Terrorism in the United States
In the United States a common definition of terrorism is the systematic or threatened use of violence in order to create a general climate of fear to intimidate a population or government and thereby effect political, religious, or ideological change.
- Today, as news reports indicated that the U.S. Department of State will – for the first time ever – designate a white supremacist group as a terrorist organization, experts from ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a joint report on white supremacist terrorism, urging the government to take further steps to address this emerging threat.
The report notes that, for now, none of the 69 organizations designated by the U.S. Department of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations are white supremacist organizations, despite the dramatic uptick in that threat. The State Department’s expected announcement could alter that status – a historic shift in policy and one that ADL has long supported and applauds.
“White supremacists are clearly an international threat, so it is important the Department of State apply designations authority to certain groups and take other meaningful steps,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “White supremacist violence is spreading across borders and across continents. A terrorist designation is a powerful tool to address this threat.”
- In April, a joint report from George Washington University’s Program on extremism (GWU PoE) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) included a proposal for a “rights protecting domestic terrorism statute”. They said the law could provide “more tools for the investigation and prosecution of groups and individuals” associated with rightwing extremism.
The report did acknowledge “significant constitutional questions” would be raised by such a statute, and the possibility of “unintended consequences, particularly for members of minorities”.
There are also concerns around the creation of a surveillance state.
- “ADL and GWU Experts Release New Report on White Supremacist Terrorism”, April 6, 2020; as quoted by Wilson, Jason (June 27, 2020). "Violence by far right is among US's most dangerous terrorist threats, study finds". The Guardian. Retrieved July 16, 2020.
- At the heart of these attacks are former and currently serving members of the military, who have training that makes terrorist attacks more achievable and more deadly. Many Americans remember that Timothy McVeigh, who committed the largest terrorist attack prior to 9/11 in terms of the numbers killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, was a former soldier. The same was true of Eric Rudolph, an antisemite and racist who perpetrated the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. And of Wade Michael Page, who committed a mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012.
- Heidi Beirich, “Alarming Incidents of White Supremacy in the Military – How to Stop It?”, Congress.gov, (February 11, 2020), p.3
- Three out of four individuals convicted on international terrorism charges in the U.S. were foreign born, according to a new report released by the Trump administration amid a contentious debate on national security and immigration.
Between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016, 549 individuals were convicted on international terrorism charges, of whom 254 were foreign citizens, 148 were naturalized U.S. citizens and 147 were natural born U.S. citizens, according to Justice Department numbers.
- Rafael Bernal, "Trump administration: Three-quarters of international terrorism convicts foreign born". The Hill, (January 16, 2018).
- “This report reveals an indisputable sobering reality — our immigration system has undermined our national security and public safety,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement.
“And the information in this report is only the tip of the iceberg: we currently have terrorism-related investigations against thousands of people in the United States, including hundreds of people who came here as refugees."
The terrorism numbers, however, don't include incidents and convictions of domestic terror, which by most accounts are undertaken mostly by American citizens.
The Justice Department’s counsel for domestic terrorism matters, Thomas Brzozowski, said last week that domestic terrorists are harder to prosecute, as they enjoy greater protections under the Constitution than foreign terrorists, leading to lesser charges.
- Rafael Bernal, "Trump administration: Three-quarters of international terrorism convicts foreign born". The Hill, (January 16, 2018).
- It is not just a function of a couple of militia-related guys taking over something out West. It’s not just a bunch of white supremacist in white hoods. It is not relegated toward a particular ideology. In fact, the nature of the underlying ideology is immaterial to how we approach domestic terrorism.
- Thomas Brzozowski, George Washington University in October 2016; as quoted in David Neiwart, "Home Is Where the Hate Is", Type Investigations, (June 22, 2017).
- Looking back over the past few years, we recognize that according to at least one study more people died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than attacks associated with international terrorist groups.
- John Carlin; as quoted in David Neiwart, "Home Is Where the Hate Is", Type Investigations, (June 22, 2017).
- In a report released last week, the Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States, CSIS analyzes 25 years of domestic terrorism incidents and finds that the majority of attacks and plots have come from the far right.
The report says “the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of rightwing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years”, with the far right launching two-thirds of attacks and plots in 2019, and 90% of those in 2020.
The report adds: “Far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators.” The second most significant source of attacks and plots in the US has been “religious extremists”, almost all “Salafi jihadists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaida”.
The report shows the far left has been an increasingly negligible source of attacks since the mid 2000s. At that time the FBI defined arsons and other forms of property damage as domestic terrorism during a period some have called the “Green Scare”.
- CSIS, “Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States” as quoted in Wilson, Jason (June 27, 2020). "Violence by far right is among US's most dangerous terrorist threats, study finds". The Guardian. Retrieved July 16, 2020.
- Protecting the United States from terrorist attacks is the FBI’s number one priority. The Bureau works closely with its partners to neutralize terrorist cells and operatives here in the United States, to help dismantle extremist networks worldwide, and to cut off financing and other forms of support provided to foreign terrorist organizations.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Terrorism”, FBI.gov
- The greatest terrorism threat to the Homeland we face today is posed by lone offenders, often radicalized online, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation & Department of Homeland Security, “Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism”, (May 2021), p.2.
- While the 2004 United States presidential election was held without the terrorist attack that many people feared, as election day approached, a gnawing feeling gripped lawyers working on behalf of President Bush and Senator Kerry. After all, this was the first U.S. presidential election since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001, and the trainbombing in Madrid several days before Spain’s own national election was fresh in their minds. Legal issues had to be researched; plans had to be made. Unfortunately, there appears to have been very little planning for this possibility.
- Jerry H. Goldfeder, "Could Terrorists Derail a Presidential Election?", 32 Fordham Urb. L.J. 523 (2005).
- Whereas postponing an election in the aftermath of a terrorist attack would demonstrate weakness, not strength, and would be interpreted as a victory for the terrorists . . . . Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that . . . the actions of terrorists will never cause the date of any presidential election to be postponed . . . .
- H.R. 728, 108th Cong. (2004).
- This Committee cannot live in denial, which is what some would have us do when they suggest that this hearing dilute its focus by investigating threats unrelated to Al Qaeda. The Department of Homeland Security and this committee were formed in response to the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11. There is no equivalency of threat between al Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists or other isolated madmen. Only al Qaeda and its Islamist affiliates in this country are part of an international threat to our nation. Indeed by the Justice Department’s own record not one terror related case in the last two years involved neo-Nazis, environmental extremists, militias or anti-war groups.
- Peter King; as quoted in David Neiwart, "Home Is Where the Hate Is", “Type Investigations”, (June 22, 2017).
- Based on fatalities we see terrorism was relatively high in the 1970s, then comparably ‘quiet’ – with exception of major outlying years, 1995 and 2001 – in the decades which followed. Over the last five years there has been a small but steady increase in terrorist deaths in the US.
In most years terror attacks caused fewer than 50 deaths per year, and in many years no one died from attacks. With exception of 2001, terrorism accounted for less than 0.01% of all deaths in the US in every year since 1970. For comparison, around 120 people die in road accidents in the United States every day.16 This means the annual death toll from terrorism in most years is equivalent to half a day or less on the country’s roads.
- Ritchie, Hannah; Hasell, Joe; Appel, Cameron; Roser, Max. "Terrorism". Our World in Data. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
- White supremacist extremists will remain the deadliest domestic terror threat to the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security's first annual homeland threat assessment, which details a range of threats from election interference to unprecedented storms.
- Geneva Sands. "White supremacists remain deadliest US terror threat, Homeland Security report says". CNN. (October 6, 2020)
- “Yesterday, presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz responded to the terrorist attacks in Brussels by suggesting that the United States needs to ‘empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.’ Research I have been conducting over the past eight years on Muslim-American communities and their relationship with the police shows that Cruz’s proposal is exactly the wrong way to make America safer,” says David Schanzer, an associate professor of the practice at the Sanford School and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “There is no evidence that entire Muslim-American neighborhoods are at risk of radicalizing to violence. And ‘patrolling’ neighborhoods will do nothing to identify the small number of individuals who may be attracted to ISIS and inclined to engage in violence.” “Our research shows that instead police should build trusting relationships with Muslim-Americans so they can work together to build resilience against violent extremism.”
- David Schanzer as quoted by Duke Today Staff in “News Tip: Community Policing, Not Patrols/Profiling, Way to Combat Domestic Terrorism, Expert Says”, (March 23, 2016)
- John G. Horgan, who studies terrorism at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, said the mismatch between public perceptions and actual cases had become steadily more obvious to scholars.
“There’s an acceptance now of the idea that the threat from jihadi terrorism in the United States has been overblown,” Dr. Horgan said. “And there’s a belief that the threat of right-wing, antigovernment violence has been underestimated.”
Counting terrorism cases is a subjective enterprise, relying on shifting definitions and judgment calls.
- Scott Shane, "Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11". June 24, 2015
- According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.
- Donald Trump, speech before a joint session of Congress, (Feb. 28, 2017)
- The FBI for the first time has identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat, according to a previously unpublicized document obtained by Yahoo News. (Read the document below.)
The FBI intelligence bulletin from the bureau’s Phoenix field office, dated May 30, 2019, describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat, and notes that it is the first such report to do so. It lists a number of arrests, including some that haven’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs.
- Jana Winter, “Exclusive: FBI document warns conspiracy theories are a new domestic terrorism threat". news.yahoo.com, (August 1, 2019)
Matthew Alcoke, "The Evolving and Persistent Terrorism Threat to the Homeland". Federal Bureau of Investigation. (November 19, 2019)
- To level set before we begin, I’d like to explain how the FBI works counterterrorism. The FBI categorizes terrorism investigations into two programs: international terrorism and domestic terrorism. International terrorism includes investigations into members of designated foreign terrorist organizations, state sponsors of terrorism, and homegrown violent extremists. The latter are individuals inside the United States, who have been radicalized primarily in the United States, and who are inspired by, but not receiving individual direction from, foreign terrorist organizations.
Domestic terrorists are individuals who commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of ideological goals stemming from domestic issues. A majority of our domestic terrorism cases fall into one of four categories: racially motivated violent extremism, anti-government/anti-authority extremism, animal rights/environmental extremism, and abortion extremism.
- [P]reventing acts of terrorism, regardless of ideology, is the FBI’s number one priority.
- I’ll end here with discussing these organizations and nation states, because I’d like to also discuss how the threat has evolved within our borders. A decade ago, these organizations posed the largest terrorist threat to the U.S. Today, as evidenced by recent attacks, the greatest threat we face in the homeland emanates from self-radicalized lone actors, of any ideology, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.
These lone actors span our international and domestic terrorism cases, and include homegrown violent extremists, inspired by foreign terrorist organizations, and domestic violent extremists, inspired to commit violence in furtherance of domestic ideologies.
Homeland plotting shifted from in-person networks motivated by local radicalizers to self-starting violent extremists inspired by online ideologues and propaganda. We are seeing the Internet and social media enable individuals to engage and encourage other like-minded individuals without face-to-face meetings. As FBI Director Christopher Wray often says, “Terrorism moves at the speed of social media.” We find that to be true every day in our investigations.
- One interesting demographic trend we can point to over the past two years is a decrease in the average age of attackers. In 2018, juveniles comprised nearly one-third of all identified homeland attackers and plotters inspired by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda. This underscores the susceptibility of some adolescents to ideologies that appeal to a desire for a sense of belonging or identity.
Studies have also revealed that most successful attackers typically mobilize to violence in less than six months. This commonality emphasizes the unpredictability of our subjects and demonstrates the “flash to bang” mobilization lifespan, or case velocity as we call it. We may not have long to act to prevent an attack.
Additionally, while government and law enforcement facilities still represent attractive targets for violent extremists, recent attackers favored easy-to-acquire weapons—often firearms—against soft or civilian targets, hampering detection efforts.
- In recent years, the FBI observed a decline in its ability to access to the content of both domestic and international terrorist communications, due to the widespread adoption of encryption for Internet traffic and the prevalence of mobile messaging apps using end-to-end encryption as default. In many places, we have effectively “gone dark.”
As a private citizen, I certainly appreciate encryption’s increase in the overall safety and security of the Internet for users. But in fulfilling the FBI’s duty to the American people to prevent acts of terrorism, encryption creates serious challenges. Accessing content of communications by, or data held by, known or suspected terrorists pursuant to judicially authorized, warranted legal process is getting more and more difficult.
- The online, encrypted nature of radicalization, along with the insular nature of most of today’s attack plotters, leaves investigators with fewer dots to connect. With this insular threat, we increasingly rely on the bystanders in these actors’ networks—family members, peers, community leaders, and strangers—to notice changes in behavior, and report concerns, before violence occurs.
Byman, Daniel (August 5, 2019). "After El Paso, Right-Wing Terrorists Have Killed More People on U.S. Soil Than Jihadis Have Since 9/11". Slate Magazine. (Retrieved October 5, 2020)
- When a white supremacist gunman killed more than 20 people at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart on Saturday, he claimed a dubious honor for his cause: Right-wing terrorism is once again responsible for more deaths on U.S. soil (107) than jihadi terrorism (104) since 9/11, according to data collected by New America. (In fact, right-wing violence had been responsible for more deaths for most of this period, but jihadis had been responsible for more since the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016.)
- The rise in white supremacist violence, and the lower-than-anticipated levels of jihadi killing, does not accord with U.S. counterterrorism officials’ post-9/11 focus on jihad. This varied response explains the relative success of anti-jihadi efforts and the problems stopping right-wing violence.
No single factor explains the recent rise of right-wing violence, which has a long and bloody history in the United States, mostly directed against black Americans. It’s not that the causes themselves have changed dramatically. Many Americans have long been concerned about immigration, opposed to gun control, and critical of protections for minorities. Most of those who hold these beliefs would condemn violence and those who use it.
ut right-wing terrorism itself is changing. Part of it is 9/11 itself. The attacks highlighted fears of Muslims and gave far-right groups more credibility in their claims to be defending Christian civilization. Each jihadi attack, including highly publicized attacks abroad like the 2015 Paris killings by ISIS, bolstered their claim and created a cycle of recruitment and radicalization.
- Even as right-wingers have globalized more, U.S. counterterrorism has disrupted one of the jihadis’ greatest strengths: their global network. Thanks to drone attacks on their safe havens, tighter homeland security, and a global intelligence campaign, it has proven difficult for ISIS or al-Qaida to engage in long-term plotting, to train large numbers of recruits, or otherwise orchestrate terrorist spectaculars on U.S. soil. Indeed, looking at the post-9/11 plots on U.S. soil, what is striking is how few of the individuals who attempted them have direct connections to ISIS or al-Qaida. When those connections did exist, they often turned out to be vulnerabilities because law enforcement was able to detect the plot as a result.
Much of what explains why right-wing terrorism is so deadly while jihad at home is less bloody than expected is because of the government response and that of other important actors. The FBI devotes far fewer resources to right-wing terrorism than it does jihadi terrorism, and programs for countering violence extremism also focus largely on jihadis. Most social media companies are aggressive in trying to get jihadis off their platforms. They are far more cautious, however, when it comes to white supremacists, fearing political backlash. Legally, federal counterterrorism officials have far more power to go after those associated with international terrorist groups than they do for domestic terrorist groups, no matter how lethal. However, as terrorism expert Clint Watts points out, there is far more political attention in Congress to black identity movements and the left-wing antifa—neither of which pose remotely the danger of white supremacists—because of their political orientation.
- Giving the FBI more resources, passing new laws that target domestic terrorism, and otherwise stepping up the fight against white supremacist violence and other right-wing terrorism would have a dramatic impact, as many of the individuals and groups are not used to operating in a clandestine environment. Politically, instead of playing up racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, leaders could try to calm these roiled waters. Unfortunately, Trump has not changed his tune in response to past right-wing attacks, and there is little reason to expect a new course until a new administration comes to power.
Sarah Ruiz-Grossman, "Most Of America's Terrorists Are White, And Not Muslim". Huffington Post, (June 23, 2017)
- When it comes to domestic terrorism in America, the numbers don’t lie: Far-right extremists are behind far more plots and attacks than Islamist extremists.
There were almost twice as many terrorist incidents by right-wing extremists as by Islamist extremists in the U.S. from 2008 to 2016, according to a new report from The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund and The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal.
Looking at both plots and attacks carried out, the group tracked 201 terrorist incidents on U.S. soil from January 2008 to the end of 2016. The database shows 115 cases by right-wing extremists ― from white supremacists to militias to “sovereign citizens” ― compared to 63 cases by Islamist extremists. Incidents from left-wing extremists, which include ecoterrorists and animal rights militants, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents.
While the database makes a point of distinguishing between different groups within right-wing extremism, lead reporter David Neiwert told HuffPost that “those are all gradations of white supremacy, variations on the same thing.” When it comes to right-wing extremism, attackers are also “mostly men” and “almost purely white,” Neiwert said.
Attacks by right-wing extremists were also more often deadly, with nearly a third of right-wing extremist incidents resulting in deaths compared with 13 percent of Islamist extremist cases resulting in deaths. However, the sheer number of people killed by Islamist extremists ― a total of 90 people killed ― was higher than the death toll at the hands of right-wing extremists ― 79 people killed.
- Despite the facts, many Americans still associate terror attacks with Islamist extremists rather than far-right extremists, Neiwart noted.
“I think the larger perception in the public ― and this includes many progressives and liberals ― is the inversion of the reality: that the greatest threat we face is Islamist radicals,” Neiwert said. “And it’s reflected in the way the press report upon various kinds of domestic terror attacks: When it’s a white domestic terrorist, they underplay it, write it off to mental illness.”
The media has a long history of double standards when it comes to covering terrorism ― starting with how slow mainstream media is to label attacks by white perpetrators as “terrorism,” and quick to label them as such when attackers are perceived as nonwhite or “other” ― and specifically, Muslim.
Part of problem is the complex nature of how officials choose to categorize attacks as terrorism. The FBI has specific criteria its uses to classify terrorist incidents ― but the public doesn’t always agree with officials’ labels. For instance, many people condemned the government for not labeling Dylann Roof a terrorist after he killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, even though he specifically said he was there “to shoot black people,” according to witnesses.
- The government succeeded in interrupting the vast majority of Islamist extremist terror cases since 2008, for instance: 76 percent of incidents tracked were “foiled plots,” which the group noted showed “a significant investment of law enforcement resources.” When it came to right-wing extremism, only about a third of incidents were interrupted ― 35 percent ― and the majority of the cases included acts of violence that led to deaths, injuries or damaged property.
Seamus Hughes, Jon Lewis, Ryan Greer; “White Supremacist Terror: Modernizing our Approach to Today’s Threat”, GWU.edu, (April 2020)
- The October 2018 release of the 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.” Three months ago, the Department of Homeland Security released their Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence, which states, “the severity and number of domestic threats have also grown…There has been a concerning rise in attacks by individuals motivated by a variety of domestic terrorist ideologies.”
- Crucially, the designation of foreign terrorist organizations is known to be a potent tool, in the U.S. and overseas. Such designation allows the FBI a wide legal basis to investigate and surveil Americans connected to banned overseas groups, but the Bureau-rightly and constitutionally-is significantly more limited in its ability to pursue “domestic” organizations and individuals associated with them. Furthermore, while the narrow and targeted FTO and concomitant material support measures could function as an effective precision tool with which to target a group such as Atomwaffen, it is ill-suited to combat the rise of lone actor violence, and simply cannot be used against individuals who do not align themselves with a designated foreign organization. For that reason among others, many national security experts have suggested that there is a need for a more directly applicable, comprehensive domestic terrorism statute.
- The enactment of a domestic terrorism statute could also help ensure that arrested domestic terrorists are not released into the community, but held in pretrial detention. In the absence of such a statue, prosecutors faced with suspects who are planning acts of domestic terror, but have not yet actually engaged in attacks, may be forced to rely on more minor charged that may not accurately represet the real risks at stake or what we now know to be the modus operandi of so many violent white supremacist extremists. In some circumstances, a clearly dangerous individual who can only be charged with nonviolent offences could be set free before trial, potentially putting the public in danger.
- After an act of targeted violence takes place, state and federal governments can avail themselves of criminal statues, such as state capital murder and federal hate crimes, to prosecute lone actors who “commit” acts of violence-such as the perpetrators of the Pittsburgh and Charlottesville white supremacist attacks-and they typically ensure lengthy prison sentences. While it is reassuring that there are such tools available to prosecute the perpetrators, the tragedies in those cases have already accomplished many of their of their intended purposes and torn apart the victim communities. Where there are arguably gaps is in interdicting and disrupting these plots before they take place, whenever possible. To that end, many observers, including those in law enforcement, feel strongly that sufficiently powerful legal tools are not available or not easily available to address individuals who are “plotting, including engagement of overt acts to prepare” for violence. To many, what is seen as a hodgepodge of charges brought against the individuals profiles in this paper, all of whom are seemingly poised to commit domestic acts of targeted violence-cyberstalking, illegally possessing firearms, conspiring to violate citizens’ rights-shows the potential gaps in efficiency and effectiveness in the context of today’s modern terrorism threat.
- The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was established post-9/11 to, “produce integrated and interagency-coordinated analytic assessments on terrorism issues and publishes warnings, alters, and advisories as appropriate.” In practice, NCTC acts as an internal clearinghouse to take intelligence and information from law enforcement and the intelligence community and, in turn, provide information to law enforcement and intelligence agencies that are authorized to see it. For example, it ensures that the FBI has all of the intelligence it is authorized to see and that the CIA has all of the law enforcement information that it is authorized to see. Similarly, border officials and state and local law enforcement are authorized to see intelligence or federal law enforcement information only in narrow parameters and in narrow circumstances; NCTC ensures that they have that information without exceeding their authorities, which is critical to interdicting known and suspected terrorists because border and local law enforcement officials are typically the front line in interdiction.
NCTC is not legally authorized to examine domestic terrorism information because it was authorized by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which is specific to international terrorism issues. NCTC may develop expertise on domestic terrorism only as a comparison to international terrorism, which severely limits its analytical abilities, and it lacks any ability to share information on domestic terror.
- Authorizing NCTC to examine domestic terrorism analytically could be achieved through administrative action, given the applicability of broad terrorism-related analysis to include domestic terrorism to the international counterterrorism mission. But, in order to share information between the intelligence and law enforcement communities, Congress would have to pass legislation to alter its mandate. Alternatively, a new Domestic Terrorism Prevention Center could be created to use a similar mechanism as NCTC but tailored directly to the different information collection and sharing authorities inherent in domestic terrorism, such as a greater focus on state and local law enforcement and the private sector.
- Congressional action is needed to properly counter the rising threat of domestic terrorism. Bipartisan legislation is needed to enhance the federal government’s efforts to prevent domestic terrorism by authorizing law offices that are focused specifically on this threat, and requiring federal law enforcement agencies to regularly assess the threat of white supremacy and apportion resources based on that analysis. Such legislation should also provide training and resources to assist non-federal law enforcement in addressing these threats, requiring DOJ, DHS, and the FBI to provide training and resources to assist state, local, and tribal law enforcement in understanding, detecting, deterring, and investigating acts of domestic terrorism. Swift passage of legislation of this kind by the House and Senate would increase the focus on the federal government on domestic terrorism and allow Congress to do better oversight of these efforts.
Jones, Seth, Doxsee, Catrina; "The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States". Center for Strategic and International Studies. (June 3, 2020)
- This analysis makes several arguments. First, far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years. Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020. Second, terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors. One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election. Far-right and far-left networks have used violence against each other at protests, raising the possibility of escalating violence during the election period.
- First, right-wing terrorism refers to the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities whose goals may include racial or ethnic supremacy; opposition to government authority; anger at women, including from the incel (“involuntary celibate”) movement; and outrage against certain policies, such as abortion. This analysis uses the term “right-wing terrorism” rather than “racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism,” or REMVE, which is used by some in the U.S. government. Second, left-wing terrorism involves the use or threat of violence by sub-national or non-state entities that oppose capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism; pursue environmental or animal rights issues; espouse pro-communist or pro-socialist beliefs; or support a decentralized social and political system such as anarchism. Third, religious terrorism includes violence in support of a faith-based belief system, such as Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, among many others. As highlighted in the next section, the primary threat from religious terrorists comes from Salafi-jihadists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Fourth, ethnonationalist terrorism refers to violence in support of ethnic or nationalist goals—often struggles of self-determination and separatism along ethnic or nationalist lines.
- To evaluate the threat posed by terrorism, we compiled a data set of 893 incidents that occurred in the United States between January 1994 and May 8, 2020.9 (The link to the methodology can be found at the end of the brief.) These incidents included both attacks and foiled plots. We coded the ideology of the perpetrators into one of five categories: ethnonationalist, left-wing, religious, right-wing, and other (which included motivations that did not fit into any of the categories). All of the religious attacks and plots in the CSIS data set were committed by terrorists who ascribed to a Salafi-jihadist ideology.
- Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.
- In analyzing fatalities from terrorist attacks, religious terrorism has killed the largest number of individuals—3,086 people—primarily due to the attacks on September 11, 2001, which caused 2,977 deaths. The magnitude of this death toll fundamentally shaped U.S. counterterrorism policy over the past two decades. In comparison, right-wing terrorist attacks caused 335 deaths, left-wing attacks caused 22 deaths, and ethnonationalist terrorists caused 5 deaths.
To evaluate the ongoing threat from different types of terrorists, however, it is useful to consider the proportion of fatalities attributed to each type of perpetrator annually. In 14 of the 21 years between 1994 and 2019 in which fatal terrorist attacks occurred, the majority of deaths resulted from right-wing attacks. In eight of these years, right-wing attackers caused all of the fatalities, and in three more—including 2018 and 2019—they were responsible for more than 90 percent of annual fatalities. Therefore, while religious terrorists caused the largest number of total fatalities, right-wing attackers were most likely to cause more deaths in a given year.
- While religious terrorism is concerning, the United States does not face the same level of threat today from religious extremists—particularly those inspired by Salafi-jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda—as some European countries.
- Our data suggest that right-wing extremists pose the most significant terrorism threat to the United States, based on annual terrorist events and fatalities.
- All parts of U.S. society have an important role to play in countering terrorism. Politicians need to encourage greater civility and refrain from incendiary language. Social media companies need to continue sustained efforts to fight hatred and terrorism on their platforms. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other companies are already doing this. But the struggle will only get more difficult as the United States approaches the November 2020 presidential election—and even in its aftermath. Finally, the U.S. population needs to be more alert to disinformation, double-check their sources of information, and curb incendiary language.
David Neiwart, "Home Is Where the Hate Is", Type Investigations, (June 22, 2017)
- “Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country,” Trump said at one campaign speech in Ohio. During another, in Philadelphia, he drove home the attack: “We now have an administration and a former secretary of state who refuse to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’”
It was a strange place to make his point. The only Islamist terror attack in Pennsylvania over the past 15 years was committed by Edward Archer, a mentally ill man who shot and injured a police officer in early 2016, later telling investigators that he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Far-right episodes of violent extremism were far more common.
- From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
*During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
* Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
- More than a million violent crimes are committed each year in the United States, while annual domestic terrorism incidents number in the dozens. Yet acts of terrorism have a special significance, said former FBI agent Michael German, because each one not only targets particular victims, but also “is an attack on civil society itself.”
What distinguishes an act of terrorism from a violent crime, explains former federal counterterror official Daryl Johnson, is the ideological component of “the perpetrator’s motivation, his ideology and what he wanted the outcome to be. There needs to be a desire to instill fear among the general public, change government policy, or draw attention to a political or social cause.”
- While a variety of think tanks and journalistic organizations have compiled data that capture fragments of the domestic terrorism picture —Islamist attacks (The Heritage Foundation), deadly domestic terror attacks (the think tank New America), attacks on abortion clinics (the National Abortion Federation) and far-right plots and attacks (the Southern Poverty Law Center) — The Investigative Fund database is the only one that gathers incidents that span the full range of ideologies and that includes both plots and attacks and both federal and local prosecutions. It also catalogues each incident according to a diverse range of variables, such as target, ideology, movement affiliation, sentence, and whether federal charges or terrorism charges were filed. (See our methodology here.)
The database vividly illustrates the ways in which Islamist incidents have received disproportionate attention from federal law enforcement.
While a majority of the incidents were perpetrated by right-wing extremists (57 percent), the database indicates that federal law enforcement agencies focused their energies on pre-empting and prosecuting Islamist attacks, which constituted 31 percent of all incidents, a finding confirmed by counterterror experts.
"DHS draft document: White supremacists are greatest terror threat". POLITICO, (09/04/2020)
- White supremacists present the gravest terror threat to the United States, according to a draft report from the Department of Homeland Security.
Two later draft versions of the same document — all of which were reviewed by POLITICO — describe the threat from white supremacists in slightly different language. But all three drafts describe the threat from white supremacists as the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the U.S., listed above the immediate danger from foreign terrorist groups.
- John Cohen, who oversaw DHS’s counterterrorism portfolio from 2011 to 2014, said the drafts’ conclusion isn’t surprising.
“This draft document seems to be consistent with earlier intelligence reports from DHS, the FBI, and other law enforcement sources: that the most significant terror-related threat facing the US today comes from violent extremists who are motivated by white supremacy and other far-right ideological causes,” he said.
Wittes, meanwhile, said the change in language on white supremacist terrorism is significant.
“It diminishes the prominence of white supremacy relative to other domestic violent extremism, and, without being inaccurate, puts it in a basket along with other violent activity that may be more palatable for the administration to acknowledge,” he said.
- The earliest draft has the strongest language on the threat from white supremacists, in an introductory section labeled “Key Takeaways.”
“Lone offenders and small cells of individuals motivated by a diverse array of social, ideological, and personal factors will pose the primary terrorist threat to the United States,” the draft reads. “Among these groups, we assess that white supremacist extremists – who increasingly are networking with likeminded persons abroad – will pose the most persistent and lethal threat.”
The “Key Takeaways” section of the next two drafts calls “Domestic Violent Extremists” the “most persistent and lethal threat,” rather than specifically naming white supremacists.
Benjamin Wittes, "The Justice Department Finds 'No Responsive Records' to Support a Trump Speech". Lawfareblog.com, (July 31, 2018)
- [L]et’s go back to Trump’s first address to Congress, in February 2017. The new president made the striking claim quoted above: “According to data provided by the Department of Justice, the vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.”
I did not believe those words were true when Trump spoke them, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the Justice Department does not keep data at a systematic level on where criminal defendants were born. For another thing, there are a lot of domestic terrorism cases, and they are generally not committed by people born abroad. To the extent that those cases are excluded—white supremacist violence, anti-abortion terrorism and militia violence—the inquiry is grossly biased. To the extent that such cases are included, one would have to analyze a raft of data that I didn’t know the department kept in a comprehensive fashion.
- Examining a public list of international terrorism cases released by the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD), Ellingsen and Daniels concluded that it simply wasn’t accurate to say that a “vast majority” of individuals on that list “came here from outside our country”—“unless, that is, you include individuals who were forcibly brought to the United States in order to be prosecuted and exclude all domestic terrorism cases."
- Presumably, if the Justice Department had provided the White House with data to support the president’s claims, the request would have gone through the department’s top brass. If there was some data “provided by the Department of Justice” to the White House showing that “the vast majority of individuals convicted [in all] terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11”—including domestic terrorism cases—“came here from outside of our country,” there would be some record of it either in the attorney general’s office or the deputy attorney general’s office.
I was confident the search would produce no responsive documents. And it, in fact, produced none.
Because what the president of the United States said before a joint session of Congress was not true. It wasn’t true about immigrants and terrorism. And neither was it true about the Justice Department.
Chad Wolf, “Homeland Threat Assessment October 2020”, Department of Homeland Security, (September 9, 2020)
- The primary terrorist threat inside the United States will stem from lone offenders and small cells of individuals, including Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs) and foreign terrorist-inspired Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs). Some U.S.-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020, which will drive an elevated threat environment at least through early 2021. Violent extremists will continue to target individuals or institutions that represent symbols of their grievances, as well as grievances based on political affiliation or perceived policy positions.
- Foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), including al-Qa‘ida and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), will maintain interest in attacking the Homeland but we expect the primary threat from these groups to remain overseas in the coming year due to sustained U.S. counterterrorism pressure. Nevertheless, these groups can adapt quickly and resurge, and terrorists overseas will continue to probe for vulnerabilities in U.S. immigration and border security programs. Collectively, vulnerabilities may create an illegal migration environment that FTOs could exploit to facilitate the movement of affiliated persons towards the United States.
- Terrorists and other criminal actors might look to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to threaten critical infrastructure. In 2019, there were nearly 4,000 reports of unique incidents of UAS activity near U.S. critical infrastructure or public gatherings. Although we have no indication that any of these events were terrorism-related, it is possible that malicious or criminal actors will turn to UAS tactics.