Abstract: Americans appear to reside in separate cultural and political camps. Increasing threats against public officials and displays of public hostility have prompted growing apprehension of future political violence. It is in this fragile and fraught environment that any efforts to contain politically motivated violence will have to operate. This commentary outlines a determinedly pragmatic and non-partisan approach to address this threat that recognizes the limits of what law enforcement can do while addressing the greater challenge of national reconciliation. The intent of the essay is not to be prescriptive, but rather to set down a framework for further discussion.

“Violence in America has risen to alarmingly high levels … This high level of violence is dangerous to our society. It is dividing our people into armed camps … jeopardizing our most precious institutions … poisoning the spirit of trust and cooperation essential to their functioning … corroding the central political processes of our democratic society … substituting force and fear for argument and accommodation.”

Many Americans in 2022 would agree with this sober assessment of the country’s situation, but, in fact, these quotes appeared more than a half century ago in the 1968 “Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.”1 The Commission had been created to address the situation during one of the most turbulent decades in modern American history. The United States in the 1960s was divided by race, cultural attitudes, ideology, politics, and growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.

The decade had witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; a violent reaction to the civil rights movement that included church burnings and the murder of civil rights workers; the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and of JFK’s brother, senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy; widespread race riots; growing anti-war protests, and street battles at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In 1968, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, launched a third-party presidential campaign aimed at denying both the Democratic and Republican candidates a majority of electoral votes, thereby throwing the election into the House of Representatives where he could broker his support to protect the segregationists’ cause. The same year saw the Hong Kong flu pandemic, which killed between one and four million people worldwide and as many as 100,000 people in the United States. The decade closed with the beginning of the domestic terrorist campaigns that would increase in the 1970s.

The campaigns represented an array of causes. Some far-left groups like the Weather Underground opposed the war in Vietnam; others like the New World Liberation Front and United Freedom Front rejected capitalism or opposed U.S. policies in Central America. The Black Liberation Army took up arms against the government and capitalism, and for self-determination of Black people. The Fuerzas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN) sought independence for Puerto Rico. Far-right anti-Castro groups bombed countries and corporations doing business with Fidel Castro. Violent elements within the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis attacked minorities and communists. The primary tactic was bombings, but the groups also carried out armed robberies and assassinations.

While it is perhaps comforting to be reminded that Americans have been here before and the republic survived, the current situation in the United States in some respects seems more worrisome. A half century after the tumultuous 1960s, Americans appear even more divided in their attitudes about race and racism, ideology, and federal authority. Americans increasingly reside in separate cultural and political camps, reflecting different perceptions of reality. The COVID-19 pandemic has further polarized society and contributed to greater radicalization.2

Increasing displays of public hostility have prompted fears of political violence. Public opinion polls indicate that a growing number of Americans believe political violence is justified under some circumstances.3 But many are also alarmed by the appearance of heavily armed men at public protests; the assault on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob; the increasingly bellicose language of national leaders and influencers on television, radio, the internet, and social media; the growing volume of threats against public officials at all levels of government; and the reported increase in hate crimes. Some even fear that the United States is heading toward another civil war.4

This article outlines the elements of a strategy—a determinedly pragmatic approach—to address the threat of political violence by domestic extremists, specifically how a country as divided as ours can prevent domestic political violence from spinning out of control. It is written from a personal perspective, expanding upon my 2021 testimony before Congress, essays written during the past two years, and briefings on domestic political violence.5 It draws on decades of my own research on terrorism and that of my colleagues at the RAND Corporation and elsewhere. It is important, however, to emphasize that these are my own thoughts. They do not necessarily reflect those of the RAND Corporation, the U.S. government, the U.S Army, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Combating Terrorism Center, or any other institution.

Part One of the article examines the evolution of the problem set when it comes to domestic political violence in the United States. This section begins by looking back at efforts since 9/11 to protect the country against attacks directed or inspired by foreign terrorist organizations. Although overshadowed by the cost in lives lost and trillions of dollars spent in what was initially called the “Global War on Terror” and came to be seen as “forever wars” abroad, efforts to prevent further jihadi attacks on U.S. soil—although marred by initial missteps and injustices—could be described as largely successful and a source of lessons to be learned. This section then outlines how dealing with domestic political violence will be different, why it is likely to be more difficult, and therefore, why we need to rethink strategy before implementing new laws and policies. The section then turns to a more detailed analysis of the political terrain in the United States and the current threat of domestic political violence. This section also speculates about why the country has not seen the escalation or surge of terrorist violence as many anticipated immediately after the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Part Two reviews recent official documents and pronouncements that comprise the current U.S. strategy for dealing with domestic violent extremism. The multifaceted nature of what government is trying to achieve raises questions about definitions, vocabulary, roles, and missions.

Part Three then lays out the basic elements that I believe should guide U.S. strategy in dealing with U.S. domestic violent extremism. This is not a prescription, and it will certainly not be the last word. Its purpose is to provoke further comment and discussion.

Part One: The Evolving Problem Set of Domestic Violent Extremism

The Campaign against Homegrown Jihadis
For the past quarter century, U.S. authorities have focused on defending the country against the terrorist threat posed by a distant jihadi enterprise. In 1996, al-Qa`ida announced it was declaring war on the United States and launched an escalating global terrorist campaign, culminating in the 9/11 attacks. Fearing further, even worse terrorist actions, the U.S. government responded with an unprecedented international campaign directed against a non-state organization. Military operations abroad scattered al-Qa`ida’s central command and cadre, and made it increasingly dangerous for them to travel or even communicate. Diplomatic efforts built a new international coalition to combat al-Qa`ida’s global enterprise. Improved intelligence and increased international cooperation steadily degraded al-Qa`ida’s operational capabilities. Unable to launch attacks on the United States from abroad, the group increasingly relied on its affiliates and appeals to homegrown jihadis to carry on its war.

Organizational and procedural changes in how intelligence was collected and shared, plus new counterterrorism legislation ultimately led to a better informed and more focused national effort that succeeded in containing the threat. Authorities did not prevent every attack in the United States, but they were able to uncover and thwart more than 80 percent of the homegrown jihadi plots.6 This is not to say that every single plot, if not uncovered, would have led to an attack; some would have. In the more than 20 years since 9/11, homegrown jihadis by one count killed a total of 105 people in the United States—an average of approximately five deaths per year.7 While every single death is tragic, it was a toll far less than feared in the immediate dark shadow of 9/11.

Perhaps the single most important reason why the United States did not suffer higher levels of jihadi terrorist activity was the fact that jihadi ideology gained little traction in America’s Muslim communities, which had no tolerance for violent radicals and would report these people to the FBI. There was no jihadi underground, no jihadi terrorist groups, no continuing jihadi terrorist campaigns. Almost all attacks were carried out by lone attackers or, in a few cases, by tiny conspiracies.8 The jihadi terror threat in the United States was mostly characterized by inexperienced operators, the absence of organization, limited resources, and one-off attacks. Some of the jihadis died in their attacks. The majority of the attackers along with almost all of the plotters were apprehended, convicted, and sentenced to long prison terms. Many of the American Islamist extremists who aspired to leave the United States to join jihadi fronts abroad were intercepted. Of those who managed to evade arrest and join a jihadi group, at least half subsequently died while carrying out terrorist operations abroad or were killed by U.S. military attacks or, in some cases, by their own comrades as a result of deadly quarrels within a group.9

While marred by initial missteps and blunders, the effort against homegrown jihadis can be judged a strategic ‘success,’ although jihadi armed struggles continue abroad and the danger of further jihadi attacks on American targets persists. Permanent improvements in U.S. domestic counterterrorism capabilities—if maintained—diminish that threat.10 The history of the American campaign offers a source of lessons to be learned, and some of the same principles will apply to new terrorist challenges. The experience does not, however, provide the prototype for efforts to deal with the current threat posed by today’s domestic violent extremists.

The Harder Challenge of Dealing with Domestic Terrorism
The domestic terrorist threat differs from that posed by homegrown jihadis in many respects, and dealing with it, for a number of reasons, will be more difficult.11

The nation has not been united or galvanized by a major domestic terrorist attack. The magnitude of the 9/11 terrorist attacks brought the country together in a fervent national effort to prevent further terrorist events. Domestic extremist attacks historically have not had the same unifying effect. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—the second-worst terrorist attack in the United States—did not unite the country in common cause, nor has the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol Building. The country remains deeply divided, even in how to describe the event, with some calling it an insurrection while others claim it was “legitimate political discourse.”12 Indeed, America’s political differences appear to have become more intense, which could hamper federal efforts to counter future political violence.

Domestic extremists have a sympathetic base. In contrast to the homegrown jihadis who faced national hostility and could not count on much sympathy from American Muslims, the beliefs driving today’s domestic extremists are deeply rooted in American history and society. Right now, this is probably truer of far-right extremists than of those on the far left, although both belief systems have been around for more than a century.

Domestic extremists have bigger numbers. It is always difficult to estimate the membership of extremist groups. The numbers are elastic and depend on their source and definition of membership. Counting sympathizers on the internet, groups may claim thousands of members while those willing to show up in person at protests may number in the hundreds. The Proud Boys, who describe themselves as “Western chauvinists” but who are described by others as “white nationalists,” have more than 100 chapters in almost all 50 states. Their total membership may be as high as 6,000.13 The Boogaloo movement may have (or had at one time) up to 10,000 “members.”14 The Oath Keepers’ membership lists 38,000 names, although the organization probably has far fewer active members.15

One chapter alone of the extreme far-left Youth Liberation Front claims 36,000 followers on Twitter, but that does not mean it has that many members.16 Antifa, whose ideology does not reject violence and which President Trump said the federal government would treat as a terrorist group,17 is better described as a universe of like-minded activists rather than a group.18 Many of the other entities on the ideological extremes are more fabrics of belief than organizations. Estimates of membership for all of these groups, far right and far left, are as slippery as the labels applied to them.

Domestic extremists are better organized than homegrown jihadis. Both extreme far-right and extreme far-left activists have adopted the concept of “leaderless resistance,”19 a often avoiding a hierarchical structure and instead relying on local autonomous cells to carry out attacks on behalf of their cause. This deliberate avoidance of centralized organization is intended to prevent infiltration by government informants. Far-left extremists generally appear less organized than far-right extremists, some of whom parade publicly in a semblance of uniforms.

Continued violence begets organization. More than 90 percent of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police killings in 2020 were peaceful.20 In a number of cases, however, protests were exploited by well-organized looters or a core of violent extremists who showed up to promote their own political agendas. They were joined by provocateurs wanting to escalate the confrontation or conduct false flag operations intended to discredit the protesters.21 In cities where protests turned into nightly battles with police, the violent interlopers became dominant, street tactics were refined, daily decisions were required, and organization emerged.22

The same period saw right-wing extremists traveling across the country to participate in various protests, including the January 6 assault on the Capitol. That required coordination, logistics, and financing. The shared experiences expanded contacts and contributed to coalescence. Even while adhering to leaderless resistance strategies, organizationally these groups may be maturing, a point we will return to below.

Right-wing extremists in the United States have easy access to powerful firearms. Extremists of all persuasions have far easier access to fire-arms, including assault rifles, in the United States than they do in Europe and other Western countries.

Some right-wing extremists have military or police experience. Gunning down unarmed civilians requires fanaticism, not advanced training, but to move beyond a lone shooter attack would require some tactical skills. A few American jihadis had served in the military and more had sought to join the army, but for the most part, they were untrained. There are concerns that domestic extremist groups have recruited veterans and that their ideologies have to an unknown degree penetrated the armed forces and police departments.23

Preventing radicalization may not work. The Obama administration promoted the idea of intervening before a person was ready to commit a crime as an alternative to a purely law enforcement approach—that is, preventing radicalization and recruitment instead of incarcerating those who became terrorists. These efforts—aimed primarily at heading off would-be jihadis—provoked resentment in Muslim communities, and it is not clear how effective they were.24 They may be even more controversial in the domestic environment. As the author has noted elsewhere, “The idea of the federal government patrolling ideology to identify dangerous beliefs will provoke outrage and raise civil liberties concerns on both the left and the right.”25

The environment for intelligence collection will be less permissive. Domestic intelligence collection in a democracy is always a delicate undertaking. Historically, the United States has seen the pendulum swing between aggressive (and sometimes extra-legal) programs against ideologies and organizations deemed subversive and revelations of abuses and the imposition of constraints that go too far, then back again in the face of new threats. As previously noted by the author, the “material support statutes and the fact that the public and courts viewed jihadists as part of a foreign threat (even though the majority were U.S.-born citizens) gave authorities unprecedented latitude in their investigations.”26 Containing jihadi terrorism in the years after 9/11 was, for the most part, achieved through intelligence, although many aspects of the Patriot Act remain controversial. Law enforcement cannot count on the same degree of latitude in monitoring domestic extremists.

A Deeply Divided Country
The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville noted after touring the United States nearly two centuries ago—when democracy was still an unusual form of government—that what gave the United States strength was Americans’ strong sense of community.27 “Today, the catalog of trends currently eroding that sense of community is depressingly long.”28

As the author has previously stated, “the increased polarization of our political system tops the list. It is a long-term trend, beginning in the 1970s, according to research at the RAND Corporation, that now manifests itself in the demonization of political opponents as primal enemies—tyrants, traitors, terrorists.”29

As previously noted by this author, political discussion has descended “into crude insults, ad hominem attacks and the notion that profanity displays authenticity. Contemporary political rhetoric is seemingly intended to inflame passions … Some news channels and the internet (along with foreign influence operations) stoke the differences, and facts are often irrelevant. This uncivic culture makes vicious attacks and harassment of public officials common, discouraging ordinary people from entering public service30 … Irreconcilable differences on social issues reinforce the political divide. Differences over racial injustice, abortion, gun control, immigration and LGBTQ rights increasingly determine whom one is willing to associate with, reinforcing self-segregation along political lines as we group with like-minded friends and partners.”31

As the author has noted elsewhere, “Even within communities, Americans do fewer things together. Church attendance is declining.32 Membership in civic organizations and lodges has been decreasing for decades.33 PTA membership has dropped by nearly half of what it was in the 1960s.34 Bowling leagues have almost disappeared. And the shared national experience of military service disintegrated with the abolition of conscription in 1973. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed citizen militias—driven mainly by far-right conspiracy theories—have surged since 2008, and especially in the past five years.”35

This is a fragile and fraught political environment, so partisan that almost every issue cleaves along party lines. Millions of Americans believe—or profess to believe—that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” and refuse to recognize the declared winner as the legitimate president of the United States.36

Yet, for all these faultlines, the United States in 1860 was more neatly divided than it is today. “For all the implied homogeneity in ‘red’ states and ‘blue’ states, they are more-complex mosaics—in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, and politics—than north versus south ever was.”37 That, at least, bodes against a binary breakdown.

But it is against the backdrop of a polarized nation that any efforts to contain political violence will have to operate, and it directly affects the formulation of any domestic counterterrorism strategy. This includes efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment into the ranks of violent extremists, the collection of domestic intelligence, and the prosecution of violent offenders.38

Galaxies of Grievance
Threats of domestic political violence come from both the extreme far-left and the extreme far-right. Neither extreme is monolithic. Historically, those on the extreme far-left tend to reflect specific issues, including the protection of organized labor, women’s liberation, equal rights for persons of all races and sexual orientations, opposition to nuclear weapons or the Vietnam War, protection of the environment, anti-capitalism, opposition to police shootings, and anti-fascism. These causes are sometimes expressed in a Marxist rhetoric, and within these movements, there are hardcore left-wing components. Today, it appears more anarchist than old-fashioned socialist, and for many young, self-styled anarchists, the ideology may be little more than a philosophical pretension to dress in black and raise hell.

Similarly, the extreme far-right reflects an assemblage of attitudes and overlapping causes rather than a single ideology. These include white nationalism or white supremacism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, fears of replacement by imported minorities, opposition to immigration, anti-feminism, anti-gay sentiment, anti-abortion sentiment, opposition to restrictions on private gun ownership, and—above all—fervent opposition to the federal government. Collectively, some of these prejudices are part of a continuing current in American history, extending back to the beginnings of the republic. The current broadens in response to societal stress. More recent additions include involuntary celibates and those propelled by conspiracy theories on the internet, while the pandemic has led to a growing coalescence between anti-vaxxers or those opposing COVID-restrictions and the extreme far-right, who see each other as reinforcements against a tyrannical government.39

Although collectively labeled “fascists” by their foes, there are few in these right-wing movements who understand let alone subscribe to an actual fascist philosophy, just as there are not a lot of traditional “communists” on the left. These are epithets, tossed around on Twitter and other social media, not deep descriptions of belief systems.

Economic grievances fuel both extremes. The net worth of a typical white family in America is 10 times greater than that of a Black family.40 Globalization and automation has impacted all blue-collar workers. Those with a high school diploma or less—whether Black or white—have been left behind economically, lacking access to jobs that would enable them to support a family. Inequality is growing. Just getting by has become harder. While deeply held prejudices are hard to change, increasing opportunities to improve the immediate economic outlook for many, while increasing education and vocational training to enhance long-range prospects, could drain some of the animus underlying the political divide. This is not to say that poverty causes political violence; it causes resentment, which can be exploited.

What we would today categorize as incidents of domestic terrorism, assassinations and bombings, go back to the 19th century. Anarchists and extremists within the labor movement were responsible for the assassination of President William McKinley and most of the major bombings from the 1880s into the 1920s. After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups carried on campaigns of terror that continued into the 1870s, killing thousands between 1865 and 1876,41 never entirely ceasing, but escalating again in the late 1920s, and again in the 1960s. An economic crisis affecting farmers in the Midwest prompted another wave of terrorist violence in the 1980s.42

Domestic terrorist attacks, primarily bombing campaigns carried out by far-left extremists, increased sharply in the late 1960s and continued into the 1970s. Since then, the volume of domestic terrorist activity has declined; the 1970s still account for almost half of the total number of domestic terrorist attacks that occurred in the following 50 years.43

Terrorist analysts point out that while the first two decades of this century were dominated by concerns about homegrown jihadis inspired by al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, domestic extremists were actually responsible for more attacks and deaths. According to statistics published by New America, attacks by homegrown jihadis resulted in 107 fatalities in the United States between 9/11 and the end of 2021, while attacks by violent extremists on the far right were responsible for 114 deaths. During the same period, misogynist ideology accounted for 17 deaths, Black nationalists or separatists killed 12, and far-left extremists killed one.44

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reports 893 incidents of domestic terrorism (counting both plots and attacks) between 1994 and May 2020. Its published statistics show domestic terrorism generally trending upward after 2006, with far-right extremists accounting for a growing share of the total. According to CSIS, far-right extremists accounted for 57 percent of all terrorist plots and attacks in the United States during this period (1994-2020) while left-wing extremists accounted for 25 percent.45

The Fallout from January 6
The January 6 invasion of the Capitol Building raised legitimate concerns about threats to democratic institutions and the potential for further political violence, but it also complicates any strategy to deal with that violence. The assault on the Capitol Building was an attempt to interrupt the transfer of power and overturn the results of the presidential election. More than 900 participants have been arrested and charged with crimes varying from misdemeanors like demonstrating in a Capitol building to felonies like criminal assault causing bodily injury.46 Sixteen persons have been charged with seditious conspiracy.47

The assault involved violence: People were killed; many were injured. Greater violence was threatened, including chants of “Hang Mike Pence.”48 The purpose of the assault was to affect the conduct of government and advance the political goals of the perpetrators. Some defendants believed—and still believe—they were following President Trump’s instructions.49

Concurrent with the investigations and criminal proceedings conducted by the Department of Justice, a Congressional Select Committee has conducted a parallel investigation.

As a result of its findings, the committee may refer matters to the Department of Justice, which will decide whether the former president (or anyone else) should be charged with a crime—as of mid-June 2022, 58 percent of Americans thought he should be.50 The Department of Justice must then determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a criminal charge against the former president, and the likelihood of a conviction. What effect it would have on the American body politic, and whether this should even be a consideration, are additional questions. While no one is above the law, is prosecuting the former president in the best interest of the country?

The approach recommended in this essay is to keep law enforcement and the legitimate suppression of violence separate from the country’s bitter political differences. To the extent that enforcement of the law is seen as politically motivated, then political violence directed against the government will appear to be more justified. Measures to legally suppress violent extremists will have greater public support if they are kept strictly in the arena of crime.

Many anticipated that the January 6 assault would inspire a wave of domestic terrorism. That has not occurred, at least, not yet. CSIS reported that the number of domestic terrorist plots and attacks dropped in 2021, although the number of fatalities increased from five to 30.51 According to the Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, there were eight incidents and seven deaths.52 New America reported that for the first time since 9/11, there had been no successful mass terrorist attacks in the United States in 2021.53 (One notes that the numbers are slippery.) A number of mass shootings had occurred, but none of these appeared to have been politically connected. (The killing of eight workers at massage parlors in Atlanta by a shooter who claimed to have a “sex addiction” could have been categorized as a hate crime because the victims were Asian-Americans. However, prosecutors decided to go into court with eight counts of murder.54)

Daniel Byman has suggested that the absence of mass terrorist attacks in the wake of January 6 by right-wing extremists reflected pressure by federal authorities, the lack of organization on the extreme far-right, and possible public revulsion after the assault on the Capitol and mass shootings like that in El Paso.55 I would agree that intense law enforcement pressure in the months following January 6 may have persuaded extremists to keep their heads down, especially since it was reported on January 27, 2021, that the leader of the Proud Boys had been a longtime informer for federal and local law enforcement.56

Even earlier, it was clear from October 2020 arrests that the FBI also had informants inside the alleged plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan.57 These revelations may be fueling paranoia among extremists that any new terrorist plots could be lures by government agents provocateurs aimed at rolling up extreme right-wing networks.

While fears of infiltrators, may partly explain why far-right extremists have not launched terrorist campaigns, it may also be that a traditional terrorist strategy may not fit the far-right extremists’ circumstances and strategy. The far-left extremist bombers of the 1970s wanted to draw attention to themselves and their causes. Today’s far-right extremists already have national attention, supportive national media outlets, not insignificant popular support, and even the presumed approval of some political leaders. Therefore, they have less ‘need’ for terrorist attacks, which could alienate public support, leave them more vulnerable to government pursuit and prosecution, and force them to go underground. Demographic differences between the left-wing radicals of the 1970s and today’s right-wing extremists may also discourage personal decisions to drop out and ‘go underground.’ The extreme right can build a national movement without the terrorism seen in previous waves.

The aura of violence is still present in the display of firearms, the military trappings and preparation for action, the semblance of uniforms—these are overt group activities. The exaltation of violence is also reflected in the bellicose rhetoric on the internet, online genocidal fantasies and plots, and in the growing volume of threats to public officials at all levels.58

This is a strategy based on intimidation and threats rather than the domestic terrorism of the 1970s. It is aimed less at altering national policies and more at scaring off its foes and taking power. It is far more of a political movement than the far left had in the 1970s, and more difficult to deal with than chasing handfuls of terrorist bombers.

More nihilistic elements that want to provoke a race war or civil war, individual actors pursuing personal agendas, and wannabes on the fringes seeking notoriety and approval pose the greatest immediate danger. There are also the gangs of thugs that assemble to engage in street brawls with targeted populations.59 This is behavior similar to that of the squads of Italy’s fascist Blackshirts, who beat up socialists, Republicans, Catholics, Jews, and union members in the 1920s.

Storm clouds roll over Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2022. (Tom Brenner for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Part Two: An Evolving U.S. Strategy
Dealing with domestic terrorism has historically been a no-go area for the U.S. government. To liberals, it conjured up recollections of the FBI’s discredited COINTELPRO campaigns exposed in the 1970s. In the 1980s, as left-wing bombers faded from the scene, conservatives feared that government campaigns against domestic extremists would be used to tarnish legitimate conservative causes. These differences were on display even after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

The Senate hearings that followed the 1995 bombing revealed a deep reluctance by both sides of the political spectrum to support any expansion of domestic intelligence efforts, although for different reasons. No national commission was created to review the event and identify lessons learned or recommend new measures. An entity calling itself the Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee, comprising a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and three businessmen, conducted its own ‘investigation’ and issued its final report six years later.60 Its recommendations were essentially an attack on the federal government agencies, in particular, “overzealous federal agents and prosecutors.” It accused the government of misconduct and abuse of power, also evident, it noted, in the sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Its final chapter is a blistering broadside on federal authority. It is worth quoting as it reflects sentiments that motivate many of today’s right-wing extremists.

When group rights and individual rights are not protected, the situation becomes intolerable and the people rise up against their Government. Apparently, this is the point McVeigh had reached … It is only because people feel powerless against the Government and fear its abuses that they bond together to protect themselves from it … If individual rights were respected, if Government agents were punished when they step on people’s rights or break laws … there would be no more acts of internal terrorism, no perceived need to stockpile weapons … Militia membership would dwindle and simply go away.61

The senior Department of Justice official coordinating the prosecution of Timothy McVeigh was current U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. Prosecutors knew the trial would be complicated by the intense emotions created by the carnage, the sharp political differences, the likelihood that the defendant would use the trial to promote his extremist views, and the inevitable conspiracy theories that would arise. The multitude of investigative paths pursued, many ending nowhere, and the mountains of evidence collected could, by their sheer volume and complexity, confuse a jury. The challenge was to keep the jury focused on the main legal question before it: Was McVeigh responsible for the bombing that caused the death of eight federal officials—a specific criminal charge that carried the death penalty? The jury agreed he was.62

Today’s political partisanship has made the subject of domestic political violence even more perilous to address than it was in the 1990s. It is only in the past five years that the federal government has re-entered this politically fraught territory.b Although still overshadowed by jihadi attacks, domestic terrorist attacks were already increasing by then. Research indicates that the gradual and then sharper increase in the frequency of domestic terrorist attacks, in particular those carried out by right-wing extremists, can be correlated with the re-election of President Obama in 2012 and the election of President Trump in 2016.63 Both elections reflected the increasing polarization of American society, especially on matters of race.64

Alarm, however, increased with the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which mobilized a gathering of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan, militias, and others to protest the removal of the statue of a confederate general. The event was viewed as an ominous demonstration of how brazen racist extremists had become. The effort to rid southern cities of monuments glorifying the confederacy had been given impetus by the 2015 murder of nine African-Americans at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a self-radicalized white supremacist.65

In the following five years, a number of official documents have reflected growing government concern and the evolution of strategy. These include the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism,66 the 2019 Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,67 and the 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.68

The 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism
The 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism remains focused on radical Islamist groups, but recognizes that the threats come from “individuals mobilized to violence by a range of domestic and foreign ideologies.”69 The domestic component of the threat is spelled out in a single paragraph:

Lastly, the United States has long faced a persistent security threat from domestic terrorists who are not motivated by a radical Islamist ideology but are instead motivated by other forms of violent extremism, such as racially motivated extremism, animal rights extremism, environmental extremism, sovereign citizen extremism, and militia extremism. Such extremist groups attempt to advance their agendas through acts of force or violence. Notably, domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise, with an increasing number of fatalities and violent nonlethal acts committed by domestic terrorists against people and property in the United States. The economic harm caused by domestic terrorists has also increased sharply as domestic terrorists have continued to destroy property, disrupt business, and perpetrate financial crimes that are designed to damage certain sectors of the United States economy.70

Although it claims to mark a shift in the American approach, the 2018 National Strategy continued the themes and efforts that had characterized the U.S. counterterrorism campaign since the 9/11 attacks. The priority actions described in the 2018 National Strategy mainly addressed the threat from abroad.71

The 2019 Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence
The Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence published in September 2019 recognized domestic terrorism as a growing threat.

There has been a concerning rise in attacks by individuals motivated by a variety of domestic terrorist ideologies, such as racially- and ethnically-motivated violent extremism, including white supremacist violent extremism, anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism, and other ideological strains that drive terrorist violence.72

The 2019 Strategic Framework provides a far more detailed discussion of the threat posed by domestic terrorists, focusing on white supremacists. This reflected what were recent events. In March 2019, a gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In his online manifesto, he claimed to have had brief contact with Anders Breivik, a white supremacist who in 2011 killed 77 people in Norway.73 Breivik’s manifesto highlighted the “Great Replacement Theory,”74 the threat that white Europeans were being demographically and culturally replaced by Muslim immigrants.75 White supremacists and nationalists have broadened the definition of the threat to include all immigrant populations other than those of white European heritage. Replacement theory underpinned contemporary white supremacist grievance in the United States.76

The Strategic Framework noted that several months after the attack in New Zealand, a gunman opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, killing 23 and wounding 26. The gunman also mentioned replacement theory in his manifesto.77 In October 2018, another gunman opened fire at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing 11. His online messages accused a Jewish charity of resettling refugees into the United States “that kill our people.”78 Another gunman attacked a Jewish synagogue in California, citing in his online posting the Christchurch and Pittsburgh killings as inspirations for his attack.79

The 2019 Strategic Framework also made reference to an anarchist claiming affiliation with antifa, who in 2019 attempted to ignite a propane tank at a federal facility in Tacoma, Washington. The armed attacker was killed by police arriving at the scene. The incident led to President Trump later stating that antifa should be designated as a terrorist group.80

The 2019 Strategic Framework added one further element to the discussion of the threat, noting that “hate crimes and non-ideologically motivated large-scale or disproportionately lethal acts of mass violence [italics added], including mass attacks, round out the picture of terrorism and targeted violence afflicting the Homeland.”81 This was a more controversial inclusion. It reflected the country’s growing outrage at mass shootings following the October 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada, in which a gunman on a hotel balcony fired into a crowd watching a music festival killing 60 people and injuring 867 others, including 411 by gunfire, before killing himself. Investigators have yet to find an explanation for the attack, which does not appear to have any connection to an ideology, political agenda, or known prejudice.82

The Department of Homeland Security now refers to such acts as “targeted violence,” in which “a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to the violent attack. Unlike terrorism, targeted violence includes attacks otherwise lacking a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation, but that are of such severity and magnitude as to suggest an intent to inflict a degree of mass injury, destruction, or death commensurate with known terrorist tactics.”83 Targeted violence can take place at schools, places of worship, transportation systems, indeed any public gathering.

Deconstructing the meaning and intent of this new language shows how official thinking has evolved over the years. The term “targeted violence” comes from a 1995 paper prepared for the National Institute of Justice,84 suggesting that law enforcement officers should go beyond their traditional role of gathering evidence, identifying and apprehending perpetrators, and assisting in the prosecution. They should also, the authors of that paper argued, acquire the skills to deal with possible future crime, specifically threat assessment—“the set of investigative and operational techniques that can be used by law enforcement professionals to identify, assess, and manage the risks of targeted violence and its potential perpetrators.”85

Threat assessment would arise when police learn about communicated threats or behavior that is menacing. This appears to be the origin of the phrase “a known or knowable attacker.” Some large police departments today have threat management units that are called upon to deal with cases involving stalking, hostile former employees, threats to former spouses, and similar threatening situations where violence is possible. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Threat Management Unit, often working with the LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit, handles hundreds of such cases a year.86

The notion of intervening to prevent targeted violence fits with post-9/11 pressure on authorities dealing with terrorism to actively intervene before an attack occurs. Traditional criminal investigations after a terrorist attack were not satisfactory. If the duty of law enforcement is to protect, not just punish, police had to detect and thwart terrorist attacks before bombs exploded—or, in police parlance, operate “left of the boom.”

In the wake of 9/11, a large percentage of terrorist plots in the United States were, in fact, thwarted by FBI and police stings. Those who, due to threats or boasting of their readiness to take violent action, were judged to be bent upon harm could be introduced to an undercover agent pretending to be a terrorist operative. The undercover agent could not act as a provocateur to entrap the subject but could test whether the individual—if given the opportunity—was willing to participate in a terrorist attack, in this case, a controlled event that never endangered the public. Active participation proving intent sufficed to warrant prosecution under the material support provision of the federal criminal code, which carried a severe penalty.

While stings were effective in thwarting would-be terrorists, such operations often were criticized on grounds that, absent government intervention, the defendant would never have become a terrorist for want of an opportunity or competence. Preet Bharara, a prominent former federal prosecutor who handled some of these cases, points out, however, that if the authorities had not intervened, the defendant could have found their way to a genuine terrorist group.87 As for competence, an individual ready to act could decide at any moment to use a truck or a machete to carry out mass murder. Competence was not a prerequisite to mass murder.

An alternative to stings was to push even further upstream to intervene even before an individual radicalized to the point of contemplating violence. A number of countries had developed programs aimed at deradicalizing those already incarcerated for terrorism-related crimes, enabling them to be released. Preventing radicalization to violence was the flip side of de-radicalization. Programs were created to inform relevant communities of the dangers of radicalization or that terrorist radicalization and recruitment were going on in their communities so that they could intervene to dissuade those at risk from following paths to destruction.

Those manifesting signs of radicalization could be directed toward off-ramps in the form of professional assistance. In 2011, the Obama administration released a strategic implementation plan with the goal of “preventing violent extremists and the supporters from inspiring, radicalizing, financing, or recruiting individuals or groups in the United States to commit acts of violence.”88 The plan, called Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, sought to assure America’s Muslim communities that they are part of the American family; nonetheless, countering violent extremism (CVE) clearly focused on the threat of extremist Islamist ideology, not surprisingly on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and following an upswing in jihadi terrorist attacks and plots.

Programs to prevent radicalization seemed to be a more benign approach than prosecution and lengthy incarceration, but they still caused controversy. In the United Kingdom, which pioneered one of the more ambitious prevention programs, legislation required that public officials working in schools, universities, hospitals, and local councils report individuals showing radical tendencies.89 In the United States, where free speech is guaranteed by the constitution, such interventions by the federal government would raise First Amendment issues. The U.S. strategy was to stay out of direct involvement and instead offer federal grants to community and non-government groups engaged in preventing radicalization.90 This came with assurances that CVE was not intended to be discriminatory. Still, the federal government’s adoption of an indirect role did not blunt criticism.

From their inception to the present, civil libertarians have claimed that CVE programs have resulted in discrimination and infringement of the rights to equality, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion—and they have been racist. “By viewing American communities through a threat-based security lens,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote recently, “these programs have targeted and harmed Black and Brown people, particularly Muslims.”91 Activists in American Muslim communities have complained about being singled out by intelligence programs and about prevention efforts being used by the authorities to recruit informants.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of CVE programs was their expansion of the scope of prevention. Preventing targeted violence, as presented in the 1995 National Institute of Justice paper, was based upon the presumption that police will be informed of specific situations that they must evaluate and manage.92 CVE was an effort to counter radicalization at the community level by alerting and educating members of the community, by enlisting local influencers, and by “identifying signs of violent extremism and ‘off-ramping’ susceptible individuals before they mobilize to violence.”93 Preventing targeted violence looks at cases; CVE looks for cases.

The Department of Homeland Security was well aware of the criticism that countering violent extremism was perceived as anti-Muslim. It noted in the 2019 Strategic Framework that “DHS training should provide guidance on privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns that non-government partners may have in partnering with law enforcement for countering violent extremism (CVE) activities.”94 (It is the only time the term CVE appears in the 2019 Strategic Framework.) Substituting the more anodyne term “preventing targeted violence” to encompass all premeditated acts of violence, thereby diluting the role of ideology as a motivation, offered a way to chuck the unwanted baggage that came with “CVE” while at the same time responding to public pressure to address what was perceived as a dramatic increase in mass shootings.

State governors were equally sensitive to the criticisms that cooperating with the federal government on CVE programs exposed them to. In a January 2021 issue brief entitled “Preventing Targeted Violence,” the National Governors Association was even more explicit in explaining the shift from CVE to preventing targeted violence:

Since 9/11, usage of the term “CVE” has come to be associated with interventions understood as anti-Muslim and targeting populations based on their religious beliefs. As such, we use “preventing targeted violence,” or “PTV,” to refer to a new approach focused on preventing violence rather than potential motivations. This approach can promote greater awareness among stakeholders about the various, evolving motivations behind such violence and help dispel the misconceptions that only al-Qaeda- or ISIS-inspired individuals are motivated to such acts of violence.95

If CVE expanded the scope of prevention, combining preventing targeted violence with terrorism broadened the horizons. The 2019 DHS Strategic Framework noted that “the threats of terrorism and targeted violence increasingly intersect with one another, and there is likewise some alignment in the tools that can be used to counter them. Thus, rather than dealing with terrorism and targeted violence as distinct phenomena, this Strategy addresses the problems, and the tools that can be wielded to address them, together.”

The 2019 Strategic Framework was not asserting that large-casualty events are a variant of terrorism, even though the public and news media often see them as such. In a mass shooting, say on the scale of the Las Vegas attack or other large-scale casualty event, DHS might be required to take action before it was known whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Depending on the nature of the attack and scale of violence and casualties, the motivation of the perpetrator or perpetrators could be irrelevant to the response. If, for example, there were a large-scale bombing, chemical, or biological attack, DHS would be part of the response. It would be the responsibility of law enforcement to determine whether the attack was politically motivated, a hate crime, or conceivably carried out by a “mad scientist.” A plane crashing into a building could be the work of terrorists or a suicidal pilot suffering from severe depression; the response to the event would remain the same.

The 2019 Strategic Framework did not precisely define “severity and magnitude,” but indicated it meant something “commensurate with known terrorist tactics.” But that is an elastic definition. Terrorist attacks in the United States have resulted in between zero and nearly 3,000 deaths on 9/11. Presumably, DHS had in mind mass killings like the shooting in Las Vegas, which DHS defined as an act of targeted violence. Targeted violence implies the Las Vegas shooter picked his targets for a reason, although no one knows what the shooter’s motivation was or the reasoning behind the selection of his target. The Strategic Framework further blurs the lines by mixing in the term “active shooter,” which the federal government defines as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”96

The FBI defines a mass shooting as any incident in which four people (excluding the shooter) are killed with a gun. Congress in 2013 set forth the criterion of three. Other definitions of mass shootings require only multiple injuries, which could add hundreds of episodes a year.97 (While many of the databases focus on gun violence, since 1970, terrorists in the United States have caused four or more deaths using bombs on four occasions, anthrax on one occasion, and more recently a vehicle in a ramming attack.98 In 2014, a depressed high school student stabbed 20 of his classmates and a security guard, although all survived.99)

That DHS may play a role in responding to large-casualty events that overwhelm local capabilities regardless of motivation is understandable. Where the role of DHS becomes more questionable, in my view, is in preventing such attacks. The 2019 Strategic Framework implies that its role in targeted violence is not limited to response. Going back to the document’s introduction, it states that “the threats of terrorism and targeted violence increasingly intersect, and there is likewise some alignment in the tools that can be used to counter them [italics added].” The footnoted reference to these introductory remarks refers specifically to the 1995 National Institute of Justice article entitled “Threat Assessment: An Approach to Prevent Targeted Violence.”100 The 2019 Strategic Framework, therefore, is apparently talking about prevention, not just response.

Federal sponsorship of community programs to prevent radicalization and recruitment to terrorist violence is legitimate, although it can be controversial, as pointed out previously. The prevention of targeted violence, where there is no obvious ideological or political nexus, raises questions of practicality and mission.

Of course, it is desirable to look for ways to prevent violence, whatever its motivation, but whether this is feasible and whether it is the mission of DHS prompted some debate within the department. In discussions with the author, some DHS officials described it as a “kitchen sink” approach that leads not only to definitional problems, but puts DHS in a gray area that could result in loss of focus and dilution of resources.

The years following the September 2019 publication of the Strategic Framework witnessed dramatic events that altered perceptions of U.S. domestic security. These included a number of mass shootings, four of them resulting in eight or more fatalities; an alleged plot by extremists to kidnap the governor of Michigan;101 and the January 6, 2021, mob assault on the Capitol. These events were reflected in the October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment,102 the first of its kind, and the May 2021 Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism as well as ultimately the June 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.

The 2020 and 2021 Assessments
The 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment noted that violent extremists will exploit public fears associated with COVID-19 and social grievances “driving lawful protests to incite violence, intimidate targets, and promote their violent extremist ideologies.”103 Elsewhere in the assessment, DHS mentioned incitement, indicating its awareness that violent extremists infiltrate and exploit broader protests. The assessment warned that “DVEs and other violent actors might target events related to the 2020 presidential campaigns, the election itself, election results, or the post-election period. Such actors could mobilize quickly to threaten or engage in violence.” The assessment also stated that, “Among DVEs, racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”104

The May 2021 Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism, a document prepared by the FBI and DHS, is more of a guidebook, informing members of Congress and the public how the federal government addresses the issue of domestic terrorism, than it is an assessment.105 It reviews strategic intelligence assessments for 2017, 2018, and 2019, but does not offer assessments for 2020 or 2021 since the congressional requirement for the reporting was part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which became law in December 2019.

It provides a taxonomy of the various categories of domestic violent extremists (DVEs). These include racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs), anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists (AGAAVEs), anarchist violent extremists (AVEs), militia violent extremists (MVEs), Sovereign Citizen violent extremists (SCVEs), abortion-related violent extremists, and animal rights/environmental violent extremists—the last two categories are subsets of AGAAVEs and the report does not give them their own acronyms.

The summaries in the May 2021 document of the 2017, 2018, and 2019 assessments specifically identify white supremacists as the most dangerous source of violence, accounting for a majority of the lethal attacks and 42 (nearly three-quarters) of the 57 deaths during the three-year period.

The June 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism
The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,106 which was published in June 2021, repeated an earlier threat assessment prepared by the intelligence community and released in March 2021. This earlier assessment warned of an elevated threat posed by domestic violent extremists “motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events.”107 These include enduring biases against minority populations and perceptions of government overreach and newer developments such as the narratives of fraud in the 2020 election and the emboldening assault on the U.S. Capitol, protests related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence.108

Racially motivated and militia violent extremists were identified in the March 2021 document as the most lethal domestic threats. Self-radicalizing lone offenders or small cells were considered more likely to carry out attacks than groups. However, the MVE threat, which increased in 2020, was assessed as likely to remain elevated “because of contentious sociopolitical factors.”109

The 2021 National Strategy focused “specifically on violence and factors that contribute to it;” in other words, this was not about political partisanship. “The overarching goal of this Strategy is preventing, disrupting, and deterring” violence.110

It went on to say that:

It is critical that we … confront domestic terrorism regardless of the particular ideology that motivates individuals to violence. The definition of “domestic terrorism” in our law makes no distinction based on political views – left, right, or center … We must disrupt and deter those who use violence to intimidate racial or religious minorities … So too must we disrupt and deter those who launch violent attacks in a misguided effort to force change in government policies that they view as unjust.111

How is this to be achieved? The 2021 National Strategy lays out “four pillars” encompassing eight “strategic goals.” Pillar One is to understand and share domestic terrorism information. That means enhancing research, sharing information, and illustrating transnational connections. Pillar Two aims at preventing recruitment and mobilization to violence. It has two strategic goals: strengthening prevention sources and services and addressing online terrorist recruitment.

Pillar Three aims at disrupting and deterring domestic terrorism. The strategic goals indicate that this is primarily to be done by the Department of Justice and FBI. The document envisions the Department of Homeland Security playing a role in analyzing and assessing the threat and educating and assisting state and local law enforcement in threat analysis. It envisions that DHS will support efforts to improve media literacy as a mechanism for strengthening user resilience to online disinformation—the word “resilience” here is used in a novel fashion, meaning skepticism, resistance, or rejection.

The 2021 National Strategy envisions DHS playing a major role in government efforts aimed at identifying and preventing terrorism recruitment by providing funding to local community prevention programs and by ensuring that such efforts are driven by data. According to this vision, DHS, working with the FBI, would try to enhance the public’s understanding of the assistance that can be provided to those in need, including how mental health experts are complementing traditional law enforcement. The Department also would have the task of developing potential indicators of terrorist mobilization and recruitment.

Despite the emphasis on prevention, the 2021 National Strategy confirms the short shelf life in official documents of the term, “preventing targeted violence.” The 2019 Strategic Framework mentioned targeted violence 110 times. The 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment mentioned targeted violence three times and targeted attacks once. The most recent document laying out government strategy, the 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, mentions it only twice.

The second strategic goal under the 2021 National Strategy’s Pillar Three addresses possible legislative reforms and screening. The 2021 National Strategy remains cautious—in my view, appropriately—about new criminal laws to counter domestic terrorism. The final strategic goal under Pillar Three addresses the need for screening and vetting of government employees, including those in the military and law enforcement at the federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial level.

Pillar Four addresses long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.

That means tackling racism … It means protecting Americans from gun violence and mass murders. It means ensuring … early intervention and appropriate care for those who pose a danger to themselves or others. It means ensuring that Americans receive the type of civics education that promotes tolerance and respect for all … And it means ensuring that there is simply no governmental tolerance … of violence as an acceptable mode of seeking political or social change.112

While this language seems sadly necessary in today’s America, it could be the most contentious part of the national strategy. In the current partisan environment, those already hostile to the federal government see this as putting the federal government into the realm of patrolling thought, seeking out those who might commit crimes, or intervening in school curricula.

The 2021 National Strategy identifies the mission-set identified in Pillar Four as national goals, but it also makes it clear that the federal government cannot achieve them alone, and for some is not the appropriate lead. It repeatedly talks about partnership with state, local, and territorial governments. Those already suspicious of federal government overreach unwarranted by a negligible threat miss the caveats, however.

The Arc of Threat Perception
Taken together, these documents trace the shift from concern about homegrown jihadis to domestic violent extremists. The threat perception changes incrementally, tentatively. Clearly defined jihadi adversaries are joined by an array of domestic extremists lumped together in the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism. The 2019 Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism recognized domestic terrorism as a growing threat, focusing on violence by white supremacists. The 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment identified white supremacist extremists as the most persistent and most lethal threat. The 2021 National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, as its title indicates, deals exclusively with the threat of violence by domestic extremists who threaten the democratic process. In doing so, it communicates its awareness that the country is politically divided.

The strategies and strategic frameworks discussed have been attempts to put a complex national effort into a coherent whole, which is their greatest utility. But these are public documents, not secret wartime strategies. They inform a huge government enterprise and a vast national audience about what the government is doing and where the nation should go. They respond to public concerns, signal commitment, lay out goals, identify priorities, and provide assurances. They catalogue what is needed or wanted, not precisely how it is to be obtained. They sometimes slide into desiderata and exhortation.

They are products of an interagency process. They reflect political concerns and constraints. They are written by committees seeking consensus. They bridge differences with compromise language. They try to avoid offending or needlessly provoking any particular group, especially in these times of heightened sensitivities. Expression can at times be anodyne.

Part Three: Elements for Countering Domestic Political Violence
The following elements are not intended to be an alternative to the current national strategy. Instead, they attempt to go a step further and address a number of specific issues in greater detail. They emphasize a pragmatic approach.

Some may argue that the elements described below do not address the broader ills that currently afflict American society and its government: the absence of agreement on almost anything, the dismissal of facts, tribal politics that supplant national interests, congressional dysfunction, the demonization of political opponents, the loss of comity and the insulting and violent rhetoric that have replaced political discourse, the prospect of forever contested elections, settling scores rather than setting a course for the future. I agree that these are national problems and should be addressed. Containing political violence is essential, but by itself will not fundamentally alter the social and political landscape. That is a matter for civic culture and political leadership.

Do no harm. Right now, the country is fragile. American society is deeply divided. Its divisions are fueled by polarized politics, online poison, post-pandemic pessimism, hair-trigger sensitivities, a declining sense of community, eroding trust in institutions, and loss of goodwill in our political process. In the country’s current critical condition, even the most benign interventions to curb domestic extremism may easily escalate tensions and make things worse. Maintaining national cohesion is vital to success.

Avoid overreaction and overreach. The assault on the U.S. Capitol offers ample warning that domestic violent extremists pose a threat. As outlined above, since the 9/11 attacks, domestic extremists have killed more people than homegrown jihadis, but both sets of numbers are small and below the level of terrorist violence seen in the 1970s when there were 50 to 60 terrorist bombings a year in the United States.113 It is tempting to ignore the issue altogether as a spasm of violence resulting from pandemic shutdowns, public protests, and a hotly contested election. The United States has a high tolerance for individual violence. Overreaction could exacerbate the situation. However, the long-term trend of domestic political violence has generally been upward over the last decade. Armed defiance is on greater display. We are still at the front end of potential terrorist campaigns and can head extremists off before matters get worse, but we must do so cautiously.

Set realistic, achievable objectives. As with all counterterrorism efforts, the primary goal will be to protect lives by preventing terrorist attacks.114 To sustain a functioning democratic government, authorities need to devote special attention to protecting U.S. officials against assassination, sieges, and other assaults. Public officials are already dealing with increased threats as a consequence of the pandemic and the contested results of the election.115 This will have a corrosive effect on the democratic process, discouraging many from seeking office or entering public service, leaving the field open to those comfortable with politics as scorched earth warfare. Above all, the objective of the effort should be to preclude normalizing political violence in American society.

Combating domestic terrorism means maintaining the legal guardrails against ideologically or politically motivated violence. It means enforcing the law; it cannot become the continuation of politics by other means. Countering terrorism includes efforts—primarily by law enforcement—to deter or bring to justice those responsible for violence combined with national efforts to remove or reduce the causes of the violence. Governments may give greater weight to one or the other, depending on the circumstances. The first is a traditional law enforcement role; the second may aim at ultimate reconciliation, but could also include education and psychological operations to reduce recruiting, preventive interventions, de-radicalization programs aimed at altering destructive patterns of behavior, and other efforts. Given the current levels of distrust in government institutions and vulnerability of other efforts to misunderstanding and misrepresentation, it may be better to operate mainly in a traditional law enforcement role, which is the appropriate mission of the FBI as well as state and local police.

A counterterrorism campaign is not an instrument to ensure racial equity and social justice. These obviously remain national goals, but they ought to be broader tasks for the entire nation, from voters to the Oval Office. Those who are dissatisfied by what they see as timidity in dealing with domestic extremists may quarrel with this, but government cannot strip mine every seam of bigotry in American society. White supremacism, anti-Semitism, animosity toward immigrants, hostility toward the federal government, and other resentments represent continuing dark currents in American society that widen during periods of economic and social stress. Deeply embedded in American society, prejudice will not be banished by legislation and cannot be eradicated by law enforcement.

Don’t blur the mission. Countering domestic terrorism is not about preventing gun violence or mass shootings. Domestic terrorism is a component of “targeted violence,” but this is a broader category that includes workplace violence and attacks on schools, places of worship, public events, and transportation systems that lack a clearly discernible political, ideological, or religious motivation.116 These events usually involve shooters engaged in carefully planned assaults in a public place. Most aim at causing mass casualties; victims are often randomly selected. The attacks may look like terrorism, but there is no terrorist link or discernible political motive. While terrorism and targeted violence overlap as public security concerns, they should not be conflated. Angry employees ‘going postal,’ doom-obsessed adolescents, and deranged killers are not domestic violent extremists.

Isolate violent extremists from their presumed constituencies. This means going after the violent fringe without making half the population enemies of the state. A small percentage of those arrested for invading the U.S. Capitol were members of violence-prone extremist groups bent upon subverting a democratic process. But many were ordinary people convinced they were taking patriotic action to prevent an election from being stolen. They broke the law but should not be portrayed as terrorist associates. The goal in dealing with domestic violent extremists is to isolate them from potential constituencies, not broaden the target.117

Avoid standoffs and trigger events. Standoffs and sieges like Ruby Ridge and Waco should be avoided. Some extremist elements are determined to provoke a race war or civil war. Standoffs and sieges can trigger further acts of violence and provoke deep political crises. One can only imagine the political crisis that could have occurred if the invaders of the Capitol on January 6 had decided to take hostages to hold off National Guardsmen clearing the building. Adequate security based upon intelligence and responding rapidly can reduce the possibility that things will spin out of control. The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the armed protests at the Michigan statehouse and in other state capitals in 2020 and 2021; the invasion of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021; and the 2022 occupation of downtown Ottawa and similar actions by truckers in the United States118 suggest that the authorities must be prepared for large-scale protests, any one of which could quickly escalate into an armed standoff.

Impede recruiting. Revulsion in reaction to bloody terrorist attacks will erode public sympathies as it did in the immediate wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. If the extremist diehards move from protest marches and street brawls to clandestine terrorist campaigns, that also will impede organizational recruiting: Fewer people are prepared to abandon their ordinary lives and “go underground” to live on the run or lead a double life. The prospects of criminal prosecution will peel off some potential recruits. Publicized revelations that some of the extremist leaders may have been government informants and breaking up terrorist plots that have been infiltrated can have a further chilling effect. Prevention programs potentially can further reduce recruiting. This will not stop lone actors and tiny conspiracies from plotting attacks, but it will sow distrust and hamper organizational growth and collaboration.

Recalibrate existing programs to prevent radicalization. In response to a continuing jihadi threat, authorities worldwide sought ways to identify and divert those vulnerable to radicalization. This was new territory. Until recently, these programs focused on would-be jihadis. Whether they were effective is hard to judge.119 Nor is it clear that they can be usefully employed to deal with would-be domestic terrorists. Preventing the radicalization of domestic extremists, whose views may be acquired early in life and may draw on greater community support, could differ significantly. Ongoing research is expanding our knowledge of how domestic terrorists radicalize and can inform new efforts.120 These programs angered America’s Muslim communities. Even greater push back should be anticipated as they are extended to other communities. This is an area where local communities should take the lead, but DHS can support the effort with knowledge and funding.

Avoid the appearance of politicization in law enforcement and prosecution. Keep the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, the FBI, and police departments out of politics and culture wars. The core mission of law enforcement is to control crime, a mission that has wide public support.121 Departures from this mission create uncertainty for law enforcement officials and bring public controversy.

The current lexicon does not always help us. For example, the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol has been described as meeting the definition of terrorism; analysts debate the point. Calling ordinary criminals terrorists is an upgrade. Others describe the January 6 event as an attempted coup or a putsch, both foreign words and neither of which appears in the U.S. Criminal Code. The current favored term is insurrection, which does appear in the code, although it is hard to find anyone prosecuted as an “insurrectionist” in the last 150 years. As with the label of terrorism, the question is not whether the invasion of the Capitol meets the legal definition of insurrection. The word itself seems obsolete, pretentious, and from some perspectives even high-minded. What term is strategically useful? Violent mob may be more accurate, invokes less support, and it carries less political freight.

I have used the terms terrorism and political violence interchangeably, although in my view, terrorism is a more emotive term. The key element is always violence. The term terrorism may also cause officials to look for tactics that match past terrorist campaigns while domestic violent extremists, instead of attention-getting bombings, may be following a strategy of intimidation aimed at incremental eventual takeover. Counterterrorism should be presented as what it basically is—law enforcement aimed at ordinary criminals.

Don’t make martyrs. Both ends of the political spectrum push for throwing the book at their adversaries on the other side. Progressives have expressed discontent with what they perceive as timidity on the part of the attorney general and Department of Justice in going after white supremacists and other far-right extremists, especially the leaders. Conservatives claim that the federal government has failed to appropriately prosecute and punish those responsible for violence during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. In my view, Attorney General Garland, a seasoned jurist who successfully coordinated the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers, has the experience and savvy to steer an apolitical course.

Thus far, the prosecution of the participants in the January 6 invasion of the Capitol has been carefully calibrated to fit the crime. Most defendants have faced comparatively minor charges and plea bargains have been being pursued, resulting in modest penalties, but also depriving defendants from opportunities to grandstand or portray themselves as political prisoners.122 More serious charges have been brought against a small number of individuals whose plans and actions posed a greater threat, and here again, plea bargains may preclude the kinds of divisive trials like those of anti-war protesters in the late 1960s or white supremacists and seditious conspiracy trials in 1988 and 2012.123 Prosecutors make strategic decisions on how they portray the actions of the accused. Researchers examining the outcomes of terrorist trials after 9/11 concluded that when prosecutors sought to emphasize the political motivations of the defendant, the case was more likely to go to trial and more likely to result in a dismissal or acquittal; the highest plea bargain and conviction rates were among defendants facing traditional criminal charges.124 In other words, invoking the terrorism enhancement, while increasing the possible penalty, could imperil conviction.125

Preserve intelligence capabilities. Robust domestic intelligence collection, always difficult in a democracy, will be necessary. It must be accompanied by rigorous oversight to prevent abuses, creating a tension between necessity and constraint. Historically, the United States has tended to overreact in response to intelligence failures and to overreact in response to revelations that authorities have overstepped their bounds. The pendulum swings back and forth, often going too far.

The United States currently faces a more complicated threat matrix that includes a continuing threat posed by homegrown jihadis, domestic extremists, and an array of individual actors motivated by various issues. At the same time, intelligence efforts currently face growing headwinds. The memory of 9/11 has faded; authorities were successful in preventing most further tragedies (largely due to intelligence); and the homegrown jihadi threat has diminished. A revisionist history now unfairly seeks to portray the entire counterterrorism campaign as a malevolent enterprise and domestic intelligence collection as an Islamophobic, racist program aimed at stigmatizing a religion, immigrants, and Black and brown communities.

It is not difficult to find examples where people exploited the jihadi threat to expand executive authority or promote other political objectives. Unquestionably, there is a record of inevitable errors, understandable excesses, and inexcusable crimes. At the same time, some conservative white communities and groups fear that current government efforts to contain domestic political violence are aimed specifically at disarming and destroying them. Between these two extremes, the center is hollowed; there is a diminished pro-intelligence constituency. Predictably, it will be difficult to preserve existing intelligence collection authorities, including those that are vital to successful disruptions.

The most contentious area includes surveillance, specifically Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed after 9/11, that allows the government to target the communications (phone calls and emails) of foreign persons located outside the United States, including their communications with Americans.126 Civil libertarians consider this a back door to warrantless surveillance of Americans.127 The provision is due to expire in 2023. Government monitoring of social media, which has led to arrests of terrorists, has also attracted opposition.128

And there is opposition to local police sharing certain kinds of information with federal authorities. Some groups demand that local police departments, among other things, end participation in federally funded countering violent extremism efforts and remove their officers from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force operations.129 The national network of fusion centers has also come under fire. Some are excellent, but in my view many are mediocre and need adequate staffing and more training to improve their capabilities and ensure that their activities remain within constitutional boundaries. Disbandment is the alternative.

These initiatives against intelligence operations reflect legitimate concerns, heightened by broader distrust of police as well as the federal government on both ends of the political spectrum. The dynamic is not new. Civil libertarians and right-libertarians share suspicion of federal authority. As threats evolve, regular review of domestic intelligence authorities and methods is appropriate. Domestic intelligence programs and practices need not be defended on all fronts.

A more pragmatic course would be to identify a core of intelligence capabilities and programs that should be preserved. Using actual cases as much as possible, it should be publicly explained why they are essential and how they have contributed to public security—avoiding the word ‘algorithm.’ That also means accepting that the ability to uncover plots and prevent attacks may decline as investigations return to a traditional reactive mode; this is a national choice. It means reversing the push toward prevention, which has driven national efforts since the 1990s, and especially after 9/11, and accepting that some attacks may occur and will be investigated after the event as terrorist bombings of the 1970s were.

Use informants judiciously. In dealing with domestic terrorism, authorities have always relied heavily on the recruitment of informants and undercover agents. Informants are a critical component of intelligence. Informants can operate in communities where undercover agents would be easily identified. They facilitate disruptions and assist in criminal investigations after attacks. Knowing there may be informants impedes recruiting and may deter criminal action. Fear of FBI infiltration was the reason why organizations, especially white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis adopted a strategy of “leaderless resistance,” relying on action by autonomous small cells and inspired individuals.130

The recruitment and utilization of informants is subject to federal and local guidelines. Determination to avoid perpetuating prejudices has made the country acutely sensitive to any hint of bias. The recently promulgated counterterrorism strategies aim at identifying potential violent actors while repeatedly reassuring the public that intelligence efforts are not aimed at any specific sector of society that might feel offended. While this sensitivity is understandable and critical, it is the nature of the threat that should drive intelligence efforts, not the biases or political preferences of the law enforcement agency.

America is not a police state. It does not—and should not—support a vast network of informants monitoring fellow citizens for any hint of subversive thought. Whether related to organized crime or political violence, the appearance of impartiality is not assured by targeting every sector of society equally.

Most members of the Sicilian Mafia who referred to their organization as Cosa Nostra were Italian. Most members of MS-13 are Central American, especially Salvadorans. The FBI did not look for violent Klansmen in the NAACP or the B’nai B’rith. Support for the terrorist campaigns waged in the 1980s by the Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia—not surprisingly—came from individuals in Armenian communities in Europe and the United States. The anti-Castro Cuban bombers of the 1960s and 1970s were based mostly in Miami. The focus of intelligence activities in these cases was not about bias; it simply reflected the threat.

The FBI’s penetration of the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan131 and the revelation that the leader of the Proud Boys was a government informant132 suggest that the bureau has informants in far-right extremist groups. Federal investigators, however, are likely to have less latitude than for international terrorism in investigating domestic extremist groups or introducing evidence obtained through informants in court. Intelligence operations will have to adjust to minimize predictable backlash. The failure of prosecutors to initially obtain convictions in the alleged plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan points to the challenges of prosecutions depending on informant testimony.133

Address the handling of intelligence regarding the January 6 assault. Regardless of whether one views the events of January 6 as a planned invasion of the Capitol or a protest that turned violent, security preparations were inadequate. It appears to have been not so much an intelligence failure as a failure to heed the intelligence. Why, despite intelligence available from various police departments, including the District of Columbia Police, fusion centers, some FBI field offices, and other federal agencies, was it not put together in an intelligence warning that mobilized necessary resources? Was this the result of reluctance at the federal level? Were agencies inhibited by the political environment? Were the warnings not heeded because of biases on the part of those charged with security? What happened or did not happen, and why?134

Accept that prevention may be more difficult and certainly more controversial. The public and political leadership will continue to demand prevention, but disruptions may be harder to achieve while early interventions may preclude successful prosecutions, intensifying what is often a source of tension. A traditional investigative approach like that which dealt with the terrorist bombers of the 1970s where authorities most often responded to events that had already occurred would obviate proving intent. Even jurors sympathetic to the accused would have to confront the reality of victims, making it harder to ignore the fact of an attack.

The authorities could be pushed by current political realities to wait longer before intervening. Although it sounds Machiavellian, government could decide to adopt a more reactive approach as a matter of strategy (at least initially). Investigations after the fact of violence are easier to justify. It reduces room for doubt and allows prosecuting solely on ordinary criminal charges, leaving aside motivation and intentions. It allows prosecutors to achieve more widely accepted convictions. When it is clear that criminal action appears imminent and lives are at stake, authorities must intervene regardless of worries about divisive trials or calculations of successful prosecution. Often, however, the circumstances of any case are murkier.

Public officials must be protected without surrounding them with onerous physical security measures that burden their families and isolate them from the public they serve. The protection of the president is not a viable model here. Instead, threat assessment and threat management capabilities will have to be expanded so that security can be flexibly applied. It is not just a matter of protecting people against actual attack, but against insidious intimidation. That may require reexamining laws against communicated threats.

Expose foreign connections and instigation. Domestic political extremists can have foreign connections.135 Often, they are part of broader international movements that share ideology and communicate with one another. These are not hierarchies with a centralized command element, but still connected communities. While harder to understand and portray, the foreign connections can sometimes facilitate domestic investigations. The extensive network of cooperative relationships forged between governments to deal with the jihadi threat can also serve to deal with domestic violent extremists; exchanging information and sharing analysis can lead to more effective countermeasures. As in the case of homegrown jihadis, domestic violent extremists are also subject to information operations and exhortations from abroad. These can provide another source of intelligence.

Passing a new domestic terrorism law is unnecessary and distracting. There are continuing calls for a new domestic terrorism law to raise attention and close a “moral equivalency gap” with international terrorism.136 Enthusiasm for such legislation has dimmed for the moment, but any new attack will reignite the fervor. There is good reason to be wary. Passing a new domestic terrorism law is unnecessary. Past government caution in dealing with domestic extremists reflected the lack of political consensus, not the absence of criminal statutes, and while agreeing that laws reflect moral values, it may be preferable to avoid the inevitable polarization that will come with renewed debates about the definition of terrorism and who the terrorists are.137

What many proponents of a domestic terrorist law are looking for is the equivalent of the material support provision of the Patriot Act, which made it a crime to provide any type of assistance to a designated foreign terrorist organization. It was used extensively to prosecute homegrown jihadis. To enact the domestic version of the material support provision would require authorities to designate domestic terrorist organizations, and that is where the problem lies. As previously noted by the author, “in the current environment … congressional agreement on the definition of terrorism, let alone who’s a terrorist, seems unlikely.138 Satisfying the views of both sides could lead to vague criteria, producing a list of hundreds of ‘terrorist groups,’ or—worse—political horse trading—we’ll give you antifa if you give us Proud Boys. Some of the names mentioned are not even organized groups, but rather broad movements or simply shared attitudes.”139 In any case, in my view, the greatest threat of terrorism is more likely to come from unaffiliated actors.

Keep investigations, arrests, and prosecution narrowly focused on crime. Portray and treat violent offenders as ordinary criminals. Prosecutors may sometimes use the heavier penalties that a terrorism enhancement to a criminal charge brings in order to persuade the defendant to plead guilty rather than risk a conviction and long imprisonment. They may also choose to portray the crime as terrorism, hoping it will provoke the jury’s outrage and increase the odds of a guilty verdict. In dealing with domestic terrorism defendants, that course can backfire. In domestic terrorism cases, some defendants define themselves as American patriots, a perspective to which some members of the jury might be sympathetic. At a minimum, it takes the jury into the more complicated arena of motives. Why give the defendant a platform for his political pretensions? He only has to persuade one juror.

The Department of Homeland Security should play a strategic role in countering domestic political violence. A number of DHS’ component agencies—for example, the Secret Service and the Transportation Security Administration—have specific missions that involve countering terrorism and political violence. The department also has broader strategic roles. These include protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, which includes the election infrastructure and in understanding, assessing, and countering foreign influence operations conducted via the internet. In dealing with threats, DHS promotes and supports information-sharing through the national network of fusion centers that connect state and local police departments and federal agencies.

DHS was never intended to operate as the equivalent of the British MI5, a national gendarmerie, or federal Special Branch. Outside of its specific component agencies, the department does not directly collect domestic intelligence or conduct its own criminal investigations. DHS assembles information passed on to it from other federal agencies and state, local, tribal, and territorial police. The most critical function of DHS in this area is the strategic analysis of threats and providing assessments and warnings. The FBI remains the operational arm of the federal government for domestic intelligence collection and criminal investigations. Since 9/11, the FBI’s analytical capabilities have increased, but by tradition and institutional culture, the bureau is case-driven, which also happens to be the best posture for avoiding the appearance that it is a political instrument. To the extent that DHS and the FBI analysis may overlap, it is not unhealthy.

DHS comprises many components, each of which have specialized roles, authorities, and capabilities. In order to increase efficiency, some support the idea that the authorities and resources of the various components are interchangeable and can be combined, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, according to this vision, the Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Agency, and other DHS entities would become units of a larger DHS force. (DHS already has the largest law enforcement contingent in the federal government.) The DHS response to the 2020 riots in Portland, Oregon, provided a preview. There may or may not be legal barriers to how far this can go, but it would alter the perception of DHS, bringing it closer to a European-style ministry of interior, emphasizing law enforcement, with a national gendarmerie as an enforcement arm.140 The shape of DHS and how it defines its mission going forward is beyond the scope of this essay, but it will be critical in the new environment.

The military has very little role in countering domestic political violence. Keep it that way. Federal forces have been deployed throughout American history to put down rebellions, prevent disorder, and—in some cases where local authorities are defiant—enforce federal law, for example, the desegregation of schools. The National Guard, under state control, serves as the principal backup in dealing with riots when local law enforcement is overwhelmed. In most recent cases, troops were sent in at the request of local authorities to quell riots and prevent looting. However, short of reinforcing local police and the National Guard in large-scale riots or protecting its bases or its armories against theft, the U.S. military does not have an operational role in domestic counterterrorism. The U.S. armed forces cannot be used for law enforcement without the approval of Congress.

Beyond these circumscribed missions, which must be ordered by the president and in some cases approved by Congress, the American military does not do politics. It does not challenge civilian authority, but it is not a Praetorian Guard and will resist being used to serve as anyone’s political instrument. Military leaders are acutely aware of the dangers to the country and to the military institutions themselves of politicizing the armed forces. It is true that former officers—representing their own views—have engaged in political rhetoric that borders on sedition while others while still in uniform have publicly expressed political views. These cases are rare.

Widespread protests in 2020, some of which led to violence, and the 2020 presidential elections, which the then president claimed were fraudulent, strained relations between the president and the armed forces. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley later publicly apologized for appearing with the president at a photo opportunity amidst protests in Washington, D.C., because, in his words, it “created the impression of the military involved in domestic politics.”141 When, following the elections, there were concerns that the then president might use the military to stay in power, General Milley in a Veterans’ Day speech pointed out that “we are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or queen, a tyrant or dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe, or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”142

It became clearer weeks later what kinds of concerns had motivated General Milley’s words when some of the then president’s supporters, including a former three-star general who earlier had served as the president’s national security adviser, publicly argued that the then president should suspend the constitution, declare martial law, and order the military to run new elections.143 My own assessment is that military participation in such a scenario remains highly unlikely, and that active military involvement in dealing with domestic political violence, while adding little, would risk the sacrosanct notion of a politically neutral military.

Let the military determine how to keep extremists out of the ranks. Keeping the military out of politics is one concern. Keeping political extremists out of the military is a second. The presence of veterans and a few active-duty personnel in the January 6 mob or some of the right-wing extremist groups has raised questions about whether there are anti-government, white supremacist, or other dangerous extremists present in the ranks. Again, this is not a new issue. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh was an army veteran, and several homegrown jihadis were active-duty military personnel.c Responding to recent cases, the Pentagon has reviewed its policies and clarified the rules, but leaves enforcement to unit commanders.144 One possible criticism is that unit commanders have other concerns and are unqualified to assess some of the secret signs and codes used by extremists.

Noting that the Pentagon’s review of extremism among service members found prohibited extremist activity among service members to be rare—just 100 cases out of 2.1 million active and reserve personnel—the Senate Armed Services Committee in its report to accompany the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2023 stated its view that spending additional time and resources is inappropriate and “should be discontinued by the Department of Defense immediately.”145

My own assessment here is that the military is aware and determined to address the issue without undermining combat readiness.d Greater scrutiny can be carried out during recruiting. Another possible approach may be to incorporate some instruction in civics—how the government works and what it means to be a soldier into military training. Although any such effort is likely to provoke intense scrutiny in today’s culture wars, it is not “woke” to include the kind of basic civics course that used to be mandatory in high school. As a final measure, the Pentagon could explore ways in which it might psychologically assist recently discharged personnel as they make the sometimes difficult transition to civilian life, where they may be targets of extremist recruiting.

Enforce the law in a patently even-handed way. While protecting the right of protest, application of the law must be equal. American society has traditionally tolerated a wide range of behavior in political protest, even as participants crossed the line from lawful to unlawful and peaceful to violent. If conduct becomes bad enough—as in aggravated assaults or looting—ordinary criminal laws can be applied. It is not considered terrorism, although some say it should be. However, application of the law should be equal. Continuing violent assaults on a federal courthouse in Portland cannot be ignored while members of a mob invading the U.S. Capitol are brought to trial. In fact, depending on sources, between 14,000 and 17,000 arrests were made during the Black Lives Matter protests.146 Most were on minor, non-violent charges, but hundreds were charged with burglary and looting.147 As of May 26, 2022, more than 900 participants in the January 6 assault on the Capitol have been charged, again most of them on comparatively minor charges; 298 have entered guilty pleas.148 Sixteen individuals have been charged with seditious conspiracy; as of October 6, four have pleaded guilty.149

Promote police review. Trust in local police may sometimes be an issue. This is not entirely new territory. FBI agents investigating the murders of civil rights leaders in the 1960s had to sometimes operate with local police officials whose personal views, connections, and loyalties made them uncooperative with federal investigations. It is not clear whether these concerns will arise again as federal authorities investigate political violence threatened or carried out by groups drawing on local sympathies.

For a variety reasons beyond the scope of this essay, many police understandably feel under siege right now. Public attitudes toward police are evolving, although there is little public support for dismantling the criminal justice system or eliminating police departments; calls to do so should be rejected. At the same time, police organizations themselves have to review their recruitment, education, training, protocols, and personal behavior in a challenging environment. It is not a matter of creating “woke” departments. It is a matter of living up to an obligation to uphold the law and protect the public. It is in the oath.

Review the law governing incitement. U.S. law is highly protective of free speech, including advocacy of violence. The courts have set a very high bar to prove incitement. However, the internet and social media make it easy to advocate violence, facilitate the repetition of messages, and can potentially reach an audience of millions, thereby increasing the likelihood of violent action. The courts have not addressed this.150

Address the role of the internet. The internet plays a significant role in radicalization and facilitates the formation of online communities of like-minded extremists and conspiracy theorists. While free speech—including hate speech—is protected by the First Amendment of the constitution, some contend that it is not necessarily protected if it directly calls for violence. Under public and government pressure to reduce harmful content, many online social media platforms have been exercising increasing control over content and accounts, but the platforms claim that this is technically difficult to do and requires a significant investment in human resources.151 It is true that language is supple, although the same platforms seem to have less difficulty in creating sophisticated algorithms that detect sales opportunities among users, leading some to suspect that control measures are simply not consistent with social media business models.

There are several paths open. One is for the government to impose limitations on content as a number of European countries do. This mean prohibiting certain expressions—words and symbols—or “the advocacy of discriminatory hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination, or violence.”152 Such a law in the United States would run head on into the First Amendment.

A second approach is to revise Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act and legally make social network platforms like publishers responsible for content on their sites.153 Right now, these platforms are allowed to control who can use their sites and moderate content, but are shielded from legal liability. For different reasons, some members of both political parties have threatened to remove this protection. This would oblige platforms to prevent what government cannot.

A third theoretical approach would be to alter the laws on incitement. Over the past century, the position of the Supreme Court has evolved on this issue, initially upholding restrictions on speech where it creates “a clear and present danger.”154 In 1969, however, the court concluded that government could only punish advocacy that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”155 In 1982, the Supreme Court seemed to go further, ruling that for an individual’s speech to fall under the unprotected category of incitement to imminent lawless action, the speech had to actually lead to lawless action. “An advocate must be free to stimulate his audience with spontaneous and emotional appeals for unity and action in a common cause. When such appeals do not incite lawless action, they must be regarded as protected speech.”156 In other words, the incitement had to succeed.

These decisions were reached before the internet existed, which enables a user to post messages that may be read by thousands, potentially millions, thereby increasing the likelihood that they could lead to action. Legislation might address this, or future events might lead to further cases, obliging the courts to address it.

These are First Amendment issues and must be approached with great care. There is no perfect solution. Hate groups are already adopting communications tactics to counter controls, by altering speech slightly, or by migrating to more permissive platforms or to the dark web.157

Political leaders need to set a better example. Domestic violent extremism is not a continuation of partisan politics by other means. The most important role of political leaders may not be in the realm of legislation, but as role models. Politics can arouse passions, but bellicose rhetoric, sly encouragement to already angry audiences, cynical allegations that deepen divisions are playing with fire and can pose a clear and present danger to the republic. Politicians and the public need to exert pressure on all officials to curb violent and abusive rhetoric. Admittedly, this particular element falls in the realm of exhortation. Private scorecards kept by objective observers may identify serial offenders—the trash-talkers and smash mouths—but it may not discourage ugly behavior any more than fact-checking has diminished patent fabrications. Nor will it affect who the voters in some districts choose to represent them and allow to reflect their values. Ultimately, the quality of leadership is up to the voters.

Seek to understand the extremists’ mindsets. This is different from the collection of operational intelligence discussed above. Understanding the extremists’ worldviews, motivating grievances, and mindsets informs law enforcement—and broader political—strategies to counter political violence. Their diversity must be recognized. How do extremist movements or groups on the far right or far left view their struggle? How do they differ from one another in beliefs, strategies, recruiting, and modus operandi? What distinguishes the Proud Boys from the Oath Keepers or the Boogaloo Bois from the Three Percenters? How do far left extremists differ from those on the far right? How fluid is the membership? Considerable research in being done outside of government, and more can be done. The challenge for government is to assemble and communicate the findings to operators, planners, and policymakers.

Reduce anger where possible by addressing legitimate grievances. While there can be no compromise with ideologies antithetical to unalienable rights, government can address the conditions stoking the anger that extremists exploit; efforts can be made to reduce some of the stress created by economic conditions. Research cannot prove that poverty causes terrorism or creates terrorists, although economic stress contributes to political stress. Those who are left behind, who lose control over their economic fate, whose self-esteem is crushed by unemployment or salaries inadequate to support families are fertile recruiting grounds for extremist beliefs on the left and right.

Historically, the United States has dealt with domestic terrorism by prosecuting the violent offenders and at the same time by coopting their potential constituencies. As indicated already, that will be more difficult given the hardline views of many domestic extermists today. A government cannot coopt or appease hatred, but it can address the conditions that contribute to hopeless and anger which, in turn, feed prejudice.158

A portion of American society—mainly middle-aged and younger white males without college education—has been left behind by technological developments, globalization, and insufficient investment in physical and human infrastructure. Deprived of decent wages, unable to support their families, marginalized, dismissed, and disparaged, many are turning to drink or drugs; some commit suicide.159 Facing a bleak future and angry at the political and economic system, they are prey for extremist ideologues that would direct their blame toward minorities, immigrants, foreigners—above all, the federal government.160 They may not resort to violence themselves, but they may nod in agreement. While investments are being made in needed physical infrastructure, greater investments in education are required. This is something that government can and should do, not as a component of a counterterrorism strategy, but because it is in the national interest, and most of all, because fellow Americans need some help.

Useful analysis will require better databases. Tracking domestic terrorism for many years has been a ‘third rail’ for government agencies, discouraging the compilation of publicly available databases. Annual public reports of attacks and disruptions by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies will be essential, but are unlikely to make available the detail necessary for analysis. New government databases will have to be developed. As in the past, chronologies of events and statistics can also be carried out by government-contracted research organizations. NGOs and activist groups will also compile and publish databases, which can contribute to our understanding, however, it must be kept in mind that some of these organizations have their own political agendas, which can affect how they define events and lead to reporting biases.

Accept that the campaign to defeat domestic political violence will take many years. Indeed, it could take decades as we saw in counterterrorism campaigns against the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland or violent Basque separatists in Spain. In the United States, it took more than 10 years to run down the small groups of far-left bombers that emerged in the 1970s. Anarchists have been around since the late 19th century. The persistent prejudices and violent spasms of the far right go back even further and have been building for decades. American institutions are durable; law enforcement will do its duty. With any shared sense of national purpose, our democracy will prevail. Without unity, domestic terrorists may be the least of our problems.

Mistakes will be made. Learn from them. Given the state of the union, the challenge of containing political violence will not be easy. Even with oversight, errors of judgment and execution are perhaps inevitable. When they are, they must not be covered up, but addressed forthrightly and sensibly. Course direction must be reexamined periodically.

A Final Note. These are the elements of a pragmatic strategy to combat domestic political violence. They are mainly cautionary, especially as they apply to the role of federal law enforcement. I do not believe that we are heading toward civil war, but the political situation in the United States right now is perilous. It is painful to see the bellicose language and violent imagery, proliferation of personal threats and vows to settle scores so infect national discourse. We have seen in Europe, the Balkans, in the Middle East, and elsewhere how quickly people who have lived side by side for decades can turn on one another, exhibiting levels of savagery not seen on battlefields. A single incident can set off a destructive prairie fire, to use an old phrase that propelled terrorist bombers of the 1970s. The divisions are deeper now. The destruction would be greater, hence the necessity of a prudent approach that recognizes the limits of what law enforcement can do while addressing the greater challenge of national reconciliation.     CTC

Brian Michael Jenkins is a former Green Beret. In 1972, he initiated one of the nation’s first research programs on terrorism. His books and monographs include International Terrorism: A New Mode of ConflictAviation, Terrorism and SecurityUnconquerable NationWill Terrorists Go Nuclear?; The Long Shadow of 9/11; Paths to Destruction; and most recently, Plagues and Their Aftermath. Twitter: @BrianMJenkins

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of the Combating Terrorism Center, the United States Military Academy, or the RAND Corporation.

© 2022 Brian Michael Jenkins

Substantive Notes
[a] Although leaderless resistance is associated primarily with right-wing extremist groups, environmentalist and animal rights extremists as well as others on the far left have adopted similar decentralized approaches. Brent L. Smith and Kelly R. Damphousse, “American Terrorism Study: Patterns of Behavior, Investigation and Prosecution of American Terrorists, Final Report,” via the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, March 27, 2002.

[b] Domestic terrorism has always been politically perilous territory for analysts and government agencies. Nonetheless, the FBI publicly reported on disruptions of plots and attacks by domestic terrorists into the early 2000s. By then, jihadi terrorism commanded most attention. Fearful of a return to the abuses of the FBI’s counterintelligence programs (COINTELPRO), which targeted communists, the Socialist Workers Party, White Hate groups, Black nationalists, and the New Left in the 1960s, civil libertarians were reluctant to endorse any new monitoring of domestic groups. Conservative politicians condemned anything that suggested targeting of citizens on the basis of their views on issues such as the Second Amendment, immigration, or abortion. A 2009 DHS report, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, prompted strong criticism from the Senate. The Secretary of Homeland Security apologized, and the report was withdrawn. See Liz Halloran, “Napolitano Apologizes, But Why?” NPR, April 16, 2009. It was not until the late 2010s that significant government attention to the domestic threat was renewed.

[c] Nidal Hasan was an active-duty Army major when he opened fire on soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. Katharine Poppe, “Nidal Hasan: A Case Study in Lone-Actor Terrorism,” Program on Extremism, George Washington University, October 2018. Naser Abdo was an Army private convicted of plotting to kill soldiers near Fort Hood in 2011. “Naser Jason Abdo Sentenced to Life in Federal Prison in Connection with Killeen Bomb Plot,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Texas, U.S. Department of Justice, August 10, 2012.

[d] In the interest of full disclosure, the author discloses that he spoke with and shared his views with members of the Pentagon working group updating its procedures for handling extremism.

[1] “To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility,” Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (National Violence Commission), U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969. Also known as the National Violence Commission (known also as the Eisenhower Commission). This report followed that of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—the Kerner Commission—published in 1968. Together, the two reports provide a thoughtful analysis of the troubled 1960s in America.

[2] Garth Davies, Edith Wu, and Richard Frank, “A Witch’s Brew of Grievances: The Potential Effects of COVID-19 on Radicalization to Violent Extremism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, February 1, 2021.

[3] Meryl Kornfield and Mariano Alfaro, “1 in 3 Americans say violence against government can be justified, citing fears of political schism, pandemic,” Washington Post, January 1, 2022.

[4] David French, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021); Robert Kagan, “Our constitutional crisis is already here,” Washington Post, September 23, 2021; Barbara F. Walter, How Civil wars Start and How to Stop Them (New York: Crown, 2022). The author’s own views appeared in an essay he wrote for NBC’s THINK: Brian Michael Jenkins, “Politicians face violence and threats from voters—and each other. Are we nearing a civil war?” NBC News THINK, November 14, 2021.

[5] Brian Michael Jenkins, “The Collapse of Comity: Perilous Times in the Third Turbulent Century of Our Political Experiment: Testimony presented before the House Committee on Homeland Security,” February 4, 2021.

[6] Brian Michael Jenkins, Paths to Destruction (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Michael Leiter, “Losing Afghanistan is bad. But we’re much safer from terrorism now than after 9/11,” Washington Post, August 30, 2021.

[11] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Domestic violent extremists will be harder to combat than homegrown jihadists,” Hill, January 31, 2021.

[12] Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, “The Growing Religious Fervor in the American Right: ‘This Is a Jesus Movement,’” New York Times, April 6, 2022.

[13] “Proud Boys,” Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d.

[14] “The Boogaloo Movement,” Anti-Defamation League, September 16, 2020.

[15] Mike Wendling, “Oath Keepers: Leaked membership list includes police and politicians,” BBC, September 7, 2022.

[16] “Youth Liberation Front,” Influence Watch, n.d.

[17] Betsy Woodruff Swan, “Trump says he’s naming antifa a ‘Terrorist Organization.’ Can he do that?” Politico, May 31, 2020.

[18] Seth G. Jones and Catrina Doxsee, “Examining Extremism: Antifa,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 24, 2021.

[19] J.M. Berger, “The Strategy of Violent White Supremacy Is Evolving,” Atlantic, August 7, 2019.

[20] “A Year of Racial Justice Protests: Key Trends in Demonstrations Supporting the BLM Movement,” Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), May 25, 2021.

[21] Masood Farivar, “Anarchist Groups Tied to Riots in 4 Cities,” Voice of America, September 16, 2020; Mia Bloom, “Far-Right Infiltrators and Agitators in George Floyd Protests: Indicators of White Supremacists,” Just Security, May 30, 2020.

[22] Isabella Garcia, “Inside Portland’s Autonomous Protest Movement,” YES! Magazine, December 9, 2020.

[23] Cynthia Miller-Idriss, “When the Far Right Penetrates Law Enforcement,” Foreign Affairs, December 15, 2020; Seth G. Jones, “Violent Domestic Extremist Groups and the Recruitment of Veterans: Statement before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs,” October 13, 2021.

[24] Brian A. Jackson, Ashley L. Rhoades, Jordan R. Reimer, Natasha Lander, Katherine Costello, and Sina Beaghley, Practical Terrorism Prevention: Reexamining U.S. National Approaches to Addressing the Threat of Ideologically Motivated Violence (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019). See also Brian Michael Jenkins, “Countering domestic terrorism will require rethinking US intelligence strategy,” Hill, October 5, 2021.

[25] Jenkins, “Domestic violent extremists will be harder to combat than homegrown jihadists.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield, translation by Delba Winthrop via University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[28] Jenkins, “Politicians face violence and threats from voters — and each other. Are we nearing a civil war.”

[29] Ibid. See also James A. Thomson, A House Divided (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010).

[30] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Capitol rioters and threats to lawmakers could distort the political landscape for years,” NBC News THINK, January 25, 2021.

[31] Jenkins, “Politicians face violence and threats from voters — and each other. Are we nearing a civil war?”

[32] Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup, March 29, 2021.

[33] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020).

[34] Ibid.

[35] Catrina Doxsee, “Examining Extremism: The Militia Movement,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 12, 2021.

[36] Justin Klawans, “82% of Fox News, 97% of OANN, Newsmax Viewers Believe Trump’s Stolen Election Claim: Poll,” Newsweek, November 1, 2021; Brianna Richardson, “Axios|Momentive Poll: January 6th revisited,” SurveyMonkey, January 2022; Jon Greenberg, “Most Republicans still falsely believe Trump’s stolen election claims. Here are some reasons why,” Poynter Institute, June 16, 2022.

[37] Jenkins, “Politicians face violence and threats from voters — and each other. Are we nearing a civil war?”

[38] Jenkins, “Countering domestic terrorism will require rethinking US intelligence strategy.”

[39] This is discussed at length in Brian Michael Jenkins, Plagues and Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover from Pandemics (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2022). For an example of a terrorist plot resulting from anger over COVID-19 restrictions, see Graham Macklin, “The Conspiracy to Kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” CTC Sentinel 14:6 (2021).

[40] Kriston McIntosh, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jay Shambaugh, “Examining the Black-white wealth gap,” Brookings Institution, February 27, 2020.

[41] Ed Pilkington, “Racial terror: 2,000 black Americans were lynched in Reconstruction era, report says,” Guardian, June 16, 2020.

[42] Caleb Correll, “Blood on the Plow: Extremist Group Activity during the 1980s Farm Crisis in Kansas,” thesis submitted to the Department of History of the University of Kansas, May 1, 2019.

[43] Erin Miller, “Terrorist Attacks in the U.S. Between 1970 and 2013: Data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),” START, November 2014.

[44] “What is the Threat to the United States Today?” in Peter Bergen and David Sterman, “Terrorism in America After 9/11,” New America, last updated September 10, 2021.

[45] Seth G. Jones and Catrina Doxsee, “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 17, 2020.

[46] Madison Hall, Skye Gould, Rebecca Harrington, Jacob Shamsian, Azmi Haroun, Taylor Ardrey, and Erin Snodgrass, “At least 919 people have been charged in the Capitol insurrection so far. This searchable table shows them all,” Insider, September 21, 2022.

[47] Ryan Lucas, “In a big Jan. 6 case, Oath Keepers go on trial for seditious conspiracy,” NPR, September 27, 2022.

[48] Jill Colvin, “Capitol mob built gallows and chanted ‘Hang Mike Pence,’” Associated Press via ourquadcities.com, January 9, 2021.

[49] Joan Donovan, Kaylee Fagan, and Frances Lee, “‘President Trump is Calling Us to Fight’: What the Court Documents Reveal about the Motivations Behind January 6 and Networked Incitement,” Media Manipulation Casebook, July 18, 2022.

[50] ABC News/Ipsos poll, June 17-18, 2022.

[51] Seth G. Jones, “The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism,” Statement before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, February 17, 2022.

[52] “Global Terrorism Index 2022: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, March 2, 2022.

[53] Daniel Byman, “2021 saw plenty of violence—but no mass terrorist attacks in the U.S.,” Washington Post, December 29, 2021, citing New America Foundation statistics. This statement excludes, of course, the mob assault on the Capitol, which neither New America nor Professor Byman consider a mass terrorist attack. In contrast, Professor Bruce Hoffman states that, “I do not think there is much doubt that what happened on January 6 was an act of terrorism.” “Professor Bruce Hoffman on Domestic Terrorism,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, April 21, 2021.

[54] Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan, “The Atlanta Shooter Killed Six Women of Asian Descent. Isn’t That A Hate Crime?” Time, March 18, 2021.

[55] Byman.

[56] Aram Roston, “Exclusive: Proud Boys leader was ‘prolific’ informer for law enforcement,” Reuters, January 27, 2021.

[57] “Six Arrested on Federal Charge of Conspiracy to Kidnap the Governor of Michigan,” U.S. Department of Justice, October 8, 2020.

[58] “Threats of Violence Against Public Officials Grow,” Crime Report, June 30, 2022.

[59] “Proud Boys,” Southern Poverty Law Center; Tess Owen, “A White Supremacist Is Organizing Fight Clubs Across the US,” Vice, September 27, 2021.

[60] Charles Key, “Final Report on the Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building, Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee,” September 13, 2001.

[61] “Final Report On the Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building April 19, 1995: Recommendations and Epilogue of the Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee,” posted to Famous Trials blog by Douglas O. Linder, n.d.

[62] Matt Zapotosky and Ann E. Marimow, “How the Oklahoma City bombing case prepared Merrick Garland to take on domestic terrorism,” Washington Post, February 19, 2021.

[63] Olivia Fortunato, Rick Dierenfeldt, Sherah Basham, and Karen McGuffee, “Examining the Impact of the Obama and Trump Candidacies on Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism in the United States: A Time-Series Analysis,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, March 2, 2022.

[64] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Domestic Terrorism and the U.S. Elections,” RAND Blog, October 7, 2020.

[65] Melissa De Witte, “Controversies over Confederate monuments and memorials are part of an overdue racial reckoning for America, says Stanford historian,” Stanford News, July 16, 2020; Mark Berman, “Prosecutors say Dylann Roof ‘self-radicalized’ online, wrote another manifesto in jail,” Washington Post, August 22, 2016.

[66] “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, October 2018.

[67] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2019.

[68] “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” National Security Council, June 2021.

[69] “National Strategy for Counterterrorism of the United States of America,” October 2018.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”

[73] “New Zealand Terrorist Had Contact with Breivik in Norway,” Nordic Page, n.d.

[74] The theory was expounded in a 2011 book by Renaud Camus, Le Grand Remplacement. Gillian Brockell, “The father of ‘great replacement’: An ex-socialist French writer,” Washington Post, May 17, 2022. See also Graham Macklin, “The El Paso Terrorist Attack: The Chain Reaction of Global Right-Wing Terror,” CTC Sentinel 12:11 (2019).

[75] J. M. Berger, “The Dangerous Spread of Extremist Manifestos,” Atlantic, February 26, 2019.

[76] Elizabeth Yates, “Domestic Extremism in America: Examining White Supremacist Violence in the Wake of Recent Attacks,” Human Rights First, June 9, 2022.

[77] Macklin, “The El Paso Terrorist Attack;” Helen Lewis, “To Learn About the Far Right, Start With the ‘Manosphere,’” Atlantic, August 7, 2019.

[78] Dara Lind, “The conspiracy theory that led to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, explained,” Vox, October 29, 2018.

[79] John Gage, “California police investigate hate-filled 8chan manifesto that could link synagogue shooting to mosque attack,” Washington Examiner, April 28, 2019.

[80] Hannah Allam, “‘I am Antifa’: One Activist’s Violent Death Became A Symbol For The Right And Left,” NPR, July 23, 2020.

[81] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”

[82] The most complete report of the shooting and the subsequent investigation can be found in “LVMPD Criminal Investigative Report of the 1 October Mass Casualty Shooting,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, August 3, 2018.

[83] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”

[84] Robert A. Fein, Bryan Vossekuil, and Gwen A. Holden, “Threat Assessment: An Approach To Prevent Targeted Violence,” Research in Action, National Institute of Justice, September 1995.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Miles Corwin, “Inside the LAPD’s Threat Management Unit,” Los Angeles Magazine, November 4, 2008.

[87] Preet Bharara, Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law (New York: Knopf, 2019).

[88] “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” The White House, August 2011.

[89] Helen Warrell, “Inside Prevent, the UK’s controversial anti-terrorism programme,” Financial Times, January 24, 2019.

[90] Jackson, Rhoades, Reimer, Lander, Costello, and Beaghley.

[91] “The Problems with ‘Violent Extremism’ and ‘Violence Prevention’ Programs,” ACLU, n.d.

[92] Fein, Vossekuil, and Holden.

[93] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”

[94] Ibid.

[95] “Governor’s Roadmap to: Preventing Targeted Violence,” National Governors Association, January 25, 2021.

[96] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”

[97] Rosanna Smart and Terry L. Schell, “Mass Shootings in the United States,” RAND, April 15, 2021.

[98] Benjamin Mueller, William K. Rashbaum, and Al Baker, “Terror Attack Kills 8 and Injures 11 in Manhattan,” New York Times, October 31, 2017.

[99] Mark Memmott, “At Least 20 Students Injured In Knife Attack At Pa. High School,” NPR, April 9, 2014.

[100] Fein, Vossekuil, and Holden.

[101] For more on this plot, see Macklin, “The Conspiracy to Kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.”

[102] “Homeland Threat Assessment,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, October 2020.

[103] Ibid.

[104] Ibid.

[105] “Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism,” Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security, May 2021.

[106] “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” June 2021.

[107] “Domestic Violent Extremism Poses Heightened Threat in 2021,” Office of the Director for National Intelligence, March 1, 2021.

[108] Ibid., p. 2.

[109] Ibid.

[110] “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism,” June 2021.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Ibid.

[113] Brian Michael Jenkins, Terrorism in the United States (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1980).

[114] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Don’t muddy the objectives on fighting domestic extremism,” Hill, April 6, 2021.

[115] Jenkins, “Capitol rioters and threats to lawmakers could distort the political landscape for years.”

[116] “Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence.”

[117] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Capitol Rioters Face FBI Arrests and Prosecution. How Not to Make Them Martyrs in the Process,” NBC News THINK, May 10, 2021.

[118] Ellie Silverman, “Truck convoy leaves D.C. area after weeks of traffic-snarling protests,” Washington Post, March 31, 2022.

[119] Jackson, Rhoades, Reimer, Lander, Costello, and Beaghley.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Mark H. Moore, Robert C. Trojanowicz, and George L. Kelling, “Crime and Policing,” Perspectives on Policing, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, June 1988.

[122] Jenkins, “Capitol Rioters Face FBI Arrests and Prosecution. How Not to Make Them Martyrs in the Process.”

[123] “Sedition Trial Reveals Inner Workings of Racist Underground (From KKK and Report Packet, 1988—See NCJ-115671,” U.S. Department of Justice, 1988; Jacob Schulz, “The Last Time the Justice Department Prosecuted a Seditious Conspiracy Case,” Lawfare, February 24, 2021.

[124] Chris Shields, Kelly R. Damphousse, and Brent L. Smith, “An Assessment of Defense and Prosecutorial Strategies in Terrorism Trials: Implications for State and Federal Prosecutors,” September 2009.

[125] Jenkins, “Capitol Rioters Face FBI Arrests and Prosecution. How Not to Make Them Martyrs in the Process.”

[126] “Section 702 Overview,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, n.d.

[127] “Warrantless Surveillance under Section 702 of FISA,” ACLU, n.d.

[128] Harsha Panduranga and Emil Mella Pablo, “Federal Government Social Media Surveillance, Explained,” Brennan Center, February 9, 2022.

[129] Kade Crockford, “Boston Police Can Protect Their Residents by Limiting Cooperating With the Federal Government,” ACLU, September 26, 2017.

[130] Jeffrey Kaplan, “Leaderless resistance,” Terrorism and Political Violence 9:3 (1997).

[131] “Criminal Complaint,” United States of America v. Adam Fox, Barry Croft, Ty Garbin, Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, October 6, 2020.

[132] Alanna Durkin Richer, “Proud Boys leader was government informant, records show,” Associated Press, January 27, 2021.

[133] Mitch Smith, “Two Men Convicted in Plot to Kidnap Michigan’s Governor,” New York Times, August 23, 2022; “Remaining Defendants Convicted In Conspiracy To Kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Michigan, U.S. Department of Justice, August 23, 2022.

[134] These questions derive from discussions with Donell Harvin at the RAND Corporation. See also Brian Michael Jenkins, “Op-Ed: Why We Need a January 6 Commission to Investigate the Attack on the Capitol,” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2021.

[135] Yassin Musharbash, “The Globalization of Far-Right Extremism: An Investigative Report,” CTC Sentinel 14:6 (2021).

[136] Chuck Rosenberg and Tom O’Connor, “We need a domestic terrorism law. Call these crimes what they are, for victims, for America,” USA Today, March 15, 2021.

[137] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Five Reasons to Be Wary of a New Domestic Terrorism Law,” Hill, February 23, 2021.

[138] Ibid. See also Brian Michael Jenkins and Richard C. Daddario, “Think Mass Shootings Are Terrorism? Careful What You Wish For,” Politico Magazine, November 7, 2017.

[139] Jenkins, “Countering domestic terrorism will require rethinking US intelligence strategy.”

[140] Paul Rozenzweig, “Rethinking the Homeland Security Enterprise,” Lawfare, January 12, 2022.

[141] Dan Lamothe, “Pentagon’s top general apologizes for appearing alongside Trump in Lafayette Square,” Washington Post, June 11, 2020.

[142] General Mark Milley, “Address at the Opening of the National Army Museum,” American Rhetoric, November 11, 2020.

[143] Justin Vallejo, “Michael Flynn calls for Trump to suspend the constitution and declare martial law to re-run election,” Independent, December 3, 2020.

[144] “Report on Countering Extremist Activity Within the Department of Defense,” United States Department of Defense, December 2021.

[145] James M. Inhofe, “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023: Report to Accompany S. 4543,” July 18, 2022.

[146] Valerie Pavilonis, “Fact Check: Thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested,” USA Today, February 22, 2022.

[147] Ibid.

[148] Hall, Gould, Harrington, Shamsian, Haroun, Ardrey, and Snodgrass.

[149] Spencer S. Hsu, “First Proud Boys leader pleads guilty to Jan. 6 seditious conspiracy,” Washington Post, October 6, 2022; Lucas.

[150] Author personal communications, Geoffrey McGovern (RAND Corporation), February 2021.

[151] Sean MacAvaney, Hao-Ren Yao, Eugene Yang, Katina Russell, Nazli Goharian, and Ophir Frieder, “Hate speech detection: Challenges and solutions,” PLoS One 14:8 (2019).

[152] “Responding to ‘hate speech’: Comparative overview of six EU countries,” Article 19, March 2, 2018.

[153] Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Legal Shield for Social Media Is Targeted by Lawmakers,” New York Times, May 28, 2020.

[154] Schenck v. United States, 1919.

[155] Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969.

[156] “Brandenburg test,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, n.d. See also John R. Vile, “Incitement to Imminent Lawless Action,” First Amendment Encyclopedia, Middle Tennessee State University, 2009.

[157] Eva Frederick, “‘Dark pools’ of hate flourish online. Here are four controversial ways to fight them,” Science, August 22, 2019.

[158] See, for example, Martin Sandbu, The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[159] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton New Jersey Press, 2020).

[160] Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016).

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