OPINION: 18 Years After 9/11: We Face a New International Terrorist Threat

18 Years After 9/11, We Face a New International Terrorist Threat

Joshua Geltzer | Just Security

Eighteen years ago, Americans woke up to the dire international terrorist threat facing our nation. The tragic 9/11 attacks were swiftly attributed to al-Qa’ida, and in turn it immediately became clear that international terrorism — in particular, jihadist international terrorism — posed a major national security threat to Americans, even in the homeland.

Now, eighteen years later, Americans face a new international terrorist threat. But, unlike in the aftermath of 9/11, we have yet to recognize it as such. Doing so — quickly and explicitly — is essential to improving and accelerating the response of our government and our technology sector to the dangers we face from the growing international white supremacist terrorist threat.         

It’s become common knowledge that America faces what is often called a “domestic terrorism” challenge, as last month’s arrest in Ohio of yet another self-described “white nationalist” underscored.

The problem stems, of course, from terrorists’ use of lethal violence against unarmed and innocent people. The problem is aggravated by a gap in legal authorities, resources, and priorities. It’s time that Americans updated our understanding and our language:

The violent threat we face today from far-right extremists is part of a global phenomenon. Recognizing the transnational nature of this threat is critical to ensuring that our government and private sector rise to the challenge.

We’ve all seen, in recent months, the core of the problem. From Gilroy, California to El Paso, Texas; Americans are losing their lives to politically motivated violence. The ideology underlying these terrorist attacks hasn’t been the jihadism that, over the past 18 years, became all too familiar to Americans and others worldwide through the violence perpetrated by al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and others.

Instead, the ideology underlying recent attacks has been far-right racially motivated violent extremism, including strands of neo-Nazism, neo-Confederacism, and other forms of white supremacy. Or, as it tends to be called, “domestic terrorism”.

Domestic terrorism isn’t new. Before 9/11, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil was an act of domestic terrorism, in 1995 in Oklahoma City. But domestic terrorism is getting worse, as FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified to Congress. And our government’s ability to address the threat isn’t what it should be.

The government is, in particular, finding itself short on two types of resources to fight this scourge.

In terms of legal resources, there’s an astonishing gap in federal law. No federal criminal charges are available specifically for certain acts of domestic terrorism, even though such charges would be available for the same acts if they had instead been motivated by jihadism.

In terms of financial and personnel resources, there’s a huge imbalance between the massive investments made post-9/11 to fight international terrorism — including FBI investigators, Justice Department prosecutors, and intelligence analysts — and the comparatively meager investments made to fight domestic terrorism. And, as a matter of priorities, key U.S. strategy documents like the National Security Strategy and National Strategy for Counterterrorism pay far more attention to international terrorism than to domestic terrorism, even as the latter takes an important step by acknowledging that domestic terrorists pose “a persistent security threat.”

This must change. Yet there seems stubborn resistance from some in the Trump administration to engaging in the necessary reorientation of its view of counter-terrorism. The White House, in particular, appears still driven in part by the mindset that Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State but then a Kansas congressman, demonstrated a decade ago when a report from the Department of Homeland Security predicted the worsening of this threat:

He denounced focusing on domestic terrorism as a “dangerous” project spawned by political correctness that denied “the threat that radical Islamic terrorism poses”. We see the same attitude in President Trump’s remarks, just months ago, dismissing the white nationalist threat as just “a small group of people”. It was only after repeated lethal attacks followed those remarks in rapid succession that Trump acknowledged, at least rhetorically, a genuine threat.

The federal government is not alone in showing wariness of giving domestic terrorism its due. Tech companies also have been slow to address its spread online. It wasn’t until years after major tech companies had strengthened their approach to international terrorism by cracking down on not only explicit encouragement of violence but also its ideological underpinnings that the companies began shifting toward a similarly common-sense approach to white nationalism.

No one — in government or the private sector — should be uncomfortable denouncing racial hatred or augmenting efforts against violent extremism of all forms. But it’s become clear that such reluctance exists — because, it seems, the views and language of some far-right politicians and political commentators overlap with the views and language espoused by domestic terrorists.

But we don’t need to keep talking about “domestic terrorism,” as the term has become largely outdated anyway. The type of violence we experienced in Gilroy and El Paso — like the ideologies underlying it — isn’t really domestic anyway. It is international.

Consider Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who killed 51 mosque worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. He cited as ideological inspiration the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in 2011, as well as the American Dylann Roof, who killed 9 in 2015. Tarrant wasn’t a purely “domestic terrorist” of Australia or New Zealand. He was inspired by a global movement of racially motivated violence.

Then look at American Patrick Crusius, the El Paso shooter. Before the attack, he announced online, “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.”

And then came Norwegian Philip Manshaus, who would have killed mosque worshippers had he not been stopped by them. His online posting praised both Tarrant and Crusius.

This isn’t terrorism that is “domestic” to any one nation alone. It’s a global surge in violence inspired by white supremacist ideologies. And, in each new manifestation, the attacker increasingly situates his actions in that transnational context. It’s not only that the inspiration for each new act of violence transcends national borders, but also that the very structure of online communication today — including through social media, end-to-end encrypted apps, and the dark web — facilitates a transnational network of those espousing and consuming this world view.

What does this mean for counter-terrorism? For the government, it means law enforcement and the rest of the national security apparatus must bring to bear in this fight tools proven to help against international counter-terrorism, including foreign terrorist organization designations, sting operations, and intelligence sharing with foreign partners. And, for tech companies, it means policing their platforms to remove not just incitement to violence but also the ideological foundations that ultimately spawn such violence.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still legal, policy, and resource gaps specifically tied to matters domestic in nature — there are such gaps, and they should be filled urgently. Attacks that, regrettably, may come in the future may fit more neatly for legal purposes into “domestic terrorism”, and we need in place the right laws to prosecute those attacks and the right intelligence community authorities to analyze the trends behind them. But the transnational nature of today’s phenomenon means, overall, that we as a society should be talking about a new form of international terrorism — white supremacist terrorism – rather than insisting on calling it “domestic terrorism”.

Moreover, it means that all of us should call this what it is:

An international terrorist threat that is manifesting itself domestically for Americans, just as it is for countries like Norway and New Zealand.

An international terrorist threat that recognizes the white nationalist threat we actually face, just as we recognized the threat of jihadism 18 years ago.

It is a paradigm shift that can help our government and tech sector rise to the occasion and meet the white supremacist terrorist threat where it is.

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Comments

  • kamtanblog  On September 12, 2019 at 5:01 am

    Interesting take

    Start with USA gun laws updating/changing
    legislation rigidly enforced.

    USA is becoming a culture of death
    A far cry from its post war position of
    democracy in principle and practice.

    The sooner the republicans dump/replace
    Humpty Dumpty (Trumpy) the quicker USA
    regains it’s world leadership status.

    2020-2024 ??

    We shall see !

    Kamtan UK

  • Clyde Duncan  On September 26, 2020 at 3:05 am

    DHS DRAFT DOCUMENT: White Supremacists are Greatest Terror Threat

    The documents are slightly different drafts of the same annual threat assessment, which is not yet published.

    Betsy Woodruff Swan | Politico

    WHITE SUPREMACISTS PRESENT THE GRAVEST TERROR THREAT TO THE UNITED STATES, ACCORDING TO A DRAFT REPORT FROM DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY.

    Two later draft versions of the same document — all of which were reviewed by POLITICO — describe the threat from white supremacists in slightly different language. But all three drafts describe the threat from white supremacists as the deadliest domestic terror threat facing the U.S., listed above the immediate danger from foreign terrorist groups.

    “Foreign terrorist organizations will continue to call for Homeland attacks but probably will remain constrained in their ability to direct such plots over the next year,” all three documents say.

    Russia “probably will be the primary covert foreign influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation in the Homeland,” the documents also say.

    Former acting DHS Sec. Kevin McAleenan last year directed the department to start PRODUCING ANNUAL HOMELAND THREAT ASSESSMENTS.

    POLITICO reviewed three drafts of this year’s report — titled DHS’s State of the Homeland Threat Assessment 2020 — all of which were produced in August.

    Ben Wittes, the editor in chief of the national security site Lawfare, obtained the documents and shared them with POLITICO. The first such assessment has not been released publicly, and a DHS spokesperson declined to comment on “allegedly leaked documents”, and on when the document will be made public.

    NONE OF THE DRAFTS POLITICO REVIEWED REFERRED TO A THREAT FROM ANTIFA, the loose cohort of militant left-leaning agitators who senior Trump administration officials have described as domestic terrorists.

    Two of the drafts refer to extremists trying to exploit the “social grievances” driving lawful protests.

    “This draft document seems to be consistent with earlier intelligence reports from DHS, the FBI, and other law enforcement sources: That the most significant terror-related threat facing the US today comes from violent extremists who are motivated by white supremacy and other far-right ideological causes,” he said.

    Wittes, meanwhile, said THE CHANGE IN LANGUAGE ON WHITE SUPREMACIST TERRORISM IS SIGNIFICANT.

    “IT DIMINISHES THE PROMINENCE OF WHITE SUPREMACY relative to other domestic violent extremism, and, WITHOUT BEING INACCURATE, PUTS IT IN A BASKET ALONG WITH OTHER VIOLENT ACTIVITY THAT MAY BE MORE PALATABLE FOR THE ADMINISTRATION TO ACKNOWLEDGE,” he said.

    THE EARLIEST DRAFT HAS THE STRONGEST LANGUAGE ON THE THREAT FROM WHITE SUPREMACISTS, IN AN INTRODUCTORY SECTION LABELED “KEY TAKEAWAYS”.

    “Lone offenders and small cells of individuals motivated by a diverse array of social, ideological, and personal factors will pose the primary terrorist threat to the United States,” the draft reads. “Among these groups, we assess that white supremacist extremists – who increasingly are networking with like-minded persons abroad – will pose the most persistent and lethal threat.”

    The “Key Takeaways” section of the next two drafts calls “DOMESTIC VIOLENT EXTREMISTS” the “MOST PERSISTENT AND LETHAL THREAT”, – RATHER THAN SPECIFICALLY NAMING WHITE SUPREMACISTS.

    The document discusses white supremacists in greater detail when introducing the section titled “The Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.” Once again, LANGUAGE IN THE EARLIEST DRAFT IS SLIGHTLY STRONGER THAN THE LANGUAGE IN THE SUBSEQUENT DRAFTS.

    “We judge that ideologically-motivated lone offenders and small groups will pose the greatest terrorist threat to the Homeland through 2021, with white supremacist extremists presenting the most lethal threat,” it reads.

    The next two drafts refer to “DOMESTIC VIOLENT EXTREMISTS” –– rather than “WHITE SUPREMACIST EXTREMISTS” – as the most lethal threat.

    All three drafts contain the following sentence further down in the same section: “Among DVEs [Domestic Violent Extremists], we judge that white supremacist extremists (WSEs) will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland through 2021.”

    The second two drafts, meanwhile, allude to violent agitators who have been present at nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.

    “Violent extremists almost certainly will continue their efforts to exploit public fears associated with COVID-19 and social grievances driving lawful protests to incite violence, intimidate targets, and promote their violent extremist ideologies,” the second and third drafts reviewed by POLITICO say.

    “SIMPLE TACTICS – SUCH AS VEHICLE RAMMING, SMALL ARMS, EDGED WEAPONS, ARSON, AND RUDIMENTARY IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICES – PROBABLY WILL BE MOST COMMON.”

    All three documents note that 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic violent extremists since the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

    “Among DVE [domestic violent extremist] actors, WSEs [white supremacist extremists] conducted half of all lethal attacks (8 of 16), resulting in the majority of deaths (39 of 48),” the drafts read.

    The assessment comes as DHS has faced scrutiny for its response to increasingly violent domestic extremism during the Trump era.

    TOP DHS OFFICIALS HAVE SPENT YEARS GRAPPLING WITH HOW TO DO MORE TO COMBAT THE THREAT, AND LONG CHAFED AT WHAT THEY CALLED DISINTEREST FROM THE WHITE HOUSE.

    Two former top DHS political appointees told POLITICO last month that White House national security officials shied away from addressing the problem and didn’t want to refer to killings by right-wing extremists as DOMESTIC TERRORISM.

    “I have no qualms criticizing the white supremacy threat,” said Ken Cuccinelli, DHS’s second-in-command, in a recent interview on MSNBC. “Neither does the secretary, neither does the Department of Homeland Security. We recognize when those people act out violently, that they show the highest level of lethality, meaning if you compare the number of violent incidents to the numbers of deaths, the numbers of deaths relative to the incidents is very high compared to other types of threats.”

    • kamtanblog  On September 26, 2020 at 3:53 am

      Clyde
      Long on reporting
      Short on solutions

      As whites rapidly become a minority in
      USA so will their extremist actions become
      intolerable. Both extremes “black and white”
      will become more aggressive in their protestations. People of colour will be the
      “spectators” …with more non aggressive
      agendas. Peace not war !

      After 3rd November the “change” may be
      as good as new …prior to elections we can
      all but “speculate”….USA will survive as a world leader regardless !

      In my opinion

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