President Joe Biden was sworn in under the shadow of the January 6 mob-attack on Capitol Hill, and now, his administration has revealed their strategy to combat the clear and present threat of homegrown extremism.
On his first day in the Oval Office, Biden ordered a 100-day review of the federal government’s approach to combatting domestic terrorism (with an eye toward creating a new approach)—and today he released it: the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Biden, who was a vice president at the peak of the War On Terror years—a time when popular thinking held that terrorism was a threat emanating from abroad and not from the homeland—is the first commander-in-chief to single out the white nationalist and supremacist threat in recent memory as a top danger facing the nation.
“Too often over the past several years, American communities have felt the wrenching pain of domestic terrorism,” Biden said in a written message that precedes the report. “Black church members slaughtered during their Bible study in Charleston. A synagogue in Pittsburgh targeted for supporting immigrants. A gunman spraying bullets at an El Paso Walmart to target Latinos.
“We cannot ignore this threat or wish it away. Preventing domestic terrorism and reducing the factors that fuel it demand a multifaceted response across the Federal Government and beyond.”
The plan, which calls for a mixed bag of $100 million in additional funding for new hires of prosecutors and analysts, increased attention on social media and internet radicalization, and more scrutiny of federal government workers and their links to extremism, is based on four key “pillars.”
The report calls on broader and more efficient intelligence sharing across every level of government from local policing all the way to three-letter agencies and investigators at the FBI. Though Fusion Centers—controversial vectors of intelligence gathering across the country that have provided local police with national intelligence—have been employed for years, this plan seems to imply that sharing will be more vigorous. The report specifically sets out to help local cops better identify potential terrorism in their communities, because, as it notes, they’re often first to “identify and disrupt manifestations of the domestic terrorism threat, even if they do not always use the same labels to describe it.”
The new strategy also references the State Department and infers intelligence agencies (likely a nod to the CIA) will help work with international partners tracking any global links between white nationalist terror groups and their networks. In the past, a large part of the federal government’s counterterrorism strategy for groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda has involved designating any groups or affiliates to the Treasury Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) list. This allows the government to level legal and financial penalties on any individual linked to or a member of those groups. In his plan, Biden is implying the government could look to further label some of these terrorist organizations operating in the U.S. (such as The Base, which has a leader in Russia) as terror groups.
Enhanced efforts at preventing recruitment and radicalization of individuals into violent extremism is a major theme of the 32-page strategy document. The Department of Homeland Security will be given $77 million to help kickstart local level prevention programs across the U.S., while the Department of Defense will also be given additional resources to incorporate new training for departing soldiers on how they’re targeted by terrorist groups for recruitment. More broadly, the Biden Administration is promising more “robust” screening of all federal government employees for extremist links. (The Pentagon has already acknowledged it has a problem in its ranks, as well as DHS.)
“Pre–employment background checks and re–investigations for government employees is a critical screening process that must account for all possible terrorist threats,” the report indicated. “Consistent with that, no one should be allowed to abuse or exploit the trust and responsibility or the often sensitive accesses and resources that are a part of such professions.”
But in particular (and unsurprisingly), the report name drops online spaces as a top source of radicalization and the setting where recruitment occurs.
“These activities are increasingly happening on Internet–based communications platforms, including social media, online gaming platforms, file–upload sites, and end–to–end encrypted chat platforms, even as those products and services frequently offer other important benefits,” reads the report. The point is a fair one: neo-Nazi terrorist groups like Atomwaffen Division notoriously had members operating on gaming adjacent sites like Steam and was founded on IronMarch, a notorious internet forum from the mid-2010s that became the stomping grounds of several would-be domestic terrorists.
“The widespread availability of domestic terrorist recruitment material online is a national security threat whose front lines are overwhelmingly private–sector online platforms, and we are committed to informing more effectively of the escalating efforts by those platforms to secure those front lines.”
However, exactly how the Biden Administration plans to stop online radicalization remains vague. Undoubtedly, it will involve working in lockstep with social media apps and the broader tech sector; the strategy, for example, doesn’t list EU-styled social media policies and bans that were used to target ISIS. On the one hand, the report admits that “domestic terrorism–related recruitment material online is almost certain to persist at some level” and on the other, that it will somehow end the scourge of online recruitment, all the while respecting civil liberties.
The final sections of the plan centers on financially and formally bolstering the powers of law enforcement agencies that are already tracking domestic terrorism. Here, the Biden Administration is setting out $100 million dollars for the FBI and DOJ to expand their workforce to “have the analysts, investigators, and prosecutors they need to thwart domestic terrorism and do justice when the law has been broken.” The plan also delicately adds that the government is looking at (possibly) adding new “legislative authorities” for these agencies and departments, which is coded language for potential domestic terror laws that some experts have been controversially clamoring for. Many critics have pointed out that this will ultimately lead to new abuses against people of color and religious minorities, rather than the white terrorists this type of strategy is deliberately trying to thwart.
The final breaths of the report is perhaps its most hopeful, unrealistic, and chalk full of promises to end domestic terrorism with a government wide approach to the “long-term contributors,” which it sets with the lofty goal of “tackling racism in America.”
“It means protecting Americans from gun violence and mass murders. It means ensuring that we provide early intervention and appropriate care for those who pose a danger to themselves or others,” the report reads. “It means ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all and investing in policies and programs that foster civic engagement and inspire a shared commitment to American democracy, all the while acknowledging when racism and bigotry have meant that the country fell short of living up to its founding principles.”
While all of these issues are undeniably in need of addressing, much like the rest of the strategy, the report remains vague on how the Biden Administration will concretely address them, beyond the letters and words of an ambitious new “National Strategy.”
Overall, the strategy, whether full of actionable policies or not, is a step in the right direction of labeling the threat of homegrown terrorism in America as a critical problem facing the country, and that the main perpetrators are white, racist men who are targeting people of color, women, religious groups, and the LGBTQ+ community. And it acknowledges that in American history domestic terrorism didn’t begin on January 6, but has been a feature since the beginning.
“Domestic terrorism is not a new threat in the United States,” the report notes early. “After the Civil War, for example, the Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign of terror to intimidate Black voters and their white supporters and deprive them of political power, killing and injuring untold numbers of Americans. The Klan and other white supremacists continued to terrorize Black Americans and other minorities in the decades that followed.”
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