Tackling Domestic Violent Extremism: The Path Forward for the Biden Administration

By: M Baqir Mohie El-Deen, MPAC Policy Program Manager

While many have only recently been awakened to the Domestic Violent Extremist (DVE) threat to our nation following the attack on Capitol Hill, numerous comprehensive studies and reports have been conducted by various organizations around the nation for years now, all concluding that America is in danger from domestic violent extremists. Back in 2014, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that domestic, anti-government radicals were considered the most serious threat. Research from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University came to a similar conclusion. A year later, University of Massachusetts Lowell scholar, John Horgan, told the New York Times that “there’s an acceptance now [among experts] of the idea that the threat from Muslim political violence in the United States has been overblown. And there’s a belief that the threat of right-wing, anti-government violence has been underestimated.” MPAC’s 2019 white paper on White Supremacy, hailed by Rep. Adam Schiff as a must-read by every legislator, gave the same warning.

Unprecedented in an inauguration speech, President Biden spoke out against white supremacy, and following through with that unprecedented action, the Biden Administration revealed their plan to combat DVE. On January 21, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki disclosed during a press briefing that the Administration’s priority to combat DVE will require additional steps, since President Trump’s transition team failed to share sufficient intelligence on DVE threats. Psaki announced that the White House is utilizing a three-fold approach as they prepare to combat DVE:

  1. Requesting from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) a comprehensive threat assessment, coordinated with the FBI and DHS, on domestic violent extremism. This assessment will evaluate analyses from across the government and nongovernmental organizations.
  2. Empowering the National Security Council (NSC) with the correct tools to have the capability to focus on countering DVE threats.
  3. Coordinating relevant parts of the federal government to enhance and accelerate efforts to address the DVE threat. This approach will focus on addressing evolving threats, radicalization, the role of social media, opportunities to improve information sharing, operational responses, and more.

Why was DVE ignored for so many years?

There are many reasons. The first is the mainstream assumption that post-9/11, America’s most serious security threats are from foreign actors. The second reason is that our government’s tools to battle terrorism were crafted to combat foreign terrorism, and no precedent has been set for those laws to be enforced on domestic homegrown terrorism. The third is that past administrations have failed to address the threat of white supremacy in the United States, and this was only exacerbated by President Trump’s lone term in office, through his rhetoric that empowered many domestic violent extremists.

What can be done by our government to adequately combat DVE in the United States?

The Biden Administration’s three-fold approach is a great start, however the approach is unlikely to be instant, or even radical. The new Justice Department and NSC will require time to reorient toward countering domestic terrorism, which will be after they have been fully briefed with the latest intelligence and the findings of the Biden -commissioned ODNI comprehensive threat assessment. Experts don’t have estimates on this timeline.

For the Biden Administration to take a more radical approach to combatting DVE, they need to move past separating the tools available to the law enforcement and intelligence community for combatting foreign and domestic terrorism. Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was created. Although it was created to combat foreign and domestic threats to the nation, the tools and laws that it was equipped with have been primarily used to combat foreign threats, and not designed for domestic attacks. As a testimony to the above, there is no indication anywhere that the DHS gave any warnings to any law enforcement or government agency prior to the Capitol Hill Attack on January 6th. A former senior national security officer familiar with the Biden Administration’s plan agrees with these sentiments. It was recently reported that they stated, “terrorism is terrorism. Separating international from domestic terrorism, especially within the context of the NSC, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The radicalization process looks a lot the same.”

However, not all experts agree that foreign and domestic terrorism should be tackled with the same laws. Some experts are suggesting that Congress create additional domestic terrorism-specific charges that can be used to prosecute homegrown terrorists, since the current offenses only apply to limited DVE actions. Former section chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorism operations Greg Ehrie recently stated that there’s “no violation called domestic terrorism. We’re very concerned if foreign nationals come here and commit terror, but we’re not concerned if it happens by an American citizen.”

This will not be an impactful way to move forward with combatting DVE. We at MPAC, alongside 136 civil and human rights groups recently issued a stark warning against creating a domestic terrorism charge, for we believe that it could become a vessel used to radically profile and target marginalized communities. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies already have at their disposal dozens of federal charges for terrorism, hate crimes, and organized crimes that can all be applied to domestic terrorism; however, we believe that their application comes down to the Biden Administration giving precedence for these charges to be utilized by the law enforcement and intelligence community for combatting DVE.

There is also a third group of experts that believe combatting DVE can be achieved by utilizing our current foreign terrorism laws and designating white supremacy as a transnational movement, as we investigated in our white paper entitled ‘The White Supremacist Threat to America: Policy responses to white supremacist terrorism and the danger it poses to a nation of immigrants’. Senior fellow at Soufan Center and former Director of Counterterrorism Finance for the State Department, Jason Blazakis, recently stated, designating radical right-wing transnational extremist groups as foreign terrorist organizations will allow law enforcement and the intelligence sector to collect information about these groups, and prosecute them with the current available chargeable crimes. Highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), also agrees with this sentiment. He recently told a reporter that in his professional capacity he wants to examine domestic terrorism and “links to extremist right wing groups in other countries.” He goes on stating that “some of the biggest right-wing social media activity” originates out of Germany, and that “this is not an American-only phenomenon, and how these groups are linked, how they share tactics, how they utilize social media, is a huge concern.”

The State Department under the Trump Administration created a precedent for the above by designating for the first time the white supremacist group, Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a terrorist organization. However, RIM was designated as a “specially designated global terrorist,” a more limited designation than a “foreign terrorist organization” designation that doesn’t allow for the prosecution of current and former American members of the group. Opponents to designating white supremacist terrorism as a transnational movement argue that the NSC’s counterterrorism officials would avoid enforcing those laws, since they wouldn’t want to encroach on law enforcement’s turf.

As the nation waits on the Biden Administration to reveal more about what they believe is the most effective method to combat domestic violent extremism in the United States, we will continue to closely monitor updates. We at the Muslim Public Affairs Council have made this issue a priority, and will continue engaging the Biden Administration and Congress, alongside our allies and coalitions. Regardless of what path the Biden Administration adopts to combat domestic violent extremism, we will work to ensure that his policies are effective for their intended objectives, and not written so vaguely that they may be utilized in the future to radically profile and target marginalized communities.

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