Taking concrete steps to address domestic terrorism

Taking concrete steps to address domestic terrorism
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The recent shootings in New Jersey against a law enforcement officer and kosher market by two individuals espousing an obscure ideology known as Black Hebrew Israelites has already been categorized as an act of domestic terrorism by the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and again highlights this threat in the United States.  Earlier this year the country was wracked by a spate of mass shootings, several of which were conducted by individuals motivated by anti-Jewish or anti-immigrant extremist beliefs in Poway, Calif., Gilroy, Calif., and El Paso, Texas. By late summer, many counterterrorism experts and other domestic security specialists raised concerns that the federal government needed to address this terrorist threat in the United States with more attention and action. Some advocated for new legislation that called for a domestic terrorism statute, more innovative approaches with departments and agencies involved in combating domestic terrorist threats like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or new authorities to fill current gaps and seams

While other countries around the world — especially in Europe, which is dealing with an arguably higher volume and scope of domestic terrorism threats than the United States — have taken a number of steps to address this issue balanced against other priority counterterrorism concerns, progress seems slower here in the United States. That said, there have been some concrete steps that can serve as the foundation for a more holistic approach to curb domestic terrorism at home with the goal of preventing future attacks.

Prior to the uptick in attacks inside the United States this year, the Trump administration’s 2018 counterterrorism strategy — which I had a hand in shaping when I was on the National Security Council (NSC) from 2017-2018 — rightly called out domestic terrorism as a priority action for the country. It stated “the United States has long faced a persistent security threat from domestic terrorists” and “domestic terrorism is on the rise.” Emphasizing the significance of domestic terrorism was an important signal, even though this was not the primary focus of the strategy — especially when some outside observers suggested the administration would not be inclined to highlight this threat in such a document. Now that more than a year has passed since its publication, there are signs FBI and DHS increased their focus on the topic, in addition to heightened attention from Congress.       


During the spring, FBI indicated it had a large number of active investigations within the broad category of domestic terrorism — although it did not provide more detail as to the precise number investigations against different categories of domestic terrorist threats. Whether FBI has reallocated more agents, analysts, and task force officers around the country on domestic terrorism from other counterterrorism priorities like al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or other groups that threaten the United States is unclear, but it is likely these conversations have occurred or are ongoing within the organization.

In September DHS announced a strategic framework to countering terrorism and targeted violence — in theory aligning to the 2018 national counterterrorism strategy — and said it will provide “an extended assessment of the dangers posed by domestic terrorists, including racially-and ethnically-motivated violent extremists.” While DHS has been criticized in the past for falling behind its original post-9/11 orientation on counterterrorism, this framework could allow DHS to analyze, assess, and share more information on domestic terrorism with a range of stakeholders, to include state and local law enforcement — most of whom lack the internal capability or funding to analyze domestic terrorism trends in their own environments given the range of other issues they face on a daily basis.

Beyond new initiatives from the Executive Branch, various members of Congress have advocated for increased federal attention on domestic terrorism. In September Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanOvernight Hillicon Valley — Majority supports national data privacy standards, poll finds Senator calls on agencies to take action to prevent criminal cryptocurrency use Trump praises NH Senate candidate as Sununu weighs own bid MORE (D-N.H.) and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeEconomy adds just 235K jobs in August as delta hammers growth Lawmakers flooded with calls for help on Afghanistan exit Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough MORE (R-Utah) championed the bipartisan REPORT Act which would require “federal agencies to report to Congress after a terrorist attack with information about exactly what happened and recommendations to prevent future attacks.” In November the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings that in part focused on this topic, and last week Sen. Hassan and Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator: Buying Treasury bonds 'foolish' amid standoff over debt ceiling, taxes Internal poll shows Barnes with 29-point lead in Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate facing 4 felony charges MORE (R-Wis.) introduced a bill entitled “Interagency United States-Based Terrorism Threat Information-Sharing Commission.” While the full summary of the proposed bill is not yet available, if approved by the Senate this bill could compliment existing or planned efforts to heighten awareness about domestic terrorism threats.

While there is no one single option that will render all the results to thwart the threat of domestic terrorism inside the United States, there is hope that a combination of these various factors across the Executive Branch and Congress will help keep the country safe into the future.  In the aftermath of the attacks this year, we can and should do more to protect the nation from this dangerous threat.

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Formerly, he was senior director for counterterrorism on the Trump Administration's National Security Council from 2017 to 2018.