useful measurement of progress. Consider an example unrelated to terrorism: In New York City, 2,245 people were murdered in 1990 ; in 2017, that number fell to 286. Whatever the causes of this decline, by anyone’s measure it represents a dramatic improvement — despite the fact that hundreds of murders still took place.
Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have called for new legislation they argue would strengthen the government’s ability to investigate and prosecute domestic violent extremists. And the Biden White House has directed the Department of Justice to evaluate existing authorities and recommend new ones, if necessary.
But the government already has formidable legal tools at its disposal. The is no single law that makes domestic terrorism a crime, but prosecutors can employ a wide variety of statutes against violent domestic extremists, including seditious conspiracy, possession of firearms and explosives, homicide and assault, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) Act, which has been widely used against organized crime, but also against white supremacist groups like the Aryan Brotherhood . Moreover, in the view of many legal scholars from across the political spectrum, the government today has too much legal authority and discretion, which in their view has led to investigative and prosecutorial overreach , particularly in the years following 9/11
Ideas and action
The final area of concern is that the Biden administration’s strategy does not explicitly call for analysis of the role of ideology in radicalization and the mobilization of violence. The strategy does ask DHS to make greater use of "pertinent external, non-governmental analysis and information that will provide enhanced situational awareness of today’s domestic terrorist threat." But ideology is also important when trying to come to terms with any form of terrorism.
The linkages between ideology and violent action are neither simple nor straightforward. Peter Simi at Chapman University concludes that violent outcomes likely result from combinations of ideological and non-ideological factors, such as building group cohesion, the " pathological and unspoken desire for excitement " in a terrorist’s otherwise humdrum existence, and informal racist socialization in family life.
In the years following 9/11, some analysts and commentators portrayed al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists as an existential threat to the United States . In retrospect, such claims appear overwrought. In fact, one reason for the current focus on domestic terrorism is the greatly diminished capacity of groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State to mount or even inspire large-scale attacks against American targets after two decades of relentless U.S. military and intelligence operations.
Although right-wing violent extremists pose a serious threat, it seems unlikely they will undermine the foundations of the republic. Between 9/11 and 2019 far-right extremists killed 114 people inside the United States. Despite the tragic stories behind each loss, those numbers — dwarfed by the thousands murdered in ordinary crime each year — may be a sign of weakness. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution and Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League have assessed that domestic extremists are hampered by a lack of public support, absence of sanctuaries, and inability to marshal relatively meager resources to maximize the impact of their attacks. Identifying and exploiting such weakness should be an urgent priority for policymakers.
The nation’s domestic adversaries are hardly invincible. And the record of the past two decades shows that when Washington sufficiently focuses resources on a terrorist threat, results follow. With a carefully considered approach using the right goals, metrics, legislation and analysis, domestic violent extremism can be contained.