“In our modern age, the continuation of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation,” acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a speech Friday in Washington, saying the trend “has no place in the United States of America, and it never will.”
The report’s framework builds on a 2018 White House national counterterrorism strategy, describing the evolving threat and fleshing out DHS’s role in preventing terrorism and “targeted violence” — attacks that lack a clear political or ideological motivation.
What’s changed since 9/11 is the diversity of terrorist threats — from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to ethnically motivated and anti-authority violent extremism, dangers on the digital landscape, and more sophisticated and easily available weapons such as drones.
The strategy document places the growing threat of white supremacy in a transnational context. It notes that, similar to how the Islamic State inspired and connected with potential recruits online, violent white supremacists link with like-minded individuals on the Internet. Conspiracy theories about the “ethnic replacement” of whites as the majority ethnicity in Western countries are prominent on social media platforms such as Gab, 8chan and EndChan, it said.
“DHS’s new strategy represents a notable step forward in reflecting evolving threats of violence to Americans,” said Joshua Geltzer, a White House senior counterterrorism director under President Barack Obama.
“The clear recognition of today’s white-supremacist threat in an official U.S. government strategy is significant,” Geltzer said, noting recent mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso that were allegedly fueled by anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment. “Addressing the threat demands candidly characterizing it — and this document is an important step in doing so.”
The strategy also seeks to deal with mass attacks that are not driven by any apparent ideology, such as the October 2017 shooting rampage in Las Vegas that killed 58 people. A Secret Service study last year that reviewed mass attacks found most attackers used firearms, the strategy said.
A former top counterterrorism adviser to President Trump, Christopher Costa, praised the department for “embracing this notion of targeted violence — and acknowledging the problems with firearms and weapons.” Such targeted violence “does not fall under the rubric of domestic terrorism,” he said, so “DHS is trying to fill a gap with the term and say, ‘Now we have to ensure we address that.’ ”
In terms of prevention, the strategy advocates a “whole-of-society” approach with federal, state and local agencies working together to boost societal resiliency and, it is hoped, reduce the number of individuals likely to radicalize. The aim is to intervene with potential extremists before they can commit violent acts, it said.
McAleenan first joined DHS as the head of Custom and Border Protection’s counterterrorism office shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “Then, as now,” he said in his speech, “our first priority is to defend the country against terrorism.”
He became acting secretary in April and in his first week asked for a review of DHS’s actions to counter domestic terrorism. In his third week, a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., killing one and injuring three others. And in the middle of efforts to develop a strategic framework to incorporate lessons learned from countering foreign terrorist organizations, gunmen struck again — in one weekend killing more than 30 people in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio.
In El Paso, “the attacker sought to kill Hispanics, and his online manifesto was rife with references to multiple hate-based ideologies,” McAleenan said, speaking at an event co-hosted by the Brookings Institution and Heritage Foundation. The tragedies “reinforced our confidence in the focus of the strategy,” he said.
The department will follow up with a public action plan, explaining in greater detail how it plans to accomplish its goals. For instance, it will support countermessaging efforts by technology companies and civic partners to steer people away from violent messages online.
“This strategic framework is our formal recognition of the emerging threat of targeted violence in the United States,” McAleenan said. “At the same time, this framework is a vision — a vision for how our nation will respond to the evolving threats we face.”