Fighting gravity: America's denial of the homegrown violent extremist threat
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This Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Terrible memories of that day are frozen in time, but our adversaries are always evolving.

The 9/11 attacks showed the surprising capability of an international adversary, based halfway around the world but still able to successfully attack the homeland. Much of our counterterrorism efforts at the time were focused on foreign state actors targeting overseas assets or allies. The 2001 attacks changed the paradigm, revealing just how much motivated non-state actors could achieve and why that kind of threat deserved our focused attention.

But we already had clear evidence for that kind of threat. It was the detonation of a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City just 6 years before.

Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. military veteran, along with co-conspirator Terry Nichols, embraced an extremist anti-government ideology, leading them to murder 168 American men, women and children. And yet despite this attack, when 9/11 occurred, the U.S. counterterrorism and security apparatus became focused on threats from abroad while the threat from homegrown extremists was largely marginalized, even ignored.

We suffered then what we remain afflicted with today: “otherism.”

As I explained in my book, "Homegrown Violent Extremism," all terrorist attacks cause a predictable level of chaos and uncertainty. After the Boston Marathon bombing, local, state and federal law enforcement searched for suspicious packages that could have contained other explosives. While no other bombs were found (thankfully), within hours of the attack, law enforcement had identified a “Saudi national” who had been at the marathon as a person of interest. This man, wounded by shrapnel, was kept under armed guard at the hospital. But we learned later that he was just one of the hundreds of bombing victims and one of four people wrongly accused of being suspects. That this man became a person of interest so early in the investigation shows that even law enforcement can suffer the misconception that terrorism is likely the work of foreigners. Not Americans. Others.

There remains a misplaced assumption that attackers necessarily only come from other countries. They must look different, practice a different faith, and hold a different nationality. They are “other” than us. What we need to understand is that no matter where an ideology begins, ultimately what really matters is where that ideology is embraced.

And as many successful and failed attacks have shown in the years since 9/11, these extremist ideologies are often being embraced here at home. It’s not often others; it’s us.

An Anti-Defamation League report of last year’s domestic extremist-related killings in the United States reveals 52 people were killed in 2015, 38 percent by white supremacists and 37 percent by domestic extremist Muslims. In other words, attacks were as likely to be inspired by right-wing ideologies as they were an extremist Muslim ideology. We must not deny that violent extremist threats stem from a range of ideologies, based on race and a variety of issues (like government authority), in addition to religion.

The terrorist threat to the United States is not as neat and clearly defined as we would like. If the terrorists of the world all looked the same, followed the same ideology and used the same tactics, America might be able to achieve total security. An infallible security system and a uniform threat do not exist. The attack at the Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina was motivated by racial extremism; the man who murdered 49 people at an Orlando nightclub identified some religious inspiration; and the vicious murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were carried out by military veterans driven by a racial ideology and targeting the most visible representatives of local government.

The point is that there is no single group on which we can focus our counterterrorism efforts. There is no easy way to know in advance who among us will lead a peaceful existence and who will endeavor to cause mass death, destruction, and fear. There is however, a continuing trend that cannot be ignored. These attacks are homegrown and involve Americans targeting other Americans; they are not being conducted by people who have foreign training, direction or control.

Failing to acknowledge this reality leaves us vulnerable and reduces our collective capacity to understand and develop strategies to reduce the risk of these threats. By continuing with this erroneous mindset, we remain mired in a pre-9/11 space, when we did not think these attacks would occur here, and especially by Americans. We dishonor those who gave their lives 15 years ago by not evolving at a pace faster than the threats facing our country.

Never forget.

Southers, a former FBI special agent and former assistant chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, is director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @esouthersHVE.


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