The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s a real possibility that our next 9/11 could arrive from within

Rescue workers stand in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after an explosion there on April 19, 1995. (David Longstreath/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and was director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office in the Bureau of Counterterrorism from 2008 to 2018.

For many Americans, the first searing image of terrorism was not of jets plunging into Manhattan skyscrapers or a smoldering Pentagon but of a heroic firefighter cradling a soot-covered, lifeless infant in Oklahoma City.

Two White men — both Americans — had blown up a federal office building.

Domestic terrorism — fueled by government-hating extremists — awakened the nation in April 1995. And as the United States prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we must confront the real possibility that our next 9/11 could arrive from within. We must resist the urge to see the horrific suicide attacks in Afghanistan in August — and the apparent reemergence of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — as a reason to return to dated strategies and tactics.

As someone who has worked on national security issues in the U.S. government for more than a decade, I’ve concluded that the U.S. “war on terror” launched in the wake of 9/11 has left us unprepared for the domestic threat that grows by the day. Complicating matters further is that in today’s politically charged environment, the Biden administration will find it difficult to pivot toward the domestic threat. But we must move beyond the narrow obsession with international terror and mitigate the extremist threat at home. Here are five ways to do so:

Fund and expand FBI capabilities: Until recently, the vast majority of FBI resources were devoted to tracking individuals tied to groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. While this is changing, the FBI’s resources are not yet aligned to the rising tide of domestic right-wing extremism. In 2019 congressional testimony, Michael McGarrity, then assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said 20 percent of the bureau’s counterterrorism agents worked on domestic terrorism, with the rest devoted to international terrorism — even though, he noted, domestic terrorists carried out more attacks and killed more Americans than international terrorists. More agents devoted to investigating domestic extremists would be an important first step in understanding, and combating, the threat before us.

Update the domestic terrorism statute: Not one Jan. 6 insurrectionist has been charged with terrorism, and even white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murder of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 didn’t merit the charge in the view of prosecutors. Even the laws enacted after the Oklahoma City bombing have been used to target international terrorism, but not neo-Nazi groups or other domestic threats. A stronger terrorism statute would in many cases pave the way for longer prison sentences and provide clearer pathways to prosecution of accomplices — without violating constitutional concerns.

Treat the far-right challenge as a transnational issue. The U.S. intelligence community should adjust its collection priorities to better measure the overseas far-right threat posed by neo-Nazis and like-minded groups. After the 9/11 attacks, our intelligence agencies focused on groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates. We must continue to do so, but also augment U.S. foreign intelligence capabilities against international neo-Nazis and other extremist groups that communicate with, share propaganda with and sometimes financially support far-right groups here at home.

Take the fight to social platforms: From fundraising to operational planning to propaganda, social media sites are the unseen back offices of modern terrorism. Social media companies are big on self-policing, implementing their own usage policies and removing content that violates their standards, but their efforts are no match to the sophisticated and nimble work of bad actors. The U.S. government could sanction overseas far-right groups — essentially name them as terrorist entities — as an impetus for domestic social media platforms to shut down these groups’ access. This approach would aim to keep international terror groups from metastasizing in the United States.

Enlist nongovernment help. Finally, the U.S. government needs to encourage and fund private-sector and nonprofit programs that can help stunt extremism, because federal authorities are not viewed as honest brokers in this fight. We must enlist nongovernment groups that have experience at uncoupling individuals from extremism and that work side by side with local leaders to identify at-risk populations and individuals. This effort should be part of the U.S. long game, and one devised to ensure that our liberties, human rights and privacy are not trampled upon in the name of fighting domestic terrorism. An aggressive and intrusive use of federal authority is a real threat, too.

America’s radical right extremists and Afghanistan’s Taliban might seem like polar opposites, but their approach to financing, recruiting, propagandizing and fighting are surprisingly similar. The connective tissue is a desire to crush the system, whether the U.S. government or the general world order. By and large, America’s domestic threats have had free rein. But even as we mourn the loss of life last month in Afghanistan, the most insidious threats are often the ones closest to home.