The number one “terrorist” threat faced by Americans comes from within, with all of the lethal attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 carried out by a U.S. citizens or legal residents. But the U.S. still lacks a domestic federal terrorism law that would help target U.S.-based terrorists like they do terrorists overseas. Even when domestic terrorists are caught, they often do less jail time for their crimes.
Past examples include Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, who killed 168 people and injured more than 680 others in 1995. He was not convicted of terrorism, but of using a weapon of mass destruction.
Another is Dylann Roof, the white supremacist, who killed nine black parishioners at a Charleston church in 2016. He was convicted of murder and weapons charges.
And in the past few days, Austin, Texas, has been rocked by several package bombs, beginning on March 12, 2018 – attacks by what police called a “serial bomber.” Police finally cornered the bomber Wednesday. Mark Anthony Condit, an unemployed 23 year old, blew himself up in his car as SWAT members approached. No motive has been yet determined, but the random nature of the bombs and explosive devices seemed calculated to inspire terror, with no particular ideological target.
That mix of attackers and myriad motives of McVeigh, Roof and Condit shows what U.S. law enforcement is up against – often without the access the intelligence or arrest powers afforded their colleagues working to stop terrorists overseas, or ones trying to reach these shores.
Yet the threat of domestic terrorism to Americans is much greater. Since the attacks of 9/11 on New York and Washington by 19 foreign-born terrorists, through Dec. 31, 2016, there were 85 terrorist attacks in which 225 people were killed. But every one of the attacks that led to fatalities was carried out either by a U.S. citizen or legal resident.
And the attackers are seldom in well-organized teams such as the one responsible for the horrific attack on 9/11. The number one threat is now homegrown extremists, radicalized by Islamist groups such ISIS– either through direct communication or inspired by radical material on line. They are exemplified by the attacks in San Bernardino, Fort Hood and Orlando. They are hard to spot because they’ve usually never visited a foreign country for training, and they usually work alone, with few or no co-conspirators, so they give little indication of a planned attack.
Like the homegrown jihadists, they also often use whatever weapon they can find, i.e., crude explosive devices packed with nuts, bolts and nails; single-shot long weapons made more deadly through the use of bump stocks, and even vehicles, like the attack that killed Heather Heyer who was protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.
These attacks against soft targets do not require planning, extensive training, or coordination, but they can still be lethal. Although the attacks may not be as large as the one of 9/11, a steady pattern of smaller ones will create chaos and uncertainty. For example, the Boston marathon bombing literally paralyzed the entire city.
But definitions of domestic terrorism used by federal agencies are confusing and inconsistent. There should be no ambiguity when distinguishing criminal activity from domestic terrorism. Congress defined domestic terrorism as “criminal conduct that takes place primarily in the U.S. and involves acts dangerous to human life that appear to be intended to either intimidate or coerce a group of people, or to influence government policy through intimidation or coercion.” But it did not actually make such activity a crime.
Congress could help by passing a law to make domestic terrorism a crime, which would allow the federal government to use its vast resources to conduct court authorized wire intercepts, searches and seizures, surveillance, serve subpoenas, obtain documents and records, and conduct arrests – and help make America safer.
The federal government also needs to establish a “list” of official domestic terrorist groups. U.S. counterterrorism abroad is driven by such a list. The State Department has created a list of foreign terrorist networks, which provides congress clarity when passing laws and addressing the problem. But political sensitivities stateside seems to have blocked the creation of a similar list of domestic groups, which hampers policymakers understanding of homegrown terrorism.
Another issue relates to the vast disparity of federal prosecutions foreign terrorists in the U.S. versus domestic terrorists. Domestic terrorists have faced less severe sentences than those connected with ISIS. Foreign terrorists charged with plotting or carrying out attacks were given a median prison sentence of 53 years. Homegrown terrorists had a median sentence of 20 years for similar crimes. Penalties should be the same for both foreign based or domestic acts of terrorism.
We must be proactive in addressing domestic terrorism by developing and modifying our strategies to meet the insidious and dynamic threat to our society. We must also provide needed tools to our law enforcement agencies in the form of technology, communications and adequate laws.