The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security called out federal law enforcement on Wednesday for failing to give the American public a clear overview of the threat posed by domestic terrorism, even as FBI officials warn that the internet has completely changed the way and speed at which individuals are radicalized.
Speaking during a hearing on the rise of domestic terror, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) noted that, while there had been a disturbing increase in domestic terrorism over the last year, very little information was available from law enforcement which would help the public learn what attacks were being planned, who was planning them, and why.
“The lack of public information on domestic terrorism coming out of the federal agencies is nothing short of alarming,” Thompson said in his opening statement. “What is the nature of the threat? And what is the government going to do about it?”
The urgent need for public information was further highlighted by the number of domestic terror investigations Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s assistant director of counterterrorism, told the committee his agency was currently investigating.
According to McGarrity, the FBI currently has 850 active domestic terror investigations. Of those, half are classified as anti-government extremism, and another 40 percent are racially motivated extremists, of which the vast majority are white supremacists and white nationalists.
To make matters worse, the FBI warned that the diffuse, self-radicalized nature of far-right extremism makes it extremely difficult for authorities to track networks and preempt attacks.
“We are most concerned about lone offenders, primarily using firearms, as [they] represent the dominant trend for lethal domestic terrorists,” McGarrity said. “Frequently, these individuals act without a clear group affiliation or guidance, making them challenging to identify, investigate, and disrupt.”
“We’re seeing an evolution in the threat,” McGarity added. “Individual actors, lone wolves, insular type people can find their ideology to justify their violence and actions online. People become radicalized fairly quickly and then mobilize pretty quickly. We’re seeing that both international and domestic side.”
Brian Murphy, principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, agreed with McGarity’s analysis. “Lone actors … pose the greatest threat to the homeland due to their ability, in many instances, to remain undetected by law enforcement until operational, and their general willingness to attack soft targets with simple weapons,” Murphy said.
He pointed to two recent examples which demonstrated that problem: the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018, which was carried out by an alleged white supremacist; and last month’s shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. Police are investigating the latter attack as a possible hate crime and federal civil rights violation.
In comparison to the hearings on white nationalism in April — which were largely derailed by conservative activist Candace Owens’ insistence that Democrats were the real racists — the questions raised during Wednesday’s hearing showed that committee members, both Republican and Democrat, had at least done their homework.
Thompson, for instance, said he would be introducing legislation that would require the federal government to regularly file data on domestic terrorism. Ranking Republican member Mike Rogers (R-AL), specifically called out 8chan and Gab, two online platforms popular with far right extremists, for their “viral hate speech and incitement of violence.”
Rep. Karen Underwood (D-IL) asked how social media companies could better tackle white nationalism, while Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) voiced concern about the propagation of terrorist manifestos online — seen in both the Poway synagogue shooting and the attack on two mosques in New Zealand this past March.
There was clear acknowledgement across the committee that far-right extremists were a threat, and that they were metastasizing on the internet.
But the prospect of the Trump administration being spurned to action by the hearing seems far fetched at this point, considering President Donald Trump’s track record of ignoring the dangers of far-right extremism. When asked after the New Zealand attack whether he believed white nationalism was a rising threat, the president responded, “I don’t really. It’s a small group of people who have very, very serious problems.”
Other complex problems remain. A logical solution to the issue of rising domestic terrorism might be to strengthen domestic terror laws. But as experts previously told ThinkProgress, strengthening those laws will inevitably end up affecting minority groups, which historically have been disproportionately targeted by any policy changes. Just prior to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, for instance — which left one counter-protester dead — the FBI published an assessment warning of the threat posed by “black identity extremists.”
Activists from the Justice for Muslims Collective, Defending Rights and Dissent, and South Asian Americans Leading Together warned the committee of this in an open letter delivered Wednesday.
“The politicization of [domestic terror] has meant that rather than applying a uniform definition, it has instead been applied differentially and used in particular to target and criminalize communities of color and their freedom of speech,” the letter read. “We are therefore concerned that the remedies and interventions that come out of this hearing will be used to increase targeting of marginalized communities.”