Federal Prosecutions for Domestic Terrorism Hit Record High Last Year

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Photo by Patrick Feller via Flickr

Federal prosecutions for domestic terrorism climbed to a record high in 2020, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Some 183 domestic terrorism prosecutions were filed by U.S. attorneys last year, the highest number since the government began tracking them 25 years ago―capping a sharp rise since 2017 that coincided with the administration of President Donald Trump.

The number of prosecutions grew from 69 in fiscal year 2017 to 90 in 2019, and then more than doubled in 2020―“greatly outnumbering the 21 cases on international terrorism,” TRAC said.

More than 40 percent of last year’s cases (78) originated in Oregon’s federal court, sparked by violent protests last summer in the city of Portland over the police killing of George Floyd.

The figures underline the tough law-and-order approach adapted by the Trump administration against popular protest, which intensified in the runup to the fall election campaign.

Last year, former Attorney General William Barr encouraged the country’s 93 U.S. attorneys to take a tough line against demonstrators protesting police violence and racism. He raised the stakes in September, telling  federal prosecutors they should consider charging “rioters” and others who had committed violent crimes at protests with sedition.

The TRAC analysis raises questions whether a similar surge in domestic terrorism cases will occur in the wake of last week’s violent assault on Congress, which has been called an “insurrection” by Democrats preparing a second impeachment case against the president.

The storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, a number of whom openly identified with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, has so far produced nearly 120 arrests, but it is unclear how many may be prosecuted as terrorist acts.

Under federal law, domestic terror charges may be brought for assaulting or impeding federal employees, threats against the president, “knowingly” entering or remaining in restricted buildings or grounds, importation and storage of explosives, fomenting civil disorder, and making threatening communications.

The figures, based on government records analyzed by TRAC, show the last significant peak in domestic terrorism cases occurred in 2002, in the year following the 9-11 attacks, with over 160 prosecutions.

In the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration, some 100 domestic terror prosecutions were filed.

The FBI has warned that domestic terrorists are now the greatest threat to U.S. security, and terrorism experts are predicting a surge in right-wing extremist violence.

In Portland, assaults on police and firefighters, looting, and alleged destruction of federal property elicited a sharp response from federal authorities, although eyewitness said the violence was limited to a small geographical area and a relatively small number of protesters.

A statement issued at the time by U.S. Attorney Billy Williams blamed local and out-of-state “agitators” for “acts of violence towards law enforcement and first responders” and declared “this violent and senseless criminal conduct does nothing to promote meaningful or positive change.”

The turmoil in Portland was used during the election campaign to tarnish the largely peaceful demonstrations of tens of thousands of people across the country calling for an end to the use of excessive force by police.

TRAC noted that the second highest number of domestic terrorism prosecutions during 2020 was recorded in the District of Columbia (16), followed by the Northern District of Ohio (six) and Utah (five).

The full report and tables can be downloaded here.

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