Eighteen years ago today, Americans woke up to the dire international terrorist threat facing our nation. The tragic 9/11 attacks were swiftly attributed to al-Qa’ida, and in turn it immediately became clear that international terrorism—in particular, jihadist international terrorism—posed a major national security threat to Americans, even in the homeland.
Now, eighteen years later, Americans face a new international terrorist threat. But, unlike in the aftermath of 9/11, we have yet to recognize it as such. Doing so—quickly and explicitly—is essential to improving and accelerating the response of our government and our technology sector to the dangers we face from the growing international white supremacist terrorist threat.
It’s become common knowledge that America faces what’s often called a “domestic terrorism” challenge, as last month’s arrest in Ohio of yet another self-described “white nationalist” underscored. The problem stems, of course, from terrorists’ use of lethal violence against innocents. The problem is aggravated by a gap in legal authorities, resources, and priorities. It’s time that Americans updated our understanding and our language: the violent threat we face today from far-right extremists is part of a global phenomenon. Recognizing the transnational nature of this threat is critical to ensuring that our government and private sector rise to the challenge.
We’ve all seen, in recent months, the core of the problem. From Gilroy, California to El Paso, Texas, Americans are losing their lives to politically motivated violence. The ideology underlying these terrorist attacks hasn’t been the jihadism that, over the past 18 years, became all too familiar to Americans and others worldwide through the violence perpetrated by al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and others. Instead, the ideology underlying recent attacks has been far-right racially motivated violent extremism, including strands of neo-Nazism, neo-Confederacism, and other forms of white supremacy. Or, as it tends to be called, “domestic terrorism.”
Domestic terrorism isn’t new. Before 9/11, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil was an act of domestic terrorism, in 1995 in Oklahoma City. But domestic terrorism is getting worse, as FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified to Congress. And our government’s ability to address the threat isn’t what it should be.
The government is, in particular, finding itself short on two types of resources to fight this scourge.
In terms of legal resources, there’s an astonishing gap in federal law. No federal criminal charges are available specifically for certain acts of domestic terrorism, even though such charges would be available for the exact same acts if they’d instead been motivated by jihadism.
In terms of financial and personnel resources, there’s a huge imbalance between the massive investments made post-9/11 to fight international terrorism—including FBI investigators, Justice Department prosecutors, and intelligence analysts—and the comparatively meager investments made to fight domestic terrorism. And, as a matter of priorities, key U.S. strategy documents like the National Security Strategy and National Strategy for Counterterrorism pay far more attention to international terrorism than to domestic terrorism, even as the latter takes an important step by acknowledging that domestic terrorists pose “a persistent security threat.”
This must change. Yet there seems stubborn resistance from some in the Trump administration to engaging in the necessary reorientation of its view of counterterrorism. The White House, in particular, appears still driven in part by the mindset that Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State but then a Kansas congressman, demonstrated a decade ago when a report from the Department of Homeland Security predicted the worsening of this threat: he denounced focusing on domestic terrorism as a “dangerous” project spawned by political correctness that denied “the threat that radical Islamic terrorism poses.” We see the same attitude in President Trump’s remarks, just months ago, dismissing the white nationalist threat as just “a small group of people.” It was only after repeated lethal attacks followed those remarks in rapid succession that Trump acknowledged, at least rhetorically, a genuine threat.
The federal government is not alone is showing wariness of giving domestic terrorism its due. Tech companies also have been slow to address its spread online. It wasn’t until years after major tech companies had strengthened their approach to international terrorism by cracking down on not only explicit encouragement of violence but also its ideological underpinnings that the companies began shifting toward a similarly commonsense approach to white nationalism.
No one—in government or the private sector—should be uncomfortable denouncing racial hatred or augmenting efforts against violent extremism of all forms. But it’s become clear that such reluctance exists—because, it seems, the views and language of some far-right politicians and political commentators overlap with the views and language espoused by domestic terrorists.
But we don’t need to keep talking about “domestic terrorism,” as the term has become largely outdated anyway. The type of violence we’re experience in Gilroy and El Paso—like the ideologies underlying it—isn’t really domestic anyway. It’s international.
Consider Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who killed 51 mosque worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand. He cited as ideological inspiration the Norwegian Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in 2011, as well as the American Dylann Roof, who killed 9 in 2015. Tarrant wasn’t a purely a “domestic terrorist” of Australia or New Zealand. He was inspired by a global movement of racially motivated violence.
Then look at American Patrick Crusius, the El Paso shooter. Before the attack, he announced online, “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto.”
And then came Norwegian Philip Manshaus, who would’ve killed mosque worshippers had he not been stopped by them. His online posting praised both Tarrant and Crusius.
This isn’t terrorism that’s “domestic” to any one nation alone. It’s a global surge in violence inspired by white supremacist ideologies. And, in each new manifestation, the attacker increasingly situates his actions in that transnational context. It’s not only that the inspiration for each new act of violence transcends national borders, but also that the very structure of online communication today—including through social media, end-to-end encrypted apps, and the dark web—facilitates a transnational network of those espousing and consuming this world view.
What does this mean for counterterrorism? For the government, it means law enforcement and the rest of the national security apparatus must bring to bear in this fight tools proven to help against international counterterrorism, including foreign terrorist organization designations, sting operations, and intelligence sharing with foreign partners. And, for tech companies, it means policing their platforms to remove not just incitement to violence but also the ideological foundations that ultimately spawn such violence.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still legal, policy, and resource gaps specifically tied to matters domestic in nature—there are such gaps, and they should be filled urgently. Attacks that, regrettably, may come in the future may fit more neatly for legal purposes into “domestic terrorism,” and we need in place the right laws to prosecute those attacks and the right intelligence community authorities to analyze the trends behind them. But the transnational nature of today’s phenomenon means, overall, that we as a society should be talking about a new form of international terrorism—white supremacist terrorism—rather than insisting on calling it “domestic terrorism.”
Moreover, it means that all of us should call this what it is: an international terrorist threat that’s manifesting itself domestically for Americans, just as it is for countries like Norway and New Zealand. That recognizes the white nationalist threat we actually face, just as we recognized the threat of jihadism 18 years ago. It’s a paradigm shift that can help our government and tech sector rise to the occasion and meet the threat where it is.