What constitutes domestic terrorism? How serious are the threats posed by domestic extremists to the lives and safety of Americans?
Federal authorities can’t definitively answer either question, according to a study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
The troubling lack of clarity about domestic terrorism has complicated investigations into incidents like the August 12 rally involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, the study notes, citing as an example the Department of Justice inquiry into the incident involving a man who drove his car into a group of protesters, killing one person and wounding 19 others, as a possible “hate crime,” —although Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since declared terrorism investigators are now also involved.
The CRS study, written by Jerome P. Bjelopera, who is described as a “specialist in organized crime and terrorism,” traces the problem to a shift in federal counterterrorism efforts to foreign-sourced terrorists since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.
The shift left Justice officials and the FBI with insufficient tools to monitor and intervene in “non-Jihadi” threats posed by American extremists, according to the study, which was released last month.
That wasn’t the case before 9/11, wrote Bjelopera, noting that the FBI as late as 1999 was able to report that the “vast majority” of deadly terror incidents in the U.S. in the previous 30 years were “perpetrated by domestic extremists.”
But the shift in focus now means “the federal government lacks a process for publicly designating domestic terrorist organizations,” said the study, adding that as a result, it is “especially difficult to determine the scope of this diverse threat.”
The CRS report said policymakers and investigators at all levels would benefit from having a federally compiled list of organizations that can be defined as domestic terror threats, and a federal database of domestic terror incidents.
“The lack of such an accounting makes it difficult for policymakers to exercise oversight by comparing the levels of domestic terrorist activity against items such as homegrown violent jihadist activity and other threats to the homeland,” the study said.
“A regular public accounting could also help policymakers assess the effectiveness of the government’s response to the domestic terrorist threat.”
The 62-page study provided an overview of the broad range of terrorist activities and groups operating in the U.S., including white supremacists, neo-nazis, the Sovereign Citizen movement, eco-terrorists, black separatists and animal liberationists—derived from unclassified sources and advocacy groups.
It cited for example statistics published by the New America Foundation last month suggesting that domestic terrorists have killed 75 people in the U.S. since 9/11—compared to a death toll of 95 at the hands of jihadi terrorists. According to an unclassified FBI intelligence bulletin, 53 acts of violence were committed by “white supremacist extremists” between 2007 and 2009.
But the lack of a comprehensive government database, along with the fact that many domestic terrorists act on their own and use the internet as their principal form of communication, make it difficult for authorities at state, municipal and local levels to develop effective approaches to track and monitor threats.
One particular challenge noted in the study was the activity of so-called “Lone Wolves” who provide few footprints for law enforcement to detect ahead of their actions. The study quoted one FBI official as saying the agency doesn’t have the “capability to know when a person gets up in middle America and decides, ‘I’m taking my protest poster to Washington or I’m taking my gun.’”
The lack of clear guidelines for designating domestic terror groups may be the result of “First Amendment concerns” about discouraging free speech and expression, the study conceded—while pointing out that this was in “stark contrast” to international counterterrorism tradecraft followed by the U.S. government, which maintains a detailed list of emerging Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).
The lack of a consistent process for designating domestic terrorist groups and identifying potentially violent extremist individuals “makes it harder for the federal government to discredit such groups and simultaneously strengthen public understanding of the domestic terrorist threat,” the study argued.
Such a designation might also enable authorities to press charges against those who provide “material support” for domestic terrorists, similar to current practices against foreign-sourced groups.
The CRS study is available here.