Thirteen years ago, the office of the director of national intelligence made an authoritative written judgment of the state of national security in the United States. Most notably, it predicted that three years after its assessment, non-Muslim terrorist groups would launch attacks in the United States soil, but on a small scale. True to this prediction, today, the United States department of homeland security (DHS), a cabinet-level agency tasked with public safety, continues to face challenges of combating violent extremism in the country. While domestic terrorism has been an issue for years, it remains an emerging discourse on homeland security due to the current underlying political, technological, economic, and social factors that appear to constrain the agency’s effort to enhance national preparedness in combating the security threat; hence, the issue can be solved by adhering to the 2018 U.S. National strategy for counter-terrorism.
Overall, this paper addresses domestic terrorism as an emerging discourse on homeland security. The research also explores some of the national events that solidify the existence of the issue and political, social, economic, and technological factors that constrain DHS’s preparedness to combat the problem. Finally, the paper analyzes the way the 2018 U.S. National strategy for counter-terrorism may be used to counter the issue of domestic terrorism in the country.
After the 9/11 attack, the DHS was formed to enhance United States preparedness to monitor and combat foreign threats from well-organized terrorist Salafi-jihadist groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. To some extent, the department has, for years, managed to significantly disrupt the activities of these terrorist groups by launching attacks against the central leaders of the Salafi-jihadist groups. Besides, international cooperation with other stakeholders has been used as an arsenal to prevent the radicalization of people from joining the groups. Fundamentally, the DHS’s primary area of focus has been public security in terms of protecting the country’s borders from international terrorist attacks.
With the DHS’s primary focus is on countering threats from Islamic terrorist groups, policymakers have either lost visual or continuously ignored the issue of domestic terrorism in the country. According to the United States law, domestic terrorism entails activities that:
“involve acts dangerous to human life; which are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or, of any state; appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States” (Stigall, Miller & Donatucci, 2020, p. 7)
In other words, domestic terrorism involves “single-issue” groups comprising of U.S. citizens, which cause violence and destruction of human life within the country. Such groups are not directed by Foreign Terrorists Organizations (FTOs); instead, they target individuals based on factors such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity (McAleenan, 2019). Domestic terrorism has proven to be an emerging challenge to DHS, especially given the fact that the majority of the groups do not have central leadership, making it difficult to disrupt their operations.
From the analysis of reports issued by the DHS and other government data, it is evident that domestic terrorism is gradually becoming more lethal than assessed by the office of the director of national intelligence- more devastating than the FTOs attacks. According to McAleenan, the former U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, violent extremist ideologies in the United States, such as those motivated by racially-and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, represent a significant threat to the Homeland security (2019). A report by the New York Times also reveals that since the 9/11 attack, far-right extremist attacks in the United States have been three times that of Islamic extremists (Benner, 2019). These government statistics and remarks by personnel in the DHS prove that indeed today, domestic terrorism is an issue of concern in the federal security agency than was the case a few years ago.
One of the most significant forces driving domestic terrorism in the United States today is White Supremacist. As indicated by McAleenan (2019), the white supremacist violent extremists’ outlook is characterized by hatred for immigrants and ethnic minorities, coupled with anti-Semitism views. Such a force of domestic terrorism has caught the attention of the DHS for the past few years, necessitating the implementation of national strategies to counter the issue.
Domestic terrorism, especially white supremacists, is evident from multiple events that have occurred and continue to take place in the United States since the 9/11 attack. One such occasion is the April 27, 2019 attack on a synagogue in Poway, California. Based on newspaper reports, a man entered the temple yelling anti-Semitic slurs and opened fire with an A.R 15-style gun, leaving one dead and several others injured (Medina, Mele & Murphy, 2019). In the same context, an incident at Walmart in El Paso left several dead after a gunman entered the supermarket and opened fire to the shoppers. According to the federal officials, the suspect had written an anti-immigrant manifesto, qualifying the case as a form of domestic terrorism (Romero & Bogel-Burroughs, 2019). These scenarios exemplify the high rate in which domestic terrorism is becoming an issue of concern to public security.
Challenges to the Preparedness of DHS in Combating Domestic Terrorism
Despite prioritizing domestic terrorism in its counter-terrorism strategy, the DHS faces multiple challenges that make it nearly impossible to remain fully prepared to combat the issue adequately. Among such problems is the evolution of communication technologies that comes with its pros and downside in tackling the issue. As discussed by the DHS, communication across the globe has changed significantly since the 9/11 attacks. Most notably, before the attack, approximately 54% of the U.S. population used the Internet compared to 90% of the people today (McAleenan, 2019). These statistics reveal that a significant fraction of the United States adult population has internet connectivity that facilitates easy access to and dissemination of information.
Despite its benefits, information technologies pose a considerable challenge to DHS’s effort to combat domestic terrorism. McAleenan (2019) asserts that due to the growing communication connectivity, violent extremist groups have found a better way to exploit the Internet’s potential. For example, with the rise of social media, alienated individuals can spread their ideologies to a large pool of potential recruits, connect and mobilize resources from different areas to launch attacks. Furthermore, technology makes it possible for violent extremist groups to create anonymous accounts and encrypt data that can only be accessed by its members. The evolving nature of technology poses a significant challenge to the DHS because it is quite challenging to unveil the masterminds behind domestic terrorism when they use hidden internet identity. Besides, the fact that there lacks centralized leadership in the majority of the violent extremist groups makes it difficult for the DHS to disrupt the former’s operations, as is the case with FTOs.
Furthermore, the economic downturn experienced in the United States has been a significant challenge in DHS’s effort to curb domestic terrorism in the country. Most notably, besides anti-Semitism views, financial status is also considered as a significant factor that drives individuals to be associated with some of the violent extremist groups. Notably, the masterminds lure and radicalize people to join movements by promising them financial safety for volunteering to cause destruction of lives and property against specific races and ethnic groups. The fact that the DHS has limited control over economic factors in the country implies that, besides countering FTOs, it has to deal with thousands of radicalized individuals who are willing to be involved in domestic terrorism to earn a living.
Besides technological evolution and economic factors, the political climate in the United States has also been a significant challenge to DHS’s preparedness to counter domestic terrorism in the country. This issue dates back in 2009 after Barack Obama assumed office as the first black president of the United States. Most notably, DHS report issued during this period showed that the economic downturn in the country experienced then, the rise of social media, and the election of a black president would combine to make race-driven extremism a severe threat to national security (Benner, 2019). During the issuance of this report, social media was gaining much influence on people’s lives, making it easier for groups to spread white supremacist propaganda to curious teenagers that were likely to join the group. Besides, the election of an African-American president fueled conspiracy theories of white supremacists.
However, during Obama’s reign, two political forces constrained DHS’s effort to combat domestic terrorism, among them criticism from the opposition party. Most notably, a report by the New York Times reveals that some members of the Republican party, such as Mike Pompeo, protested the statement issued by DHS, claiming that focusing on domestic terrorism would trivialize the threat that Islamic terrorism posed to the country’s security (Benner, 2019). DHS had been mandated to deal with all potential threats to public safety, both internal and external, based on the results of risk assessments conducted by their analysts. As such, the argument by the Republican congressman was probably political, and it lacked factual evidence. Nonetheless, this protest played a significant role in constraining DHS’s effort to make countering domestic terrorism a priority in the country as there lacked political support from the right-wing.
Furthermore, the fear of the unknown within Obama’s administration constrained the political will power to support DHS’s effort to prioritize race-driven extremism as a national security threat. As observed by Benner (2019), personnel in the administration were concerned that highlighting the issues would fuel conspiracy theories about white supremacists. Most notably, the election of an African American president had ignited racial ideologies; thus, making the issue public was seen as a potential trigger of further white supremacists ideologies among the people. For this reason, the Democrats also lacked the political will power to support DHS’s effort, which led to the retraction of the report and disbandment of the team formed to track domestic terrorism.
Approximately ten years later, the political climate in the United States has remained unfavorable for DHS’s operations in combating domestic terrorism; only this time, the challenge is rooted in the White house. The lack of adequate resources has been a significant hindrance to the agency’s attempt to fulfil its objective of promoting public security. Most notably, the federal government recently introduced a cut on the grants that DHS receives to handle white supremacist in the country, making it nearly impossible for the agency to handle the numerous cases of domestic terrorism in the country. Reports reveal that resources for managing terrorism in DHS were reduced from $10 million in grant funding, 16 full-time employees, 25 contractors and a budget of approximately $21 million to zero contractors, a team of eight full-time employees and an operating budget of $2.6 million (Laura, Ainsley & Dilanian, 2019; Einbinder, 2019). The dwindling budget in the DHS poses a significant challenge as the agency can barely handle as many cases as it did a few years ago. Besides, with the reduced workforce, DHS cannot adequately monitor emerging threats of domestic terrorism at the local and state level.
Apart from limited resources, the lack of political will power to recognize and support the addressing of domestic terrorism has been a significant challenge for DHS’s effort to handle the discourse. Most notably, in several accounts, Trumps’s administration has rebuffed DHS attempts to make combating domestic terrorism an issue of higher priority (Tapper, 2019). Based on the president’s remarks, FTOs remain the most significant threat to the country, and DHS has, for years, been forced to focus primarily on combating Islamic terrorism and issues associated with immigrants. Therefore, the lack of political support from the Congress and the White House inhibits the preparedness of DHS in combating domestic terrorism, as most of the time, teams created to monitor the threats are eventually disbanded or reassigned to other tasks.
2018 U.S. National Strategy as a Tool to Counter Domestic Terrorism
Despite the internal and external factors affecting DHS’s effort to counter domestic terrorism, the agency must remain responsive to this emerging issue as it poses a significant threat to public security. Most notably, it is estimated that in 2018 alone, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the country (Pegues, 2019). With the current attitude that people hold towards specific ethnicities, coupled with the blatant ignition of white supremacists’ beliefs by political leaders, the issue may escalate further in the next few years. While it may be difficult for the DHS to gain the necessary support from the federal government to combat the problem, there are guidelines within the 2018 U.S. National strategy that the agency may implement to ensure that domestic terrorism is kept at bay.
One of the ways in which the DHS may handle the emerging discourse is through pursuing the strategy of countering radicalization and recruitment of individuals in domestic terrorist groups. This objective can be achieved through targeting the sources of strength and support upon which such movements rely upon, as proposed in the 2018 National strategy (Stigall, Miller & Donatucci, 2020). Most notably, research shows that radicalizing messages are strongholds in domestic terrorist groups (Jackson et al., 2019). Like jihadist groups, the majority of the racially-and ethnically-motivated violent extremist movements rely on radicalizing messages published on flyers and social media platforms such as Facebook to recruit others and mobilize resources used to launch attacks.
Targeting this support system can assist in the fight against white supremacists and other forms of domestic terrorism in the United States. The success of this strategy is evidenced by prior efforts such as Jigsaw’s counter-terrorism project that has shown the potential of redirecting people from extremism. Most notably, the project involved the use of embedded social workers in extremist forums to discreetly send messages to potential recruits dissuading them from following the movement (Manjoo, 2017). Similarly, the DHS can combat terrorism messaging by posting videos and messages to potential recruits discouraging them from being part of White Supremacists groups. Also, the agency can work closely with online technology giants such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to assist in identifying and systematically removing extremists’ content from their sites (Manjoo, 2017). The suggested strategy would enable the DHS to counter radicalization and recruitment of individuals in extremist groups. Also, it would be cost-effective, as a significant fraction of the work would be delegated to the online firms and a few personnel tasked with sending dissuading messages to potential recruits.
Furthermore, the DHS may incorporate the strategy of collaborating with domestic partners to counter the issue of domestic terrorism. As proposed in the 2018 National policy, one way in which DHS can meet its objective of promoting public safety is through collaborative efforts with public and private sector partners who play a critical role in countering terrorism (Stigall, Miller & Donatucci, 2020). Most notably, private and public sector partners have the capacity and tools to deradicalize individuals from White Nationalist groups. Prior private organizations that have shown the potential of working effectively with government agencies include the Life After Hate. This virtual organization collaborates on research into deradicalization and providing a support network for individuals who decide to leave violent extremism (Wilson, 2017). It is worth noting that the organization was founded by a former neo-fascist, which implies that the firm has adequate knowledge on how to dissuade individuals from joining extremism groups. By collaborating with such private sector partners, the DHS can effectively counter domestic terrorism, as more people would be rehabilitated and deradicalized from white nationalists ideologies.
To sum it up, findings from the research prove that domestic terrorism is a dominant emerging discourse on homeland security. Most notably, the issue is evidenced by the numerous cases of violent extremism experienced in the United States over the past few years, ranging from attacks on places of worship to the massacre of shoppers in supermarkets within the country. Despite being a significant issue of concern, DHS continues to experience multiple challenges in trying to curb the problem due to the existing unfavorable political climate. Furthermore, the economic and social environment in the country makes it nearly impossible for the agency to control the issue of domestic terrorism.
Amidst the existing unfavorable internal and external factors, it is suggested that the DHS should adopt the guidelines of the 2018 U.S. National strategy to counter the identified discourse. Most notably, the agency should partner with public and private sector organizations to combat domestic terrorism. Also, the agency should disrupt radicalization messages, which are a stronghold for White nationalists to recruit members and mobilize resources.
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Jackson, B.A., Rhoades, A.L., Reimer, J.R., Lander, N., Costello, K., & Beaghley, S. (2019). Practical terrorism prevention: Reexamining U.S. National approaches to addressing the threat of ideologically motivated violence. Rand. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2647.html
Wilson, J. (2017, April 4). Life after white supremacy: The former neo-fascist now working to fight hate. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/04/life-after-hate-groups-neo-fascism-racism
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Romero, S., & Bogel-Burroughs, N. (2019, August 4). El Paso shooting: Massacre that killed 20 being investigated as domestic terrorism. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/04/us/el-paso-shooting-updates.html
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Tapper, J. (2019, August 7). Exclusive: White House rebuffed attempts by DHS to make combating domestic terrorism a higher priority. CNN. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/08/07/politics/white-house-domestic-terrorism/index.html
McAleenan, K. (2019, September). Department of homeland security strategic framework for countering terrorism and targeted violence. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Retrieved from https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/19_0920_plcy_strategic-framework-countering-terrorism-targeted-violence.pdf