The Justice Department is seeking to draw more attention and resources to what it sees as a growing threat posed by domestic extremists, with officials noting that more Americans have been killed in such attacks than by international terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001.
It is creating a new position to coordinate investigations, identify trends and analyze legal gaps to be able to better combat the domestic threat while keeping the pedal on international terrorism probes.
“As someone whose job it is to prevent terrorism, I take them equally seriously,” Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin said in an interview Thursday. “It’s developing the capacity to do those both at once.”
Attacks by white supremacists and people motivated by racial and religious hatred and anti-government views have killed 48 people, while attacks by individuals linked to or inspired by foreign terrorist groups have claimed 26 lives, according to the think tank New America.
To try to stem the tide of such violence, Carlin said that he hopes to be able to announce soon the hiring of a new domestic terrorism counsel. The move, he said, reflects recognition of the challenge in investigating and prosecuting domestic cases.
Many incidents involve lone offenders who do not require a terrorist network, and increasingly the perpetrators are disaffected individuals who communicate their hatred over the Internet and through social media, Carlin said.
“There’s concern that there’s this rise in [domestic terrorism] events and we need to have a focus on it,” he said.
While prosecutors on international terrorism cases often charge defendants under a statute making it a crime to provide material support to a foreign terrorist group, no such law exists for domestic incidents. Domestic cases, depending on the circumstances, can be brought under a variety of other statutes and by other divisions.
“If it’s hate-crime-motivated, it could be civil rights,” he said. “Eco-terrorists may be handled by the environmental division.” The Interior Department may be involved if it’s a sovereign citizen group, he said.
Though there is no single ideology that governs hate and extremism, Carlin said, domestic terrorism is an act of violence with a political aim — to intimidate a civilian population.
He said he was struck by the difference in attention to two different acts of terrorism in 2011. One was the arrest of Khalid Ali-M Aldawsari, a Saudi citizen and Texas resident, who was accused of plotting to build a bomb and researching potential U.S. targets, including former president George W. Bush.
Around the same time, a man with ties to a neo-Nazi group planted a pipe bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Washington state, and his intent was to kill and maim, Carlin said. A parade worker spotted the bomb, and law enforcement officials defused it. Kevin William Harpham was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
But, said Carlin, who was senior counsel to then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, “the Aldawsari case got a lot more public attention.” It was discussed at National Security Council meetings. And prosecutors had a variety of legal tools they could use.
Although the Harpham case had Mueller’s “full attention” and “hundreds of FBI agents” and local law enforcement officers were on the case, “it didn’t get as much public attention. And you didn’t have the same tools available to you.”
The threat posed by groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist cells; by Americans who travel overseas to fight with terrorist groups and then seek to return home and commit violence; and by Americans who are inspired by these groups to commit attacks inside the United States is “staggeringly broad,” Carlin said at a forum on domestic terrorism Wednesday at George Washington University.
Carlin said the Justice Department’s National Security Division remains “very focused” on the international terrorism threat. The goal is to confront both types of terrorism, he said. When he talks to the families of people who have been killed in terrorist attacks, he said, “they don’t care how we categorize it. What they want to know is that we’re trying to prevent another family from having lost a loved one.”