The Double Standards of U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts

By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Policy Analyst

Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi/The New York Times

For the last few decades, despite overwhelming evidence identifying white supremacy as the greatest domestic threat, government agencies and law enforcement have disproportionately targeted, surveilled, and harassed American Muslim, Black, and Brown communities under the flag of counterterrorism efforts. White supremacists, along with most white perpetrators who commit violent hate crimes, continue to avoid the over 50 statutory ‘Federal Terrorism Charges’ and statutes that pose penalties under acts of terrorism. This double standard arises from the disparate application of the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation to Muslim terrorist groups, allowing for law enforcement to prosecute American Muslims through material support statutes and pursue federal punishment for crimes of terrorism.

In a recently issued report, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) warned of an elevated risk posed by domestic violent extremists (DVEs) and identified that extremists “who promote the superiority of the white race are the DVE actors with the most persistent and concerning transnational connections because individuals with similar ideological beliefs exist outside of the United States and these [racially-motivated violent extremists] RMVEs frequently communicate with and seek to influence each other.” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas echoed the same concern in a House Homeland Security Committee hearing, calling domestic extremism “the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to the homeland today.” Yet, our government’s response to and prosecution of white supremacist violence have paled in comparison to its efforts to counter “jihadist” terrorism domestically.

Though in 2019, the Bureau elevated the threat posed by RMVEs to be on par with that posed by foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) like ISIS, the FBI claims that it lacks a singular anti-terrorism law whereby domestic terrorism would mount to a federal crime. In the absence of such a law, white supremacists can escape harsher punishments like federal mandatory minimum sentencing by getting prosecuted through state laws. Many lawmakers and federal agents alike are responding to this by calling for a domestic terrorism (DT) statute. In this current environment, because of the unequal application of terrorism charges and the history of law enforcement bodies targeting Muslims and communities of color, a hastily introduced DT statute will only harm American Muslim communities and other minority groups.

The FBI has thus far used the ideology of “jihad” to reason that the threat of domestic terrorism posed by Muslims is stronger and greater than that posed by white supremacists. In fact, data suggests that the resources the FBI directs toward countering white supremacist terrorism is almost inversely proportional to the reality of the terror threat. At the core of these double standards is how law enforcement applies the FTO (foreign terrorist organization) designation to prosecute American Muslims suspected of terrorism instead of trying them for domestic terrorism.

The 2014 HBO documentary, The Newburgh Sting, exposes the FBI’s sting operation on four Black Muslim men, whereby the Bureau entrapped those men in the 2009 Bronx terrorism plot. Through the FBI’s own secret recordings, the film explores how its informant, Shahed Hussain, targets, befriends, and exploits James Cromitie’s poverty and identity as a Black American Muslim. The FBI goes so far as to train and equip Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen with fake weapons in its efforts to indict them as terrorists. Ultimately, the jury found the four guilty on all counts, with each receiving a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. The presiding trial judge, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, however, expressed, “the government did not act to infiltrate and foil some nefarious plot; there was no plot to foil.” The FBI’s use of an informant to surveil, radicalize, and entrap Cromitie and his peers paints a vivid picture of the double standards practiced in implicating and charging domestic terrorists. Even though three of the four are American citizens, the FBI bypassed civil rights and liberties that would otherwise be of concern when implicating citizens. The FBI had surveillance and investigative powers to manufacture a terror plot and connect these men to an actual foreign terrorist organization (FTO), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), only because it was able to link them to Islam. In reality, the accused had no connections to JEM whatsoever. The Newburgh Four are Black, Muslim, and poor. That made them easy targets for the FBI.

In the 2011 Tarek Mehanna case, the double standards in prosecution between FTOs and domestic terrorist organizations (DTOs) is clear. Mehanna was convicted using a terrorism charge, and prosecutors equated “thinking about jihad” to “carrying out jihad,” which dangerously expands acts of terror to include thought crimes in prosecuting acts of international terrorism. Additionally, since the majority of FTOs listed under the international terrorism statute are “Islamist” organizations, a disproportionate number of American Muslims are prosecuted under this statute and stripped of their First Amendment rights. White supremacists, on the other hand, are guaranteed those same rights as citizens protected by the U.S. Constitution, and they are never prosecuted for thought crimes.

The infamous Dylann Roof case exemplifies the biases in our law enforcement and justice system. Roof, who had a white supremacy manifesto and was also inspired by terrorist groups and terrorist attacks in the past, did not even get charged with terrorism. FBI Director Comey claimed that he could not connect the Charleston massacre to a case for terrorism, and he did not conduct a preliminary investigation of the case as a potential act of terrorism, as he did for the San Bernardino attack from the same year, committed by the Muslim couple Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

How can the same FBI director view similar cases that occurred in the same year so differently? This case comparison clearly demonstrates discriminatory practices in labeling and charging domestic terrorism cases differently depending on the identity of the perpetrator(s). The perpetrators in BOTH attacks were homegrown, domestic terrorists with no direct ties to specific terrorist organizations. While one was committed by a white supremacist domestic terrorist, the other was committed by Islamic extremist domestic terrorists. In the former, Comey claimed that he could not pin a terrorism label or charge on the incident; in the latter, he found multiple avenues for taking such measures. The San Bernardino perpetrators were immediately charged with terrorism and terrorism-related offenses, while the Charleston perpetrator was only charged with hate crimes without getting associated with the term “terrorism” by media outlets, the government, and the public.

Ultimately, as members of a community that is acutely and disproportionately impacted by double standards in the application of counterterrorism laws, we recommend that the federal government establish a singular definition for terrorism and designate all violent extremist groups under that definition, regardless of race, color, or creed. Congress should therefore institute equal investigative and indictment procedures and punishment for all terrorists. Law enforcement agencies should use existing tools for preventing acts of terrorism to mitigate white supremacist violence. If doing so raises civil rights and liberties concerns, then the FBI and other relevant law enforcement bodies need to revisit their practices and amend their counterterrorism procedures to ensure the Bill of Rights is upheld for ALL Americans.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council improves public understanding and policies that impact American Muslims by engaging our government, media and communities.

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