BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged over and over again that he would build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep the "rapists" out, and, at the same time, he would keep America safe from "radical Islamic terrorism." Both those promises were aimed at stoking up fear and loathing against immigrants and Muslims. It certainly stirred up his base. To my knowledge, Trump, who falsely claimed to know nothing about the white supremacist David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, turned a blind eye to terrorism perpetrated by extremist right-wing groups.
Trump's blind eye notwithstanding, terrorist acts committed by extreme right-wing groups and individuals continues to be a clear and present danger.
In late-August, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), issued a report titled Domestic Terrorism: An Overview, which maintained that while it was important in the post-9/11 period to focus on terrorist attacks emanating from outside the country, "domestic terrorists—people who commit crimes within the homeland and draw inspiration from U.S.-based extremist ideologies and movements—[and] have killed American citizens and damaged property across the country," should not be overlooked.
"According to the CRS report, it's clear that domestic terrorism is not a top federal counterterrorism priority," the Southern Poverty Law Center's Daryl Johnson recently reported. "Nevertheless, domestic terrorist threats feature prominently among state and local law enforcement concerns."
Domestic Terrorism: An Overview focuses on four areas:
- Level of Activity. Domestic terrorists have been responsible for orchestrating numerous incidents since 9/11.
- Use of Nontraditional Tactics. A large number of domestic terrorists do not necessarily use tactics such as suicide bombings or airplane hijackings. They have been known to engage in activities such as vandalism, trespassing, and tax fraud, for example.
- Exploitation of the Internet. Domestic terrorists—much like their jihadist analogues—are often Internet and social-media savvy and use such platforms to share ideas and as resources for their operations.
- Decentralized Nature of the Threat. Many domestic terrorists rely on the concept of leaderless resistance. This involves two levels of activity. On an operational level, militant, underground, ideologically motivated cells or individuals engage in illegal activity without any participation in or direction from an organization that maintains traditional leadership positions and membership rosters. On another level, the above-ground public face (the "political wing") of a domestic terrorist movement may focus on propaganda and the dissemination of ideology—engaging in protected speech.
Over the past decade, conservatives have been quick to condemn the federal government (particularly during the Obama administration) for daring to warn the nation of the danger from homegrown right-wing extremists. In 2009, right wing activists and commentators pummeled the Department of Homeland Security for issuing a report on the growing threat of rightwing extremism in the United States. Conservatives called for DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano's resignation, and for the study to be deep-sixed. Although Napolitano did not resign, the report was subsequently withdrawn.
The August "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which brought together white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and alt-righters from across the country, and resulted in the death of one women and injuries to many other counter-protesters, may serve as a wake-up call to federal authorities.
In a February address to Congress, President Donald Trump made clear his priorities: "We are also taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism." During the presidential campaign, the term "radical Islamic terrorism" became one of Trump's most often used phrases to gin up his crowds.
In a piece titled "Charlottesville underscores how homegrown hate is going unchecked," David Neiwert, author of the recently published book, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in The Age of Trump, pointed out that "A database of nine years of domestic terrorism incidents compiled by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has produced a very different picture of the threat than that advanced by the current White House":
- From January 2008 to the end of 2016, we identified 63 cases of Islamist domestic terrorism, meaning incidents motivated by a theocratic political ideology espoused by such groups as the Islamic State. The vast majority of these (76 percent) were foiled plots, meaning no attack took place.
- During the same period, we found that right-wing extremists were behind nearly twice as many incidents: 115. Just over a third of these incidents (35 percent) were foiled plots. The majority were acts of terrorist violence that involved deaths, injuries or damaged property.
- Right-wing extremist terrorism was more often deadly: Nearly a third of incidents involved fatalities, for a total of 79 deaths, while 13 percent of Islamist cases caused fatalities. (The total deaths associated with Islamist incidents were higher, however, reaching 90, largely due to the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood in Texas.)
- Incidents related to left-wing ideologies, including ecoterrorism and animal rights, were comparatively rare, with 19 incidents causing seven fatalities – making the shooting attack on Republican members of Congress earlier this month somewhat of an anomaly.
- Nearly half (48 percent) of Islamist incidents in our database were sting operations, more than four times the rate for far-right (12 percent) or far-left (10.5 percent) incidents.
There are a number of impediments standing in the way of the federal government doing a better job dealing with domestic terrorism. According to the SPLC's Johnson, "They include: (1) federal agencies employ varying terminology and definitions to describe domestic terrorist threats; (2) the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the FBI do not officially designate domestic terrorist organizations; (3) few, if any, domestic terrorists are charged or prosecuted under federal or state terrorism statutes; (4) domestic terrorists, for the most part, do not use traditional terrorist tactics such as bombings, large-scale attacks, airplane hijackings, or political assassinations; (5) foreign-inspired homegrown violence gets more media attention than acts of domestic terrorism; and, (6) domestic extremist ideology often uses the cover of constitutionally protected activity. These constitutional rights pose unique challenges to law enforcement when monitoring extremist groups and individuals, assessing potential threats and interdicting violent acts."
As SPLC's Johnson reported, "A 2016 Reuters analysis of more than 100 federal cases since 2014 further illustrated that domestic terrorist suspects collectively face less severe charges than those affiliated with the Islamic State who were arrested in the U.S. Between 2014 and 2016, 27 defendants were charged in the U.S. for plotting or inciting terrorist attacks. They carried a median prison sentence of 53 years. Over the same time period, 27 U.S.-based antigovernment or hate-motivated extremists were charged with similar activity. They carried a medium prison sentence of 20 years."
Moving forward, important questions raised by the various research reports and studies include: How can the federal government improve its strategies for tracking extremist groups without infringing on the privacy of individuals? Does the Trump administration have the interest, will, and wherewithal to take on homegrown domestic terrorists and make rooting them out a national priority?