Opinion | National Security

Combating domestic terrorism needs more than a new statute

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Two terrorist attacks shock the nation. The American people demand Congress do something. After much debate, Congress overwhelmingly passes a sweeping new law to fight terrorism. But the executive branch doesn't adapt to meet the challenge and we all eventually learn that a new law wasn't nearly enough.

This was our legislative response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing: the 1996 passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Five years later, however, federal law enforcement was still structurally incapable of preventing al Qaeda from launching the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Now, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Dayton and El Paso and the growth of violent white supremacism, Congress is again considering whether new laws are needed, and specifically whether domestic terrorism should be explicitly made a federal crime.

This relatively modest step is long overdue, since federal law currently treats "domestic terrorism" as a definition, not a crime. But if the debate ends with this one change, we risk repeating our mistake. Instead, Congress should give equal attention to how domestic counterterrorism efforts are resourced and organized to stop what FBI Director Christopher Wray says is a significant and pervasive threat to the American people. We are not yet where we need to be.

Between the two of us, we have worked on counterterrorism policies for each of the last four presidents, from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, and from a variety of perspectives - at the Departments of Homeland Security, State and Defense, and on the National Security Council staff. We have seen, repeatedly, that good laws and well-crafted strategies will not keep the American people safe if the resources and personnel aren't there in sufficient numbers and if the bureaucracies aren't structured adequately to do the job. Congress needs to laser in on this as it resumes work this fall.

First, the FBI needs to significantly increase its institutional attention to domestic terrorism, with a special focus on violent white supremacism. Congress needs to fully resource the Domestic Terrorism Section with personnel and funding that rise to the level of this threat. One unit of this section should focus entirely on violent white supremacism. Only then will Director Wray be able to fulfill his promise to "bring the full resources of the FBI to bear" against this threat.

Second, Congress should insist that we deal with violent white supremacism using the same approach we successfully applied against foreign terrorism after 9/11. That means that the primary mission must be to prevent these attacks from occurring rather than merely investigating their aftermath. And, as we have learned with al Qaeda and other foreign terrorists, the first step in doing so is to understand their ideology, communications and networks, while at the same time taking the precautions necessary to protect domestic rights and liberties.

The Department of Homeland Security also needs to improve its work. If the FBI brings focus, DHS is supposed to bring breadth. Precisely because DHS is not the lead federal counterterrorism investigative law enforcement agency, it should lead the U.S. effort to understand this growing threat from a prevention standpoint.

Unfortunately, the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis disbanded its domestic terrorism analytical unit in 2018, and DHS held off new funding for domestic terrorism prevention programs.

DHS needs to commit additional resources to work more with communities to identify and prevent white supremacists from carrying out terrorist violence. Similar programs were tried against al Qaeda's ideology, and a 2019 RAND study found many of those efforts were successful while others could be strengthened to be effective. DHS can also expand its programs to help schools, houses of worship, businesses, and public places better protect themselves from active shooters. While most violent white supremacists are lone wolves, DHS could publicly identify any organized white supremacist groups and encourage American banks and social media companies to enhance their due diligence before providing the support services needed to spread hate and encourage violence.

While DHS's role on immigration enforcement is highly politicized, there is widespread bipartisan agreement that counterterrorism needs to stay at the center of DHS's missions, even more so where the terrorists are Americans.

All of these efforts will take more than just assurances of seriousness and good intentions. Now that Congress has returned, it needs to ask hard questions: What is being done to organize more effectively against the threat of domestic terrorism and white supremacism? How many more people have been newly assigned to these threats? How much more funding has actually been shifted to domestic terrorism?

Today, the United States needs to respond urgently to a terrorism threat that is as dangerous as any threat that came from overseas. The country needs to have more than just laws on the books and strategies on the shelf. We recognize how easy it is in today's hyper-partisan Washington to focus on tweets and the cable news cycle. But Congress needs to ask hard questions of itself and of the Executive Branch - whether we have sufficient resources to defeat domestic terrorism and white supremacism.

Thomas S. Warrick is former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Counterterrorism and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and William F. Wechsler is former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combatting Terrorism and director of the Atlantic Council's Middle East Programs.

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