Five months and nine days after violent extremists stormed the US Capitol in hopes of keeping Congress from certifying that Joe Biden would be the 46th President of the United States, his administration is unveiling a new national strategy for countering domestic terrorism which targets the growing threat of racially-motivated and anti-government extremism.
According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the administration’s plans late on Monday, the strategy builds upon the law enforcement and intelligence assessment of domestic terror threats which Mr Biden commissioned by executive order just two days into his presidency.
That initial assessment — released in March by the Department of Homeland Security — found that domestic violent extremists represent “an elevated threat to the Homeland” and “are motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States,” including “narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol … and conspiracy theories promoting violence”.
The official said the Biden administration’s strategy will build upon that assessment by “organis[ing] US government efforts to counter domestic terrorism” into four “pillars”: understanding and sharing domestic terrorism-related information, preventing domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilisation to violence, disrupting and deterring domestic terrorism activity, and confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.
“The overarching goal is the prevention, disruption, and deterrence of domestic terrorism,” the official said.
The 32-page document — the first that is solely devoted to combatting domestic threats — is modelled on the National Strategy for Counterterrorism documents that the George W Bush, Obama and Trump administrations used to outline their respective approaches to combatting the international terrorism threats that have dominated the US security landscape since al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon.
Until that day in 2001, the worst-ever act of terrorism on American soil was the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. That attack, which killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others, was perpetrated by a pair of white supremacist, anti-government extremists — Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
But while outside experts have long warned of the danger posed by domestic extremists, previous attempts to raise the alarm within the US government have met with pushback from Republicans, who have frequently claimed that any initiatives meant to combat domestic extremists amount to persecution of conservatives. When a Department of Homeland Security analyst authored an April 2009 report which warned that the election of the first Black president and the financial upheaval caused by the 2008 “great recession” could result in a recruiting bonanza for right-wing extremists, and that US veterans were ripe recruitment targets for white supremacist groups, the outcry from the GOP was such that the team he supervised was disbanded, his report was retracted, and he was eventually drummed out of government service.
Like that 2009 document, the Biden administration’s strategy also notes that veterans are prime recruitment targets for extremist groups, and tasks the Defence Department with conducting training for soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who are leaving the service to educate them on extremist recruitment tactics.
But this time, officials say they are hoping to head off such accusations by taking pains to make their strategy, as described by one official, “agnostic as to political ideology”. The official noted that the strategy lists reasons that “speak to the elevated threat level” from “across the political spectrum,” including the 2017 attack on the GOP Congressional baseball team and a 2016 sniper attack on Dallas police officers.
“What matters is when individuals take the political or other grievances and turn that — unacceptably, unlawfully — into violent acts,” one Biden administration official said. “That’s where it comes within the sway of this document; that’s where it becomes something that is deemed domestic terrorism and requires the sort of response that can not only protect public safety, but in a sense, protect threats to our democratic integrity.”
A National Security Council official who worked on the strategy document told The Independent that the administration’s internal deliberations were driven not by any specific event, but by the information provided by policy experts.
“The idea here was: we don’t want to be driven by our preconceived notions, we certainly don’t want to be driven by politics; we want to be driven by the facts and the experts and the professionals,” the official said. “We tried to slice and dice the issue set from every conceivable angle, or at least every angle we could conceive of. We thought about it as a problem of information gathering, analysis and sharing; we thought about it as an online recruitment radicalisation problem; we thought about it as a potential insider threat problem; we thought about it as a law enforcement problem.”
Yet one area in which domestic terrorism experts have long called for change — the enactment of a specific statute under which to charge domestic terrorists — won’t be addressed by the Biden administration’s strategy.
A number of prominent Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Richard Durbin of Illinois, have introduced domestic terrorism legislation in each of the last few sessions of Congress. But rather than endorse Mr Durbin’s bill — or any such bill — the administration’s strategy calls for the Justice Department to study the matter and report back to the president on whether new laws are necessary.
But the NSC official was adamant that everything recommended by the new strategy is doable without new legislation. They said the decision to order a study rather than call for new laws was informed by the desire to be able to implement the entire strategy immediately, and by the administration’s understanding that today’s political environment is not conducive to passing new laws.
“What … you’ll see in the strategy is a call for the Justice Department to work through whether it thinks pursuing legislation in this area would be appropriate [and] would be helpful in addressing public safety while safeguarding civil liberties [and] civil rights, which has been a huge emphasis in all of this work,” the official said.
“Everything you’ll see in this strategy can be done under existing legal authority — that’s important because one never knows whether one can change the law even if one wants to. But this is a strategy that is not contingent on legal changes. It is doable under existing law, even as it encourages the continued assessment of whether legislative changes might be worth pursuing.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies