By Aara Ramesh
On Tuesday, June 15, the White House published the first-ever “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” an all-government framework devised to combat what President Joe Biden deemed “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today.”
The National Strategy emerges from President Biden’s efforts on this front since he took office in January. One of his first moves was to ask his national security team to review, over the following 100 days, the government’s efforts to tackle domestic terrorism threats so they could decide on how best to handle them in the future. Earlier this year, in March, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said that domestic terrorism poses an “elevated threat” in 2021, as a result of extremists being emboldened by “new sociopolitical developments.”
Under federal law, “domestic terrorism” is defined as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
Those consulted before the strategy was devised included members of the government, congressional leadership, state and local authorities and officials, academia, civil society, religious communities, and foreign governments. The resulting strategy lays out ways that various public agencies and other stakeholders can share and interpret information, stymie recruitment and mobilization efforts, disrupt and deter attacks, counter the spread of misinformation, and tackle long-term domestic terrorism threats.
The White House was explicit in saying that the strategy would not impinge upon Americans’ civil rights and liberties, which would remain a “national security imperative.” Instead, President Biden is hoping to strengthen a number of citizens’ dwindling trust in democratic ideals and institutions.
The two threats specifically highlighted as the most dangerous are the increase in hate crimes motivated by race or ethnicity and focused on promoting the superiority of the white race; and violent actions undertaken by anti-government, anti-authority groups and militias.
The strategy will include enhanced processes for screening and vetting high-ranking federal employees, law enforcement officers, and military personnel by the government’s human resources wing, the Department of Justice (DOJ), Department of Defense (DOD), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The onus of carrying out most of the strategy will fall on the DOJ. Accordingly, Attorney General Merrick Garland spoke to members of his department in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, about how they would go about implementing the strategy.
AG Garland said that the U.S. “must respond to domestic terrorism with the same sense of purpose and dedication” it has shown towards thwarting attacks by foreign terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11. The DOJ’s actions will center on four broad areas: analyzing, preventing, interrupting, and facing head-on various identified catalysts for politically motivated extremism.
In addition, the DOJ will imminently reconvene the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee that was created in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing. The Attorney General highlighted the importance of coordination in that investigation and how critical the committee was to enabling that. He also said he is considering recommending a new criminal statute specifically aimed at those deemed domestic terrorists.
Further, he announced that the U.S. would join the international community and influential tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google in the “Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement provides guidelines on what stakeholders can do to reduce the spread of violent extremist material online.
To support these efforts, the President’s discretionary budget for the upcoming fiscal year will request an additional $100 million in funding for the DOJ.
The DHS will also play a key role in implementing the strategy, and has designated the threat of domestic extremist violence a “National Priority Area” for the first time, which will allow it to funnel almost $80 million to local partners to help them mitigate this threat. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas labeled domestic terrorism “the most significant and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today,” and added added that his department would enhance “its analysis of open-source information” in these efforts. He also said that the DHS would continue to provide intelligence to all levels of law enforcement, as well as international and private sector stakeholders working to identify and thwart potential attacks.
In his statement, the Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called the initiative a “milestone in our country’s efforts to address a serious and growing security threat.” He pledged his department’s support to implementing the strategy, saying that it would continue to coordinate with federal law enforcement and would “refine” its own policies to address internal problems.
The DOD will ramp up the training it offers to those leaving the military, who are particularly susceptible to intensifying recruitment efforts by extremist right-wing, anti-government militias like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters. According to CBS News, at least 51 of those arrested for their role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol are current or former military members — including one active duty marine — and 12 are current or former law enforcement officers.
The White House, DOJ, DHS, and DOD were all careful to stress that the new strategy will not seek to police or penalize differing ideologies or free speech, with the Attorney General saying that “espousing a hateful ideology” is legal in America. Rather, the idea is to counter threats or actual actions of violence, which are still illegal, while also protecting citizens’ civil liberties and rights.
In addition to the aforementioned DNI report, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has noted a significant increase in the number of open domestic terrorism investigations this year. Some of the incidents called out by various officials and personnel on Tuesday, June 16, included the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which has resulted in over 480 arrests.
Earlier on Tuesday, the FBI warned that believers of the QAnon conspiracy theory — which was deeply involved in the events of Jan. 6 — could yet attack Democratic officials and other political opponents, due to an increasing frustration over the group’s predictions failing to materialize. The DNI also called out partisan disputes over mask mandates during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other recent racially or politically motivated attacks that were highlighted included the Charleston church shooting (2015), the murder of a peaceful protestor at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (2017), the attack on Republican members of Congress at a baseball field (2017), the alarming rise in antisemitic attacks including the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting (2018), and the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso that left a large number of Latinos dead (2019). Just last month, Congress passed an anti-Asian hate crimes bill in the aftermath of a murder spree in Atlanta, Georgia, that led to the deaths of eight people, including six women of Asian descent.
In his address, AG Garland recounted his recent visit to Oklahoma and the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre, the centennial of which was marked just last month. He said that in the aftermath of the events in 1921, the government failed to prosecute the attackers and support the victims. While he admitted that the new national strategy will not be able to stop every violent, extremist plot, AG Garland promised, “We will never again fail, as we did after Tulsa, to pursue justice.”
The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism can be read in its entirety here.