Growing extremist threats put more pressure on Biden
With far-right domestic terror threats on the rise, experts are urging President Biden to go beyond his initial executive actions and ensure national security forces are better equipped to address homegrown threats.
Biden is coming under pressure to shift resources and boost intelligence sharing following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, when law enforcement agencies were caught flat-footed by hundreds of violent protesters who stormed the building in support of former President Trump.
And the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week warned that the U.S. may face heightened threats from “ideologically-motivated violent extremists.”
“All of this existed before Trump and it will certainly exist post-Trump. I think his role was really to accelerate and spur the ideology and the reaching of new folks,” said Margaret Huang, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which monitors hate groups and extremism.
The Biden administration faces the dual threats not just of the rise in white nationalist and extremist groups, she said, but also the increasingly dangerous impact of disinformation.
“The people who turned out for the rally on Jan 6. were really a range. They were not all extremists. There were people there because they were strong Trump supporters and voted for him and believed the rhetoric about stealing the election was true.”
The White House has called for a sweeping review of domestic terror threats, with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence tasked with developing a “comprehensive threat assessment” in coordination with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. The National Security Council has also been directed to undertake a review about how the government can better share information.
“The key point here is that we want fact-based analysis on which we can base policies,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “So this is really the first step in the process, and we’ll rely on the appropriate law enforcement and intelligence officials to provide that analysis.”
Experts have called those moves an important first step, particularly when paired with the DHS bulletin and ongoing prosecution of those who participated in the Capitol riot.
“It clearly signals, ‘Look, we are not going to shy away from doing everything we need to do to understand and warn about this threat,’ and that’s a refreshing and a stark difference” from the previous administration, said Suzanne Spaulding, director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But the White House announcement was slim on details on how to address a problem that has increasingly developed online and where people have been radicalized at a rapid pace.
“We and other countries have invested a long time in fragile democracies overseas to combat the kind of disinformation that can happen in an election without thinking our own populous will get exposed to that,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University.
“I’m not saying we should be doing any less of that aid — bravo, that’s great. But I think it’s crazy we don’t think our own democracy potentially has fragile dimensions to it too, and this is a weak spot.”
The number of hate groups has gone down even as the level of activity has gone up, according to SPLC’s research.
“These ideology adherents are meeting each other and discussing and planning things without the formal group structures joined before,” Huang said, adding that shift makes it harder to assess potential threats.
Groups like the SPLC have long been calling for better reporting of hate crime data, something Biden could force by tying it to federal funding.
About 86 percent of police precincts nationwide don’t submit any data on hate crimes, and Huang wants better training for local enforcement to help them identify such crimes.
It’s important, Huang said, as extremism is playing out more locally, a trend seen in a number of recent actions directed at state houses, governors and election officials.
Miller-Idriss also wants to see better training for prevention and intervention, like those her lab helps develop, to better spot the kind of extremist propaganda and scapegoating that many young people are encountering online.
“In general, the approach of the U.S. has historically been through a security and law enforcement lens, and I think there is a limitation to that approach,” she said.
“When we talk media literacy, we need it for fifth graders and 50-year-olds,” she said, pointing to participants in the Jan. 6 riot who said they genuinely believed they were engaging in heroic acts to save democracy.
“The past eight to 10 months show us that adults’ radicalization trajectory, like for QAnon, was much faster — that was a matter of weeks when it usually takes years for someone to radicalize to extremist ideology.”
Huang is hopeful the government will step in to regulate the platforms where people are being exposed.
“It’s already interesting that we’ve seen such a significant drop in disinformation since the banning of one person on Twitter,” she said, in reference to the website’s blocking of former President Trump.
“I think that demonstrates that stronger regulations and deplatforming of officials that promote not only disinformation but hate is effective.”
But many of those actions could also come from tech companies themselves.
“I think the platforms need to think about how they adjust their algorithm so people don’t get drawn deeper and deeper into a world of conspiracies online,” Spaulding said, something she called a “disinformation vortex.”
The Jan. 6 riot has also added new momentum to a bill passed by the House last year before it died in the Senate.
The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act would work to link ongoing efforts at DHS, the Justice Department and FBI and provide more training and resources to each.
“Jan. 6 was not the impetus for this bill, but it certainly highlights the importance,” said Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), one of the bill’s main sponsors.
“I think there was a belief in the past that international terrorist groups like al Qaeda or ISIS were using the internet to radicalize people and draw folks to their cause from across the world. The realization is that technique is being used by domestic terror groups as well,” Schneider said, adding that the U.S. needs to be “every bit as vigilant” with homegrown groups.
“In the same way that after 9/11 we saw that agencies need to communicate with each other and when you see something say something — the same applies with domestic terror threats.”
The bill won the backing of civil liberties groups in part because it does not create any new terrorism statutes, something they fear could be used to target minorities or political enemies.
The U.S. has state-level laws that prosecutors can rely on that bar paramilitary and militia activity, along with other existing federal terrorism statutes.
“We support prosecution,” Huang said. “We just don’t need a new statute to prosecute them. We can do it under our current laws every well.”
Updated at 12:20 p.m.