Opinion | Criminal Justice

How to act against domestic terrorists — and their foreign supporters

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The United States faces a surging domestic terrorism threat in the homeland. In the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings in the first weekend of August, more than 40 people were   arrested for threats to commit mass attacks by the end of that month. Many of these cases were characterized by a far-right ideological motivation and their use of online platforms. The urgent need to assist national security operators, prevention practitioners and prosecutors is exacerbated by the fact that a major foreign adversary - Russia - has actively sought to amplify the impact of violent extremists in the United States and other democracies. 

In partnership with the Congressional Counterterrorism Caucus, the Program on Extremism commissioned policy papers authored by two leading experts that soberly analyze America's domestic terrorism threat and propose responses grounded in the rule of law.

In Filling the Gap in Our Terrorism Statutes, professor Mary McCord calls for criminal statutes, modeled on specific enumerated violent crimes currently under 18 U.S.C. § 2332b, to be attached also to domestic terrorism offenses. This would achieve parity in how acts of international and domestic terrorism are investigated and prosecuted. McCord recommends an amendment to 18 U.S.C. § 2339A (providing material support to terrorists) to cover offenses such as the stockpiling of weapons. These changes, she argues, would bring a moral and legal equality currently absent in the law, bolster counterterrorism efforts, and symbolize "society's condemnation for terrorism regardless of the ideology behind it." 

Dr. Mark Pitcavage's Surveying the Landscape of the American Far Right analyzes 16 distinct movements in America's far right revealing a complex and contested milieu. He argues that broad-brushing this complexity will result in a "greater difficulty in dealing with the crime and violence that emanates from them." Pitcavage also explores the dual impacts of transnational influence and the role of online subcultures upon far-right adherents. For example, America's alt-right was shaped by ideas imported from Europe and "a distinctive online subculture that evolved on websites such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit." 

Based on McCord and Pitcavage's findings - as well as our own experiences as researchers and practitioners - we suggest two ways to achieve a more effective and coordinated multisector response to the domestic terrorism threat. First, as McCord recommends, specific criminal statutes for domestic terrorism offenses need to be enacted that penalize the commission of specific violent crimes. Acknowledging concerns that new criminal statutes related to property damage may stifle legitimate protest, new criminal statutes could be limited to violence against persons - such as homicide and assault under 18 U.S.C. § 2332b - and providing material support to terrorists under 18 U.S.C. § 2339A. As illustrated here, these changes would expand practitioner tools and improve the integration of domestic terrorism responses into the broader counterterrorism apparatus. 

Second, the list of proscribed foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) should include far-right actors outside of the United States. This would enhance investigative and prosecutorial tools domestically, strengthen and synchronize partnerships with allies, and make available the full toolkit of federal government responses to confront foreign and domestic actors who provide or receive support from far right FTOs. This step would boost efforts to counter adversaries, such as Russia, who seek to destabilize democracies by supporting violent extremists. 

The changes outlined here also would help to increase government and market pressures on social media companies to act against far-right users. Currently, under Section 230(e), social media platforms cannot be used to engage in illegal activities, so the mechanisms exist within the law. Furthermore, under Section 230(c), while social media companies cannot be forced to remove users based on their speech, neither are they obligated to act as forums for hateful speech. Attaching criminal statues to domestic terrorism offenses and expanding the FTO list to include foreign far-right entities helps to increase the incentives for tech companies to act quickly and responsibly as enabled by Section 230(c) and (e) or, as patience frays, face a wave of regulatory sticks such as those in Europe and elsewhere.   

America's surging domestic terrorism threat demands that the full potential of government, private and civil society actions be unleashed. A moral and legal equivalency to domestic and international acts of terrorism committed in the United States demonstrates that certain ideologies and perpetrators are not treated differently for fundamentally similar acts of political violence. More than symbolism, the changes we have suggested remove constraints on those responsible for protecting the homeland.

Haroro J. Ingram is a senior research fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He previously worked in counterterrorism operations targeting far right extremists. Follow on Twitter @Haroro_Ingram.

Jon Lewis is a research fellow with the Program on Extremism. His research monitors a variety of transnational violent extremists. Follow on Twitter @Jon_Lewis27.

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