First New Steps to Combatting Domestic Terrorism


Javed Ali held senior counterterrorism positions at DHS, the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Council. He is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan.  

Thomas Warrick was DHS Deputy Assistant for Counterterrorism Policy from August 2008 to June 2019 and is now Director of the Future of DHS Project at the Atlantic Council.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE— Four months after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, the Biden administration has rolled out a series of measures to combat the serious threat of domestic terrorism.  New initiatives and programs announced since January 20 by the Departments of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security (DHS), and Justice (DOJ), the FBI, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in addition to a new senior domestic counterterrorism position at the National Security Council (NSC), all demonstrate an increased focus.

Most recently, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration’s 100-day policy review is complete and that a more comprehensive strategy should be out within “weeks, not months.” Until then, a closer examination of the individual components identified to date shows progress in the right direction, with one important caveat—whether Congress will appropriate enough money and personnel for this strategy to succeed.

In April, DoD created a new Countering Violent Extremism Working Group to focus on violent extremism among both uniformed military and civilian personnel.  The increasing number of domestic terrorism-related investigations and arrests over the past few years involving current or former DoD personnel lends support to the idea that violent extremist groups are trying to gain access to their training and expertise.  The DoD effort has four lines of effort to examine going forward, including training and educating existing personnel and enhancing the screening of new recruits or applicants.  Other Western countries face similar struggles, as shown by Germany’s decision last year to dissolve a company within its premier special operations force known as the KSK because of a large number of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sympathizers.

DHS has shown a similar increased focus. On January 27, DHS issued the first-ever National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin on domestic violent extremism. In February, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas elevated domestic terrorism to a “National Priority” requiring state and local government recipients of two grant programs to spend at least 7.5% of their funds to address domestic terrorism—equating to about $77 million dollars for this fiscal year.  DHS doubled program funding for the Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention to $20 million. On May 11, DHS recast that office’s work into the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership to rebuild trust with groups that called for an end to earlier programs they said had stigmatized American Muslims. DHS restored an analytic team within its Office of Intelligence and Analysis focused on domestic terrorism, and will also begin to draw on publicly available social media information.  DHS, like DoD, will examine ways to ensure that its 240,000 personnel do not act on violent extremist beliefs. And Secretary Mayorkas said in Congressional testimony on May 12, that he is open to working with the Department of Education on civic education efforts to build resistance to disinformation.

Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray have discussed ramped up efforts on domestic terrorism as well. The Attorney General testified this week that DOJ is “deepening collaboration with foreign partners” on white supremacism and “sharing information with tech companies” to get more focus on possible threats.  Garland also hinted at changes to internal DOJ or FBI authorities and policies to combat domestic terrorism, in addition to other possible legislation DOJ may request.  Last week, Garland also asked Congress for a $45 million increase for FBI investigations and another $40 million for US attorneys.  Director Wray has likewise spoken about the FBI’s heightened priority on domestic terrorism. In March, he said the current number of about 2,000 investigations was twice the caseload from when he started as Director in 2017.  He has also been clear that white supremacist violent extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat.

As part of this concerted effort against domestic terrorism, in March, the ODNI issued its first-ever unclassified report on domestic violent extremism in the United States.  Before then, ODNI, created in 2004 in response to a 9/11 Commission recommendation, had shied away from taking on a deeper role in examining domestic terrorism. This was in part because of uncertainty about its legal authority and in part because of the strong focus required on international terrorism after 9/11.  The ODNI report laid out an analytic taxonomy of threat actors, distinguishing racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists, and animal rights and environmental violent extremists.  The report made clear it would not use more generic descriptions with labels like “far-right” or “far-left.”

Despite the potential for meaningful change these measures could provide, there is one major risk: that these efforts will not be adequately resourced by the Congress. Failure comes from thinking that a good strategy alone is sufficient. Success has to be adequately resourced and staffed. We knew how to scale the military, intelligence, and homeland security response after 9/11 to prevent an attack on that scale from happening in the twenty years since then. Imagine if the response had been to commit only a battalion of troops, a hundred analysts, and a handful of drones to the defeat of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The administration has promised it will ask in a few weeks for significant increases in domestic counterterrorism resources. In the positive announcements thus far, the administration has not yet described the ultimate scale of what needs to be done—how many thousands of law enforcement officers could benefit from training on dealing with illegal militias, how to get the thousands of local police forces to recognize and deal with threats of violence from white supremacists, or how many community groups need to be ready to steer people away from violence towards constructive, constitutional solutions to our country’s problems.

Ending what top justice and homeland security officials rightly call today’s most dangerous terrorism threat will take more than the $97 million increase at DHS and the additional $85 million at DOJ. The administration needs to scale the response, and Congress needs to provide the necessary people and resources. In today’s divided Washington, this will be hard. Everything up until now has been the easy part.

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