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Learning from the Past: US Domestic Counterterrorism from 1970 to 1985

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Executive Summary

Though tens of thousands of pages have been written about terrorism and counterterrorism since 9/11, the history of counterterrorism in the United States has received relatively little analytical attention. The 1970s and early 1980s have become almost forgotten in the history of America’s struggle with domestic terrorist violence. That period, though, was part of a long wave of terrorism that occurred across the developed world. In the United States, during that era, terrorist groups—including ethno-nationalists, separatists, and Marxist-Leninists—conducted a remarkable number of attacks, some of which resulted in significant injuries and deaths. In response to this threat, the US developed and deployed a robust repertoire of strategies appropriate for countering domestic terrorism. In 2014, CNA published a report that examined this forgotten history in order to identify what lessons learned from that era might be most appropriate to confronting the challenges posed by contemporary domestic terrorism. This short paper updates that report, and captures what is most important for responding to domestic terrorism today.

Admittedly, today’s challenges are different. Our current approach to countering terrorism has been irrevocably shaped by 20 years spent combating Islamist terrorism both at home and abroad. The technological landscape being exploited—both by terrorists and by those aspiring to thwart terrorists—would be unrecognizable to the intelligence analyst or law enforcement professional of the 1970-1985 period. And even the term terrorism is beginning to sound dated, as government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (which did not exist during this era) shift to the language of domestic violent extremism (DVE). Yet, despite these differences, the eras have much in common and the challenge—that of protecting the homeland—remains largely the same.

Unfortunately, many of the lessons learned fighting Islamist terrorism are neither applicable nor appropriate to the threat posed by violent extremists. Moreover, the threat does not appear to be waning. In fact, acts of right-wing domestic terrorism have increased steadily in recent years.1 DHS has obviously worked ceaselessly and successfully to protect the homeland over the last few decades, but recent shifts presage a likely escalation in DVE that will necessitate the development and articulation of even more robust and nuanced strategies.

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Details

  • Pages:
  • Document Number: CSI-2021-U-030601-Final
  • Publication Date: 8/30/2021