National Security

Domestic Terror, Tragically Revisited

August 21, 2019  • David K. Gibson

On July 19th, speakers at the Aspen Security Forum discussed an alarming rise in domestic hate-related incidents. Nine days later, a 19-year-old man cut through a fence at the Gilroy Garlic Festival near San Jose, California, and killed three people, injuring 13 more. At the end of that same week, a 21-year-old man entered a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and killed 22 people and injured another 24. Both men posted online prior to their actions, where they used the language of white supremacists and quoted anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric. The FBI is investigating each incident as an act of domestic terrorism.

“White supremacy is a global terror threat and it needs to be treated as such.”
— Jonathan Greenblatt, president, Anti-Defamation League

It is safe to say that none of the panelists on the stage in Aspen would have been surprised. Jonathan Greenblatt, president of Anti-Defamation League, had recited alarming statistics about the growth of outreach efforts by white supremacists in the US. Farah Pandith of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government addressed the spread of “Us-versus-them” ideology, which — because digital culture knows no borders — makes domestic terrorism as big a threat as the international variety. And Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, looked back with regret at the scant attention given to domestic terrorists in the wake of the “War on Terror” that followed 9-11.

“We often end up putting international and domestic terrorism into two separate buckets,” said Rasmussen. “That may not be the right way to think about it.” The argument that all of the panelists seemed to be making is that violent extremism is a global phenomenon, though various expressions of it have different philosophical viewpoints (witness the New Zealand mosque shooting, followed by — and possibly responded to with — the anti-Christian bomb blasts in Sri Lanka). The playbook is one written by ISIS and Al Qaeda, in which individuals are recruited and radicalized through social networks — especially on social media — and then goaded to attack some “other” in the name of some higher purpose.

“There are people in government who are trained to do this work and there are fewer of them today than there were two years ago, and that is inexcusable.”
— Nicholas Rasmussen, senior director for National Security and Counterterrorism Programs, the McCain Institute for International Leadership

“It is not just sort of happening out of nowhere,” said Pandith. “It has been building and building, and the problem is that we have not, as government or as citizens, said that this is something that we are taking seriously. We keep measuring which of these extreme ‘isms’ is more serious.” While we run a contest to find and defeat the worst ideologies, we miss the vast networks of hate right under our noses.

Fighting domestic terrorism comes with challenges. While we can arrest anyone giving material support to international terrorism, by the time the FBI gets called in on a domestic case there’s likely already been serious crimes committed. The refusal of social media companies to regulate their content is a constant problem. For instance, Greenblatt notes that the same phrase that gets you kicked out of Shake Shack won’t get you kicked off Twitter — as is certain rhetoric from notable members of the US government.

Tune into the entire session for an eye-opening — and frighteningly prescient — discussion of violent extremism, and what we might do to curtail it here in the US.