“The right to practice religion free of interference or fear is one of our nation’s most fundamental and indelible rights,” Wolf wrote in his memo. “As such, the targeting of houses of worship by violent extremists of any ideology is particularly abhorrent and must be prevented.”
Wolf’s memo makes repeated reference to the 62-page report prepared by a DHS advisory panel and submitted to him on Dec. 17, days before the attacks in Texas and New York. The report recommends creation of a new leadership position at DHS to oversee faith-based programs, more consistency in the training provided to religious organizations and better coordination between state and local law enforcement.
Findings by the Homeland Security Advisory Council describe a pattern of domestic extremism and hate crimes over the past decade — shootings, arson attacks and bombings targeting churches, synagogues, a Sikh temple and mosques across several states — that has put Americans’ freedom “under significant stress.”
“If people start to change the way they behave, pray or even what they wear when they want to go to a house of worship of their choice, then we’re in a very dangerous time in America,” said Paul Goldenberg, a longtime security expert who co-chaired the advisory council alongside John R. Allen, a retired Marine general with expertise in the challenges associated with confronting international terrorism.
Wolf’s predecessor as acting homeland security secretary, Kevin McAleenan, requested the study last year. The advisory council’s members met with experts, law enforcement personnel, community and government leaders, and visited several places of worship that have experienced violent attacks.
Their report emphasizes that this is not the first time DHS leaders have been offered guidance for preventing violence against religious communities. The advisory council did so in 2012 and 2014 — and yet there was no evidence, the report says, that the agency acted upon actions urged in the past. And many of those recommendations, it notes, remain relevant and urgent.
“This report should be converted into an implementation plan at the earliest possible moment,” it says.
Homeland Security is a big agency dealing with a host of serious threats, said Goldenberg, a senior fellow at Rutgers University’s Miller Center who studies risks to places of worship across Europe. He noted that, as administrations change, people shuffle in and out of positions. That’s why one of the group’s top recommendations, he said, remains the establishment of a leadership position to oversee the department’s efforts to protect religious organizations.
“We were looking for someone permanent to be assigned at senior level within the department that will own this portfolio going forward because this isn’t going away anytime soon,” he said.
DHS has held emergency-response training events for religious leaders in the wake of some attacks. DHS hosted such an exercise for Jewish leaders in April, following the deadly mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In 2018, DHS also stood up the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, which made protecting religious institutions one of its core focuses.
But the advisory council report warns that some federal policies are hindering law enforcement agencies’ ability to address threats to faith-based organizations. Even as attacks on places of worship spiked in the last three years, the group found training, resources and coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement “inconsistent” and “unlevel.”
Brian Harrell, an assistant director within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said the report proved timely in the wake of last month’s violence in New York and Texas, and pledged to further engage religious communities and to develop practices to keep places of worship safe.
“We must consider threats highlighted in this report and be ready to respond in a quick, efficient and effective manner,” he said.
Training is crucial, Goldenberg said, since those who encounter such attacks are the people praying in pews or celebrating religious holidays. He and Harrell acknowledged the challenges that come with protecting places meant to be open and welcoming.
“It’s talking about somebody standing out in front of a mosque, synagogue or church with a trench coat on in the middle of the summer,” Goldenberg said. “It’s recognizing behaviors — suspicious behaviors. People need to understand that if they see something suspicious, they need to call the police.”
The federal government should provide tools to help law enforcement agents spot troublesome threats online, he added, citing, for example, warnings that have appeared on the anonymous message board 8chan ahead of past attacks.
The report also recommends Congress increase security grant money for faith-based organizations. The program overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency is a vital source of funding for religious groups looking to bolster security, the report states. But the group found that it is insufficiently funded. The $60 million available in 2019 for nonprofits covered requests for only about one-third of the 2,037 applications received.
“Churches, mosques, temples, synagogues have been attacked by heavily armed extremists executing military style tactics, bent on killing, attacking, terrorizing people of faith while praying within safe sanctuaries,” Goldenberg recently told lawmakers.
“The question of whether the faith-based community is targeted by hatred and terror is not up for debate.”