For many terrorism analysts, the strategy was long overdue. Violent far-right extremists have posed the deadliest and most active domestic threat for more than 15 years, although federal resources remained heavily focused on countering foreign terrorism.
The 32-page strategy seeks to coordinate efforts across the government in law enforcement and prevention, some of which were already underway. It calls for new spending at the Justice Department and FBI to hire analysts, investigators and prosecutors; greater information-sharing between the federal government and state and local partners as well as with tech companies; and addressing the factors contributing to the problem, such as systemic racism.
“We cannot ignore this threat or wish it away,” President Biden said in the introduction.
The plan gives the White House imprimatur to a shift in counterterrorism priorities that began in recent years in response to a rise in deadly hate-fueled attacks and picked up momentum after the stunning Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol. Last week, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told Congress that the bureau had made “close to 500 arrests” in connection with the Capitol attack. Wray has said that the total number of domestic terrorism investigations increased to 2,000 from 1,400 at the end of last year.
The Trump administration was reluctant to confront domestic extremism, or did so by touting a false equivalency between the extreme right and Black Lives Matter, antifa and other movements on the left. The Trump-era counterterrorism strategy did mention domestic extremism, and a Homeland Security report from that time called violent white supremacy “one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism.”
After “the myopia” of the past decade or so in which the rising domestic threat was ignored, just naming domestic terrorism as a top priority is “groundbreaking,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University.
Although the document zooms in on anti-government and white supremacist extremists — the main drivers of domestic terrorism attacks — officials emphasized that the strategy is “agnostic as to political ideology.”
Conservative media outlets have portrayed the crackdown on domestic terrorism as the selective targeting of “patriots” while violent actors aligned with causes on the left get a pass.
“We are focused on violence, not on ideology,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a live-streamed address from the Justice Department on Tuesday. “In America, espousing a hateful ideology is not unlawful. We do not investigate individuals for their First Amendment-protected activities.”
Garland said the number of domestic terrorism cases this year “increased significantly” and he predicted a continuation of violence, singling out the risks from white supremacists and self-styled militias. He said the Justice Department is seeking more than $100 million in new spending to address the threat by hiring more prosecutors and expanding training, among other measures.
The idea, Garland said, is a coordinated effort across government agencies. He said the State Department, along with the Treasury Department, would examine transnational issues and determine whether they have the authority to designate some international violent groups as terrorist organizations. At the Department of Homeland Security, officials will expand intelligence sharing and increase grant funding for local partners working on prevention, with a special emphasis on the technology, which Garland said “has amplified and enabled transnational elements of the threat.”
“In earlier days, foreign terrorist groups had to board airplanes to conduct attacks on America. Now, they take advantage of technology to inspire others already located in the U.S. to violence,” Garland said. “The same is true for domestic violent extremists who increasingly take common cause and inspiration from events and actions around the world, indicating an important international dimension to this problem.”
Informing the strategy is a March assessment by the intelligence community that domestic violent extremism poses an “elevated threat” to the United States. That extremism was fueled by bias against minority communities and perceived government overreach, it said. The assessment said that lone offenders or small, self-organized cells — rather than organizations — were most likely to carry out attacks.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is overseeing a military-wide campaign to address the “insider threat” of extremism in the ranks, issued a statement calling the strategy “a milestone in our country’s efforts to address a serious and growing security threat.”
The strategy codifies moves in the past five months that amount to “a sea change in counterterrorism,” Carly Gordenstein and Seamus Hughes, researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, wrote in an analysis.
“It is clear that structural changes are underway that aim to root out extremism in and out of government, attempt to concentrate efforts more efficiently, and invest in the issue of domestic extremism at a rate that is unprecedented in the United States,” Gordenstein and Hughes wrote.
Miller-Idriss said the steps outlined in the strategy sound encouraging, especially an effort to prevent radicalization by addressing broader societal problems and by encouraging media literacy.
“This brings us in line with what other countries are doing overseas: Understanding you can’t tackle domestic extremism by only paying attention to the fringe,” she said. “You also have to pay attention to what’s happening in the mainstream.”
Still, she said, implementation will be crucial. Attempts at a national dialogue about white supremacy, for example, will immediately bump into culture war barriers such as the current uproar among conservatives over teaching about systemic racism. Miller-Idriss said countries including Germany, New Zealand and Norway have adopted approaches that extend beyond the national security apparatus to include government agencies dealing with culture, education, health and sports.
“Here, even prevention is housed within DHS,” she said. “If we just frame the whole thing as a security and law enforcement problem, with security and law enforcement experts at the helm, we’re just going to get that outcome.”
Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official, said the prevention part is also tricky because of opposition to “investigating people based on ideology or of casting a net too broadly,” as U.S. Muslims experienced in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Already, some of the Jan. 6 rioters are casting themselves as political prisoners being unfairly prosecuted for their beliefs.
McCord, who now heads the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center, said that prevention also involves tactics such as undercover stings, which some civil liberties groups have deemed entrapment.
“You don’t want to be prosecuting the El Paso terrorist after he kills 23 people. You want to have prevented it,” McCord said. “That’s the challenge. Because anytime you’re engaging in preventive law enforcement, that comes with criticisms.”