Bottom Line Up Front
- On September 20, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a revised counterterrorism strategy which focuses as much on domestic hate groups as it does foreign jihadist terrorist groups.
- In the United States, more attacks have been committed by those motivated by racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant hatred in recent years than by those inspired by groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.
- While the DHS strategy is a welcome recognition that white supremacy extremism is a dire threat to the United States, the government could and should be doing more to protect American citizens.
- Just as Canada, the United Kingdom, and other countries have sanctioned transnational white supremacy extremist groups operating on their soil, so too should the United States sanction these groups.
On September 20, 2019, Kevin McAleenan, the acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled a revised counterterrorism strategy. In a much-needed change from previous strategies, the most recent version focuses as much on domestic hate groups as it does foreign jihadist terrorist groups. McAleenan stated that recent mass shootings, including the attack in El Paso by a white supremacy extremist, had ‘galvanized the Department of Homeland Security to expand its counterterrorism mission focus beyond terrorists operating abroad, to include those radicalized to violence within our borders by violent extremists of any ideology.’ This is long overdue. For years, the United States has downplayed the scale of domestic hate groups, particularly violent white supremacy extremists, even as these groups have proliferated and made connections with networks overseas. In the United States, more attacks have been committed by those motivated by racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant hatred in recent years than by those inspired by groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. Yet the focus for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as the resources earmarked to tackle the threat have remained on jihadist networks.
The revised strategy stops short of redefining ‘terrorism,’ a term that has managed to be both overly broad and insufficiently narrow, as well as highly politicized. In its new strategy paper, DHS uses the term ‘targeted violence’ to classify attacks in which the perpetrator, almost always male, selects his target set based on racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or xenophobia. The term is also used for when there is no stated or known motivation for the attack; the October 1, 2017, mass shooting in Las Vegas, in which a lone gunman murdered 58 people, is an example of such an attack where authorities have still not been able to discern a clear motive.
There has been a great deal of manpower and resources dedicated to identifying, understanding, and seeking to deter the online spread of violent ideologies by jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Far less attention has been paid to white supremacy extremist groups, who have long operated in a similar manner, and indeed deliberately emulate social media tactics employed by jihadists. Groups like the Atomwaffen Division and the Rise Above Movement (R.A.M.) have roots in the United States but have developed global connections in places like Australia, Canada, Germany, and Ukraine. An effective strategy to counter the violence of white supremacy requires an honest appraisal of the long history of racism in the United States, and that while great strides have been made in some regard, it is clear that a great deal more needs to be done to address this issue, and with urgency. The DHS strategy rightfully makes note of a ‘whole-of-society’ approach that is required to address such a deep-seated and insidious threat.
The DHS strategy is a welcome recognition that white supremacy extremism is a dire threat to the United States and the international community. Beyond the roll-out of new strategy documents, the U.S. government could and should be doing more. For example, just as our Canadian and British colleagues have sanctioned transnational white supremacy extremist groups operating on their soil, including groups like Blood & Honour and Combat 18, so too should the United States strongly consider similar sanctions against these groups. According to a report soon to be released by The Soufan Center, U.S. State and Treasury Department terrorist designations could hinder the travel of terrorists into the United States, criminalize support to sanctioned individuals and groups, and block the movement of assets to those designated for sanctions. Sanctions designations would also allow for the Department of Justice to prosecute individuals for providing material support to designated groups, a measure that could potentially receive bipartisan support in Congress.