Counterterrorism experts are seeing threats posed by domestic terrorism to the US, which they think may continue for the next two decades. Writes Bridget Johnson
The Jan. 6 Capitol attack set into a motion an invigorated phase of domestic terrorism that promises to shape the threat landscape in this country for decades as extremist movements use the deadly riot to recruit and rampant disinformation about current events leaves more people vulnerable to radicalization, the House Homeland Security Committee heard Thursday.
“Sadly, I do believe that we will be fighting domestic terrorism that has its roots and inspiration points from January 6 for the next 10 to 20 years,” said Elizabeth Neumann, former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy in the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans.
Neumann, a contributing editor at HSToday, noted that for many domestic extremists the attack on the Capitol, even though it lasted a few hours and did not result in government overthrow, was still a fantasy “finally coming true” in the spirit of The Turner Diaries, a 1978 novel by neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce III that depicts a white supremacist attack on the Capitol and global domination. “It’s different than what we saw on January 6th, but many cited that scene out of the Turner Diaries… so, sadly, some view this as a huge success.”
“They see the terror that it caused,” she said. “They see that it was easy to do and they believe that this is their moment that they may actually be able to lead us into a civil war.”
Another factor leading to the prediction of a protracted fight against domestic terrorism “is that you have such a large group of people that are unaffiliated with these terrorist movements or terrorist organizations, but they’re very vulnerable right now.”
“They’re just, you know, just disheartened QAnon followers, for example. Or, former Trump supporters who really thought that something was going to happen on January 6th, and Trump was going to remain president — they are very vulnerable,” Neumann continued. “We actively see neo-Nazis recruiting Trump supporters to their ideology. They’re very sophisticated in how they do it. They don’t come right at you. You don’t necessarily know you’re talking to a white supremacist.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called the events at the Capitol “the most predictable terror attack in American history,” and stressed that “frighteningly, as we saw on January 6, more and more ordinary people are being radicalized and spurred to acts of terror.”
“That act of domestic terrorism was a watershed moment for the white supremacist movement in this country,” he said.
Greenblatt pinpointed “two forces that are fueling this movement: First, leaders at the highest levels who have repeated their rhetoric, call out to their conspiracies, and whether intentional or not, given extremists the green light. The second is social media.”
“As we know, online hate can explode into real-world violence,” he said. “We saw this in 2015 at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2018 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Indeed, white supremacists are responsible for more murders than any other type of domestic extremists, accounting for nearly 60 percent of all such crimes in the past decade.”
Christopher Rodriguez, director of the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said the Capitol attack “exposed in the starkest terms the threat we face from domestic terrorists and from right-wing extremism specifically.”
“What should concern us now in 2021 is that the current manifestation of these movements is so insidious because while in the past they existed on the fringes of society, they are becoming rapidly part of the cultural mainstream, and these movements are fueled and fed by misinformation and lies that if not addressed will only continue to exacerbate our underlying social divisions and threatening to tear at the delicate back fabric of our democratic culture,” he said.
Rodriguez, who has a background of service at the CIA, noted that “our foreign adversaries — Russia, in particular — are employing decades-old tools of covert action to fan the flames of cultural conflict here in the U.S., and our foreign enemies do this by creating or perpetuating false narratives that strike at the heart of democracy itself that our elections are rigged, that our system is inherently corrupt and should be overthrown and that radical voices who call for violence or insurrection have legitimate views that should be heard.”
“In regaining the narrative we need to call these actions what they are: a direct assault on our system of government,” he said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser requested that 500 D.C. National Guard personnel remain on standby as a quick reaction force through March 12, and has also suggested that control of the D.C. National Guard be transferred to the mayor to allow for swifter operational decisions and more nimble response.
Rodriguez also stressed the importance of information sharing. “The nearly 80 fusion centers that exist across the nation have more than 2,000 intelligence analysts that are funded by federal dollars, but their intelligence should be more widely disseminated to those who need it,” he said.
And as the FBI has reported that some of the individuals in the Capitol attack had military backgrounds or participated in military-style training camps prior to traveling to D.C., Rodriguez emphasized that “surely there are people in our communities that might know such activities are taking place either in plain sight in the dark corners of the Internet or in casual conversations.”
“We need to prioritize insider threat programs in the U.S. military and law enforcement to ensure that their specific skill sets, which are developed to defend a nation, state or community, are not then turned on the very people they are sworn to protect,” he said.
Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, told lawmakers that “the military can and, over the years, has repeatedly asked to address the issue of political displays of political loyalties, of things that interfere with the unity of effort that is required in the military — they have experience in doing so, and they can do so.” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has ordered a one-day department-wide stand-down to address the issue of extremism in the ranks.
“With regard to police departments, the major police departments have the ability to do this and are addressing it, but we have 17,000 police departments in this country, and to get some of the smaller police departments in various parts of the country to do this is a much bigger challenge,” Jenkins added.
“We know that white supremacist groups, the militia groups have targeted military, former military, and former law enforcement for recruitment purposes upon their retirement,” Neumann said. “We also know that they encourage people when they are young, when they have been created into these movements, to stay clean so that they can enter into and not get caught through screening mechanisms that are in place so that they can get into the military, get into law enforcement. This is primarily because they are looking for people to have the training associated with being in the military and law enforcement.”
Neumann advocated the establishment of “an independent, bipartisan commission to explore the best ways to update our laws, policies, and culture to address domestic terrorism.”
“The underlying causes behind the January 6 attack also increase the number of vulnerable individuals, so recruitment is easier now for extremist groups than it ever has been before. Extremist ideas have been mainstreamed and normalized through political speech, conspiracy theories, and communications that use humor and memes to mask the danger of those ideas present,” she said. “Consequently, there is a high likelihood of violence in the coming months on a range of softer targets associated with their perception of the ‘deep state,’ including infrastructure and mainstream media, law enforcement, big tech, and elected officials.”
“…There are many communities that have been historically hurt by laws that were passed trying to address terrorism. We need to treat that seriously and hear their concerns. It is not something that in your day to day work as a counterterrorism official, you have the time and the space to treat with the level of diligence it deserves and that is why I think this is where you need a commission; you also need it out of, quite frankly, the political spotlight.”
Neumann said it’s critical to weigh how domestic terrorism is approached with regard to how international terrorism is approached. “It doesn’t make sense to me why if you commit a crime in the name of white supremacy or you commit a crime in the name of an ISIS ideology, that you get more jail time for ISIS versus a violent white supremacist act,” she said. “We should treat things equally. That’s what equal justice under the law means.”
Arguing that “we do not yet have a whole-of-government approach” nor adequate resources, Greenblatt presented the cogs of the ADL’s new bipartisan PROTECT plan, which includes passing the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, “coordinating across all government agencies, federal, state, and local, with a clear prioritization of the problem,” “ensuring that extremists cannot serve in the military, in law enforcement, or in elected office,” “holding the social media companies accountable for their complicity in facilitating extremism,” “funding creative efforts to prevent people from radicalizing and off-ramping individuals caught up in these conspiracies,” and “targeting foreign white supremacist terror groups because make no mistake, this movement is a global threat.”
“There is nothing political in pushing back on prejudice, right? There is nothing partisan in adhering to a basic set of principles, and when leaders don’t do that, it creates the space, if you will, that extremists can exploit and move from the margins into the mainstream,” he said. “…Those who obsess about conspiracy theories, those who spread anti-Semitism and racism, they don’t belong in the public conversation with a seat at the table. Period, end of story.”
Jenkins noted that “in the ’60s and ’70s we were dealing with left-wing terrorist, in the ’80s and ’90s it shifted back to the right, the last 20 years we have been looking at jihadist terrorists, and in recent years right-wing terrorist has resurged again to be our principal problem.”
He supported the establishment of a commission to study Jan. 6 and map out strategies to confront domestic extremism. “The 9/11 Commission’s history of the 9/11 events is still the most accurate, thorough account, and that is useful,” Jenkins said. “I think it can look at the intelligence issues, the security issues not in the narrow sense but in the broadest sense about how we protect our government and its processes going forward in an age of the Internet and without turning our public buildings, including the Capitol, into armed fortresses.”
Jenkins stressed that “we simply cannot take the strategies that we have used to deal with homegrown jihadists and say we will apply these to domestic violent extremists.”
“Because there are different conditions, we do need to have a fundamental rethink of our whole-of-government strategy to deal with this problem,” he said. “…I think that if we go in a direction of adding terrorism statutes to deal with the domestic issue, we are going to become embroiled in endless discussions about definition and about designation of groups. So I would be very, very cautious in that area.”
“We must be prepared for a long fight,” Rodriguez warned, advising that officials “be straight with the American people that the threats we now face are arguably as dangerous as they were in the post-9/11 environment, and these threats are not going away.”
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.