American counterterrorism cannot be an either/or proposition

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The Jan. 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol radically altered the direction of counterterrorism in our country. Dramatically accelerating a shift that had already started a few years ago, the attack led the FBI and the Department of Justice to reassess their focus on domestic extremism. The Bureau moved agents that for years had been tracking Americans supporting the Islamic State onto cases related to white supremacist and anti-government groups. Federal and state prosecutors accustomed to charging jihadist sympathizers are testing which terrorism statutes best apply to right wing militants. Earlier this month, the Attorney General testified before Congress that the rise of domestic terrorism cases “keeps me up at night.”

It is a long overdue shift that better reflects the current state of the threat. For almost two decades, individuals linked to or simply inspired by foreign-based groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State constituted the most likely perpetrators of terrorism on U.S. soil. But it is now almost unanimously accepted within the U.S. counterterrorism community that, using the words of the Department of Homeland Security, domestic violent extremists, as law enforcement jargon refers to them, present “the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat” to the country.  

But these much needed reassessments and consequent resource reallocations should be well thought out and avoid analytical pitfalls and overreactions caused by politics and emotions. Punditry and some politicians seem to now be engaged in a pointless “gotcha” exercise to find the right metrics to prove that domestic terrorism is a bigger threat than jihadism. This could lead to the risk of repeating the mistake of the past, but in reverse. Over the last twenty years, in fact, while correctly focused mainly on the jihadist threat, we tended to overlook domestic extremism, which often constituted an afterthought if not, in some cases, a political football. Doing the same and now devoting all the attention to domestic extremism while perhaps willfully dropping the ball on jihadism is a danger that should be avoided at all costs.

That is because jihadism, in all its manifestations, still constitutes a major threat, both globally and domestically. While the Caliphate might have been largely defeated in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has been wreaking havoc throughout sub-Saharan Africa through its affiliates and carrying out attacks worldwide through its sympathizers. And while similarly degraded, al Qaeda is also still active worldwide, including in its historical sanctuary of Afghanistan, a dynamic to watch as the U.S. military pulls out of the country. And jihadist sympathizers are still operating also in America. Tellingly, over the last twelve months, the FBI has arrested fifteen individuals for support of international terrorism. The cases range from those who translated propaganda for the Islamic State to that of a U.S. Army officer allegedly planning lethal attacks against his fellow soldiers.

It is therefore not an either/or proposition between right wing extremism and jihadism. To the contrary, both are concerning and simultaneously constitute the two largest threats to the homeland (and not the only ones, as groups like Hezbollah and extreme left wing militancy are also part of this complex picture). The U.S. government, operating with finite resources, must make some hard choices on where to put its intelligence and investigative efforts. But these decisions need to be made based on an honest and evidence-based assessment of current and future trends. If the nature of the threat is, as it currently seems, largely bifurcated, then attention and resources should be allocated to both threats in the appropriate proportion, which might change from region to region of the country. 

Unfortunately, we are in a time of fractured threats. Our country would do well to recognize that reality and not vacillate too much between them depending on the news of the day. A neutral approach to counterterrorism, one that confronts all threats in a way that is proportionate to the challenge they pose, constitutes the best way forward. That is not to say we should ignore the ideological component — to the contrary, understanding what motivates terrorists is a crucial component of any effort to tackle them. But we should not let the vagaries of our heated political discourse prevail over a fact-based threat assessment in shaping our domestic counter-terrorism posture. 

Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of the Program.

Tags Al-Qaeda Counter-terrorism domestic terrorism Islamic caliphate Terrorism

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