Terrorism is a tactic — not a color or ideology
In 2018, I co-led a team of longtime counterterrorism professionals in drafting the National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America. Since then, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center have unveiled frameworks to counter the rising threats of domestic terrorism. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 is proof that these efforts, while commendable, are not enough. To truly combat the threat of domestic terrorism, we must understand that, fundamentally, terrorism is a tactic, not a color or ideology.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the media narrative and – more regrettably – the national security narrative has framed terrorism as the effort of a small minority of Muslims abroad to coopt a peaceful religion to challenge and reshape American democracy. Our single-minded focus on self-declared “jihadists” attacking from the outside has blinded us to terrorism coming from within.
In 2005, the FBI’s counterterrorism retrospective reminded us that “terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as ‘the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.’” This definition transcends the violent and corrupt jihadism of al Qaeda and the self-declared Islamic State. In fact, the destruction of property and violent trespass by a large group of President Trump’s supporters clearly matches this definition.
But this threat did not emerge on January 6, or even with the president’s assertions of fraud following the November elections. As my colleague Bruce Hoffman noted presciently in the wake of the release of the 2018 strategy, that strategy failed in its conflation of true domestic terrorist threats like neo-Nazism and white nationalism with other violent agitators like animal rights activists resorting to vandalism to liberate animals.
Though some of my colleagues, writing in a one-year retrospective on the strategy, highlighted that “the structure of the 2018 NSCT makes almost every strategic line of effort and priority action applicable to domestic terrorism,” it is clear that this administration has failed to live up to that aspiration. The actions and rhetoric coming from the White House in the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol are as far from the strategy’s lines of “enhancing preparedness” and “countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment” as could be imagined.
Despite that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser mobilized part of the National Guard two days before the January 6 protests, which eventually became a violent occupation, the presence of armed security forces at the Capitol on January 6 was laughably smaller than they were during the Black Lives Matter protests — a far cry from “enhanced preparedness.” Despite the violent threats made by Trump’s supporters in advance of those same protests-turned-violent-occupation, the same president who signed the 2018 strategy posted tweets and a video that failed to denounce the violence and vandalism carried out in his name at the Capitol — a far cry from “countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment.”
Over the next few days, many will praise Vice President Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for their commitment to preserving the Constitution and emphasizing, as McConnell did, that “criminal behavior will never dominate the United States Congress.” These actions are a down payment on the domestic terrorism effort that lies before us in the truest sense of the term “down payment”: They are not exceptional or heroic actions; they are the bare minimum that we should expect from our leaders.
That we are in an environment in which the leader of our democratic republic – the same leader who endorsed a strategy to enhance preparedness for domestic terrorism and counter terrorist radicalization – cannot do the same is a dereliction of duty. That the administration focused, on the eve of the attack on the Capitol, on an executive order targeting antifa threats from abroad while the real threat was literally knocking at their door is a disgrace.
This dereliction means that the Biden administration will have an unprecedented challenge in counterterrorism at home. It must rise to this challenge and acknowledge that the use of violence and fear to affect political and social ends – no matter the ideology or skin color of the perpetrators – is a threat to our democracy that we can only conquer as a united nation.
In confronting this challenge, the Biden administration should be sure not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As recommended in the 2018 strategy, it should aggressively integrate domestic terrorism-related threat information across federal, state and local law enforcement to enable a better-orchestrated response to those threats. But it should also accelerate efforts and increase resourcing to understand the magnitude of domestic terrorist threats and the targets of their plans.
Congress should also hold itself liable to continue the work of defending the republic from these dangerous threats. In consultation with experts in both terrorism and civil liberties, it should enact laws that make the domestic terrorism definition in U.S. code a chargeable offense — not only to provide penalties that might deter future threats, but also to provide law enforcement with the tools needed to conduct strategic analysis and organized investigations of such threats and the crimes that result from them.
Adam Maruyama is a national security professional with more than 15 years of experience in cyber operations, cybersecurity and counterterrorism. He served in numerous war zones and co-led the drafting of the 2018 National Strategy to Counterterrorism. Adam currently manages cybersecurity software deployments for a number of federal customers.
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