After high-profile incidents of domestic terrorism, a familiar pattern has emerged. The discussion revolves around sanity, the easy availability of weapons, and social media algorithms. Politicians offer “thoughts and prayers”, talk about taking action, and then much of the country soon returns to business as usual. The results were tragic in Buffalo, NY, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Texas, and many other towns and cities that faced mass shootings. Rhetoric and promises will not solve the problem.
We have collectively spent four decades in domestic and international counterterrorism work and believe that the United States is vulnerable to the growing tide of domestic extremism – white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-government militias – in part because outdated thinking, soft laws and myopic policies. This includes a passive approach to financing terrorism and a dearth of programs to address the root causes of extremism. Here are three steps that could stem the tide of domestic extremism.
First, the fight against domestic terrorism cannot simply remain the business of the American government. We must empower non-governmental sectors to help fight domestic extremism. It’s not cheap, however, and it does require funding. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded a college and nonprofit organization program to create a new game-based program that would educate and empower teens to become more aware and resilient. to radicalization. Through the same funding stream, DHS provided the University of Illinois at Chicago with support to reduce the risk of extremist violence perpetrated by young people struggling with mental health and psychosocial issues. Specialists and other frontline practitioners were brought in to help. Such programs are crucial because they seek to address the threat of extremism upstream.
Public-private partnerships and a working relationship between the US government and Silicon Valley could help advance the role of tech companies, social media sites and gaming platforms that can fuel radicalization. The gunman accused of killing 10 people at a Buffalo supermarket in May broadcast the attack live, as did other white supremacists. The video quickly spread, and with it the possibility of further radicalization and recruitment. Big tech companies need to do better. Congress should encourage these businesses to do more and fund capacity building efforts to improve small businesses’ abilities to counter extremism.
Second, regarding a form of domestic terrorism very different from mass shootings, the charges against members of the Oath Keepers – one of the groups that played a leading role in the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021 – and the creation of a new Department of Justice (DOJ) to combat domestic terrorism are steps in the right direction. But there is still the glaring absence of a law on domestic terrorism. The next step is to pass legislation that makes domestic terrorism a federal offense so that attacks staged by racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist groups, or those designed to intimidate civilians and influence the government, qualify as terrorism. The recent passage by the House of the Prevention of Domestic Terrorism Act does not address the need for a specifically targeted domestic terrorism law.
Researchers from the Brennan Center for Justice have argued that dozens of existing laws could be used to prosecute individuals involved in domestic terrorism, but none of these laws are fit to deal with the current threat. These laws often have little to do with terrorism and usually result in prison sentences well below what a terrorist with foreign ties would receive. A comprehensive domestic terrorism law could remedy that by placing someone like Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 after posting his hatred of immigrants and Jews in line, tied with Omar Mateen, the ISIS-inspired terrorist who killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando in 2016. A new law could correct the imbalance between who is and isn’t considered a terrorist, which a new DOJ unit alone cannot achieve. A domestic terrorism law could pave the way for material support charges and provide federal law enforcement with the resources they say they desperately need.
Third, the US government must recognize the transnational nature of domestic extremism. There are many well-documented links between groups operating in the United States and violent extremists operating abroad. A domestic terrorism law could give the FBI much more leverage to map out and disrupt these networks, preventing conspiracies before they become successful attacks. It would also put the United States on a par with our allies abroad, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, which have sanctioned or outlawed extremist groups beyond al-Qaeda. or the Islamic State.
The FBI has estimated that domestic extremists are most likely to carry out mass casualty attacks against civilians. The Capitol breach of January 6 ushered in a new reality for extremists in the United States. And sadly, the recent racially and ethnically motivated shootings remind us that there is still a lot of work to be done. Either we meet such challenges head-on, or we resign ourselves to apathy, empty slogans and more carnage in America.
Colin P.Clarke is the Director of Research at Soufan Group and principal researcher at Soufan Center. Follow him on Twitter @ColinPClarke.
Jason M. Blazakis is a practical teacher at Middlebury Institute of International Studies and senior researcher at the Soufan Center. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.