For the first time, the United States has a formal strategy to combat domestic terrorism. It is the result of a systematic and aggressive review from a new administration that viewed the Jan. 6th riot on Capitol Hill as an accelerant to make critical changes in national security policy.
Shortly after taking office, the Biden White House convened multiple federal departments and agencies to review resources and authorities related to countering domestic terrorism. There were polite — and not so polite — disagreements between agencies, but they ultimately coalesced around a set of guiding principles. The result was something on which law enforcement, academics, and policymakers have been waiting for decades. Domestic terrorism is now on the forefront of counterterrorism priorities in the U.S.
The new Biden strategy has four main pillars.
First and foremost, the strategy sets out to better understand the nature of the domestic terrorism threat and push that information out to state and local law enforcement. While the FBI often gets the spotlight, local law enforcement is much more likely to open and lead criminal domestic terrorism investigations. As a result of rapid evolutions in domestic violent extremism in recent years, getting accurate and timely information from the federal government to local partners will be critical. The U.S. faces a much more fractured domestic terrorism threat involving a range of groups from white supremacists, anti-government extremists and anarchists, as well as newer movements like incels and QAnon. As a result, local authorities and partners are more likely to be the first points of contact with subjects of domestic terrorism investigations — but have traditionally lacked the information and resources to identify and interdict individuals who may be planning violent acts on behalf of their violent beliefs.
Second, the plan revamps and revitalizes previous programs countering violent extremism with important departures from former administrations’ focus. Instead, this strategy pivots toward the public health approach. This includes a focus on behavioral indicators toward radicalization to all types of domestic terrorism and an emphasis on local control and properly supported resources to local prevention partners. These policies are aimed at inoculating the public against extremism through targeted outreach to industry and non-government organizations. Partnering with groups outside the federal government makes sense given the government’s recent intelligence assessment finding that the more likely scenarios for domestic terrorism would be mass casualty attacks at public places. Partnerships are not a given, though, especially if there are little incentives for the private sector to step up to the plate.
The third goal of the strategy prioritizes prosecution of domestic terrorists by increasing the number of assistant U.S. attorneys and FBI agents on squads dedicated to combating domestic terrorism. For the first time, the Department of Justice is attempting to determine the scope of the threat and allocate resources to match. The lack of statistics on federal domestic terrorism investigations has long been a concern for policymakers and the public alike, and the government may now be attempting to remedy this deficit. As an example, the Justice Department is requiring field offices to report back to headquarters on every domestic terrorism-related case, which will help inform determinations about resource and staff allocation based on the overall statistics.
Arguably the most ambitious part of the new strategy is the fourth pillar, which seeks to address long-term challenges that underpin domestic extremism such as racism, disinformation and polarization. Addressing these challenges is a lofty goal; it will be immensely difficult to measure the effectiveness of policies that intend to remedy these problems. While it’s unlikely that a single White House document will change such systemic and deep issues, the acknowledgment of the need to address these concerns is both warranted and welcomed.
Moving a national security apparatus away from its historic focus on international terrorism and toward domestic extremism will entail serious challenges. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces were set up to address threats from abroad. In even greater terms, the whole Department of Homeland Security was established in response to well-organized, hierarchical foreign terrorist organizations that commit years of planning to single attacks against the United States. With a few exceptions, domestic violent extremists are the opposite, pursuing sporadic campaigns of decentralized, low-budget, and minimal-planning attacks that result in significant death tolls and deepen societal polarization. To be successful, the administration will need to revamp how the counterterrorism workforce is trained and organized against the most pressing threat at home while keeping an eye on the foes abroad.
This new White House National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism is an important step. But it is just that: a step. The funding and organizational decisions that support the implementation of this plan will ultimately decide whether this first-of-its-kind strategy will result in lasting changes or not.
Gina Ligon is the director of NCITE, the DHS Center of Excellence for Counterterrorism Research, and a professor of Management at University of Nebraska at Omaha. Follow her on Twitter: @ginaligon Seamus Hughes is the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Follow him on Twitter: @seamushughes