Terror by any other name

Terror has gripped communities in Charleston, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and recently in Christchurch, New Zealand. Despite a robust counterterrorism apparatus, our government is under-prepared to prevent and counter this growing threat. Facebook, Google, civil liberties groups, and others will testify today on the spread of white nationalist-inspired domestic terrorism. The hearing comes less than three weeks after the Christchurch attack and on the heels of a report that the Trump Administration shuttered the Department of Homeland Security’s domestic terrorism intelligence unit.

We have worked to counter terrorism at home and abroad - the evidence is clear. The growing threat demonstrates the need to restructure our counterterrorism apparatus to address white nationalist-inspired terrorism. This includes revising our terrorism statutes, empowering law enforcement to pursue these terrorists with the same vigor as Islamist-inspired ones and investing in social approaches that prevent extremism and violence more broadly. While tech companies will testify on what they are doing — and it is a lot — clearly, it is not enough; Congress and the Administration will need to figure out the next era of regulatory approach to the internet.

Though most Americans think of terrorism as Islamist-inspired, the numbers show that far-right terrorism has posed a greater danger to Americans. According to a Washington Post analysis, of the 263 terror incidents between 2010 and 2017, 92 were committed by far-right extremists — only 38 by Islamist extremists. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2018, of the murders by extremists in the United States — all had a nexus to far-right extremism.

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Despite this, our terrorism legislation and national security apparatus still focus disproportionately on Islamist-inspired threats. In the 17 years since 9/11, the U.S. government has placed countering this type of terrorism at the center of U.S. foreign policy and national security. These efforts cost thousands of American and other civilian lives and, by some estimates, cost over $250 million per day. In contrast, efforts to counter and prevent domestic terrorism are scarce.

How can we rebalance our efforts toward the growing white nationalist terrorism threat? First, the administration should work with Congress to codify the criminality of domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorism laws lack enforcement mechanisms, leading to an unusually narrow legal interpretation for enforcement. The proposed Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act would be a welcome first step. The bill would instructs DHS and DOJ to issue annual reports on domestic terrorism and require local terrorism task forces to develop counter-domestic terrorism plans.

Even with an enhanced legal framework, we must accept that we cannot arrest our way out of the domestic terrorist threat. Our European partners know this, and invest in meaningful social interventions that produce counterterrorism outcomes other than arrests. Part of the legitimacy of these programs derives from their focus on both Islamist and white-nationalist-inspired terrorism. In the UK, the UK’s Home Office provides deradicalization support to equal numbers from both groups of extremists.

The Bush and Obama administrations took initial steps in this direction in confronting Islamist-inspired terrorism. Under President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE, most of these domestic efforts have been under-funded or cancelled. Much has been written about the perceived shortcomings of countering violent extremism (or CVE), and we would do well to learn critical lessons and develop a new framework. But regardless of the name or the approach, we need a radicalization prevention program that works with communities and society as a whole to prevent all types of violence and extremism.

The private sector will have to do their part.

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When ISIS propaganda ran rife, the Obama Administration worked with Silicon Valley and others to take it down, spearheading efforts such as the shared database of terrorist content that Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube use to speed the process. Beyond just removing content, they should invest in ways to counter it, such as reducing algorithms’ likelihood of showing offensive content and redirecting risky searches to non-extremist sources. Companies’ approaches have not been perfect for countering ISIS propaganda, and won’t be perfect for white nationalist extremist propaganda, but social media and related companies will have to act against this new wave of extremists abusing their platforms to plot openly and around the clock.

This is not a small task, but a significant reorientation of our national security system and even our politics. It would require social media providers, law enforcement, social services, health practitioners and educators to proactively identify and reduce extremist risk factors. And to do so with a form of extremism that is homegrown and may seem somehow less offensive than an unfamiliar foreign ideology. But as we have seen, it is no less deadly in our communities.

We have seen how difficult it is overseas to confront terrorism where ideologies that encourage violence have tacit political or social support.

Coming to terms with the fact that we have a terrorism problem and that it is homegrown will prove equally difficult. First, it requires a strong repudiation from political leaders of the far-right and white nationalist fringe. Then we must move past thoughts, prayers, and condemnations — and act swiftly and comprehensively to counter this threat before the next attack claims more innocent lives.

Alexander Guittard leads U.S. national security partnerships for M&C Saatchi, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. He advises U.S. national security and development agencies on the role of strategic communications in countering terrorism and disinformation around the world. Guittard began his career as an Army officer before joining the Foreign Service and serving at U.S. Embassy London as the counterterrorism policy lead. Follow him on Twitter @alexguittard.

Ryan B. Greer is a fellow with New America and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He previously served as a policy advisor in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, and currently runs a consulting firm that specializes in countering violent extremism, and has consulted for both the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense. He also serves as director of program assessment and strategy at the Anti-Defamation League and holds a masters in public policy from the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @Ryan_B_Greer.

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