Domestic Terrorism Is on the Rise. But How Prepared Is the U.S. to Counter It?

April 4, 2019, 7:35 PM UTC

The 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left 58 concertgoers dead. The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that killed 11 worshippers. The 2015 San Bernardino shooting in which 14 people were fatally gunned down by a couple armed with semi-automatic weapons.

All of these attacks are defined under U.S. Code as acts of terrorism. But only those that fall under the definition of international terrorism, not domestic terrorism, have associated criminal charges codified in the law.

Because the FBI’s definition of domestic versus international terrorism hinges on whether or not the perpetrator is associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations, individuals like alleged synagogue shooter Robert Bowers, who was charged with 44 offenses, including “obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death” and “use and discharge of a firearm to commit murder,” have not been charged with “domestic terrorism”—nor will they be.

Acts of domestic terrorism are on the rise in the U.S. The Anti-Defamation League found, for example, that between 2009 and 2018, 73.3% of fatalities were linked to domestic right-wing extremists, compared to 23.4% linked to Islamic extremists. In 2018 alone, domestic extremists were responsible for the deaths of at least 50 people, marking the “fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970.”

Even the government acknowledges that domestic terrorism poses an increasing threat. The White House’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism notes that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise, with an increasing number of fatalities and violent nonlethal acts committed by domestic terrorists against people and property in the United States.”

Despite this, the Department of Homeland Security last year restructured the Office of Intelligence and Analysis—a group of analysts focused specifically on domestic terrorism and responsible for sharing this information with state and local law enforcement. The Daily Beast, which first reported on this restructuring, cited numerous current and former officials who found the development concerning.

DHS Public Affairs, however, refutes the charge. After the report, DHS provided the following statement to the website:

The idea presented by some that we have cut our commitment to defeating all forms of radical ideology—including white supremacist and domestic terrorist—is patently false and the exact opposite of what we have done. Those pushing such a narrative either do not understand intelligence collection efforts or don’t care about the truth.

The Office of Intelligence and Analysis has significantly increased tactical intelligence reporting on domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists since 2016. The intelligence shared is actionable and frequently used by partners to take immediate steps of intervention. The Office of Intelligence and Analysis coordinates with the Intelligence Community and continues to produce strategic and tactical intelligence in partnership with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who is the lead organization for Domestic Terrorism and Civil Rights Violations.

But the Office of Intelligence and Analysis isn’t the only organization associated with tackling domestic terrorism that the Trump administration has restructured or defunded.

Last year, the State Department cut funding to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, an open-source tool used for years by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to analyze patterns of violence among global terrorists, as well as domestic terrorists, including white, anti-LGBT, Neo-Nazi and anti-government extremists.

Soon after taking office, Trump’s administration canceled grants to at least two groups working to counter violent extremism and prevent radicalization, including Life After Hate and researchers at the University of North Carolina.

Nevertheless, some politicians are pushing for more action against domestic terrorism.

Sens. Dick Durbin and Tim Kaine reintroduced a bill at the end of March called the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would require federal law enforcement agencies to issue an annual report on domestic terrorism and provide training and resources to state and local law enforcement to better address the threat.

“As the threat of violent white supremacy continues to mount, we must do more to ensure law enforcement has the training and resources they need to detect, deter, and investigate these acts of terrorism,” Kaine said.

According to a joint intelligence bulletin from the FBI and DHS, white supremacists were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks between the years 2000 and 2016, more than any other domestic extremist movement.

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