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Better intel could help the US designate white supremacist groups as terrorists

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A recent Politico article noted that the U.S. Department of State is intent on sanctioning a white supremacist group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The story explained that the White House had yet to approve the State Department plan. Historically, the White House, until the Trump administration, has played a secondary and non-directive role in shaping terrorist designations. 

There are some exceptions. During the Obama years, the White House got involved in the FTO designations of Boko Haram, Pakistan Taliban and Haqqani Network. In those cases, however, the National Security Council served as a forum to mediate a policy approach where disagreement existed between agencies and departments. In contrast, the Trump administration has been more directive by pushing forward the possibility of sanctioning as terrorist groups the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the latter of which remains undesignated. 

The Trump administration has been identified, fairly or unfairly, as being reluctant to take action against the rising challenge of white supremacy. Following the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, N.C., that devolved into chaos and led to the death of Heather Heyer, President Trump famously said that both sides were wrong. While political motivations may be at the heart of the inertia that has slowed down or impeded efforts to sanction white supremacist groups as terrorists, there could be other explanations for the stalled effort.

First, to designate an FTO, the State Department must document that the organization is foreign based and has engaged in terrorist activity that threatens U.S. national security interests. These are the legal requirements for an FTO designation. This deceivingly simple legal standard is often difficult to achieve. By examining one notorious neo-Nazi group, the difficulty becomes more clear. The Atomwaffen Division (AWD) is a group that has carried out a number of attacks in the United States. Its leadership also has a presence in the United States. John Cameron Denton, the group’s former leader, was recently arrested in the United States. Other active AWD members have been arrested throughout the United States.

While the AWD has active overseas components, the group’s clear domestic presence may represent a sticking point for the State Department because it cannot designate terrorist groups with a significant U.S. presence. The AWD’s overseas networks, however, may be an easier place to start. For example, the United Kingdom recently designated the Sonnenkrieg Division following the arrest of members who encouraged attacks against the British royal family. There are a bevy of foreign based neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that are primarily based overseas. A reasonable person may ask, why not have the State Department start with those groups? That question may bring us to the root of the challenge.

Second, to designate FTOs the State Department must develop a dossier of evidence that credibly highlights the fact that the group has carried out terrorist activity and that those actions are a threat to U.S. national security interests, which include foreign policy, economic and defense interests. To make this case, the State Department must rely on a mix of unclassified and classified sources of information that can withstand potential court challenges. All FTO designations are subject to a judicial review, should it be determined that the sanctioned party has legal standing. As such, credible and corroborated information that allows the State Department to meet the legal standard for designation is critically important. 

Given the post 9/11 fixation on Islamic terrorist groups, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), the key provider of information that allows for the State Department to designate FTOs, likely has not appropriately prioritized the collection of intelligence needed to sanction white supremacist terrorist groups. The IC must up its game and increase foreign-based intelligence collection against transnational white supremacy groups. Just as the CIA and National Security Agency collect human intelligence and signals intelligence to disrupt Islamist terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda, so too should they direct their collection tools against groups such as the AWD’s overseas allies.

According to recent reports, the threat of Americans being subjected to a white supremacist terrorist attack is statistically greater than one being directed by an ISIS- or al Qaeda-inspired group. Yet, the U.S. government’s response to this post 9/11 shift has been lethargic since the majority of the government’s counterterrorism tools remain primarily oriented towards the Islamist threat. 

Politically, the Trump administration must make the decision to raise the prioritization of intelligence collection against right-wing threats in a good faith effort to counter this growing concern. The threat of radical right-wing white supremacists is also unequivocally transnational, as documented in the September 2019 Soufan Center report that details the growing menace. For example, the transnational features of the white supremacist threat manifested with the New Zealand Christchurch mosque attacks that killed 43 people. 

The Christchurch attack’s one-year anniversary recently passed. Since then, many white supremacist attacks have been carried out in the United States and overseas. Yet, the State Department’s FTO list has a glaring void. Not one white supremacist is on a list that has nearly 70 groups on it. Why? It may be a political decision, yes, as many have argued. However, it may be just as likely that the State Department doesn’t have the intelligence it needs to wield its policy tools. 

It’s time for policymakers to request that agencies increase foreign-based intelligence collection against the white supremacist threat. Perhaps, after that happens, the State Department can better target overseas radical right-wing terrorist groups for FTO designation.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he also is director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism. He is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Blazakis.

Tags Counter-terrorism Department of State list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations Donald Trump FTO National security US intelligence agencies

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