This week, the White House released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the first strategy developed specifically to address the domestic terrorist threat. Simply having a strategy is, in itself, a signal of coordination and prioritization that is sorely needed to address what both the government and data from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) suggest is the most lethal terrorist threat to Americans in the United States.
The substance of the strategy, while not perfect, offers a measured, balanced, and comprehensive framework to prevent and counter domestic terrorism. It includes many important commitments and builds on existing momentum that the Biden administration has created in its first five months in office.
A New Law or Not?
Some elements of the strategy lack implementation details, and some significant questions are left unanswered. Still, that does not detract from what is otherwise a strong framework – most strategies lay out a set of priorities and a framework for decisions, as opposed to specific action plans or nuanced assessments of controversial issues. Nonetheless, how the strategy is implemented will weigh heavily on how impactful it can be in addressing the threat.
The major question unanswered by the strategy is whether the Biden administration will support a domestic terrorism criminalization statute. As odd as it sounds, there is no such crime as “domestic terrorism.” While there are many related criminal statutes, none rival the significance that prosecutions place on international terrorism. Many national security experts have argued in favor of criminalizing domestic terrorism, whereas civil rights advocates have urged restraint so as not to overly empower law enforcement and risk infringing on civil liberties or jeopardize already-marginalized communities. Many argue that political will has been the major impediment to going after right-wing violent extremists, not a gap in the law.
The new White House strategy is unclear about where the administration stands. Its stance mirrors what ADL has tried to balance in recent years: asking for careful consideration of whether it is possible to create a statute that has a significant impact on domestic terrorism without infringing on civil liberties. We have not seen any suggested approaches to a statute that maximize impact and minimize civil liberties risk and, as such, there are more impactful counterterrorism measures on which policymakers should spend emotional energy and political capital.
ADL’s focus has been on how to empower action against domestic terrorism using existing authorities, framed around our PROTECT Plan. The administration’s strategy takes a similar framework, and touches on all of the categories the PROTECT Plan also outlines, as described below.
Major Takeaways from the New Strategy
Prioritizing the issue. The Trump administration had disbanded a team specializing in domestic terrorism intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and – though they eventually requested terrorism prevention funding – Trump’s team spent critical years declining to ask Congress for funding to prevent terrorism of any kind, including domestic terrorism. By contrast the Biden DHS has raised priority levels across agencies dealing with the threat, including bringing back that DHS intelligence office and prevention funding, allocating $77 million in DHS funds for states to better understand the threat, issuing Department of Justice guidance for prosecutors to prioritize the threat, requesting an additional $85 million for DOJ prosecutors and FBI investigators to launch domestic terrorism cases, creating a National Security Council office to specialize in domestic violent extremism issues, and mandating an intelligence review of the threat. Following those measures, they then released the first-ever strategy specific to domestic terrorism.
By contrast, the 2018 National Counterterrorism Strategy covered all terrorist threats and only briefly mentioned domestic terrorism, and the 2019 DHS “Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence” was only for DHS and largely articulated existing policies on a range of terrorism threats, rather than calling for a new direction. The new strategy further calls for the government to better understand the threat and share information on it.
Resource according to the threat. Counterterrorism resources must be prevented from being used against legitimate political speech, but focus on violence, a proportionality that can be determined by looking at the data of violent threats. The administration’s strategy says its focus is “specifically on addressing violence and the factors that lead to violence” and not on any political movement. That declaration is critical. Moreover, the strategy plainly states that the top threats are related to white supremacy and anti-government militias, a welcome change. However, the White House stopped short of formalizing this approach, such as by recommending the inclusion of provisions in the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act that would require semi-annual reports on how the government sees the threat and tie counterterrorism resourcing to that threat landscape.
Oppose extremists in government. Americans cannot expect the government to counter domestic terrorism if those enforcing the laws share extremist sentiments. Nor can the U.S. government take lightly the threat posed by extremists attempting to recruit veterans of the U.S. armed forces who may have skills and experiences that make them more dangerous than the average recruit. The Biden administration has recognized this threat, ordering a “stand down” of military units for a day to discuss the threat of extremism and exploring Department of Defense policies to create ongoing monitoring of domestic extremists as insider threats, such as by creating a Countering Extremism Working Group (disclosure: I have participated in the CEWG’s external advisory calls). DHS also announced that it would review insider threats from domestic extremists. The new strategy dedicates an entire “strategic goal” to this type of vetting, including “working to augment the screening process for those who join the military and Federal law enforcement as well as any government employee who receives a security clearance or holds a position of trust.”
Take steps to prevent terrorism rather than relying on a law enforcement-only approach. On terrorism prevention, the strategy is particularly forward-leaning. After some suggestions that the administration might eliminate terrorism prevention entirely, their budget request to Congress affirms that terrorism prevention should continue, and DHS recently created a new center to specialize in prevention programming. These types of programs aim to limit civil liberties risks in that, rightly implemented, they would not identify individuals as at-risk to terrorist recruitment based on race or religion; instead, they are designed around evidence-based, public health-style approaches. The strategy notes precisely that approach as a core pillar, and – atypically for a government strategy – is forthright that prevention efforts have had a “mixed record” and that the next era of programs must protect civil liberties, engage with communities up-front, and be more transparent with how these programs are run.
It also calls for digital literacy training and other ways to address the scourge of online extremist propaganda, as well as civic education and teaching tolerance. While the strategy briefly mentions hate crimes prosecutions, it does not address hate crime reporting or related grant funding. However, the administration has requested more funding from Congress to address hate crimes and is requiring prosecutors to address it expeditiously. Interestingly, the strategy mentions the need to address racism and bigotry in America – not a topic common to previous national security strategies. While laudable new directions, the solutions for these critical issues, as described, are notably sparse on details.
Ending the complicity of the social media industry. Big Tech has resisted calls to adequately address hate and extremism on their platforms. In fact, they have amplified and recommended divisive content because it drives engagement, which is core to their revenue models. The industry needs a reckoning, through tailored regulation, more transparency, and more research into how to tackle hate online. While the strategy does mention social media, it only does so briefly, and in the context of partnering with the technology sector. The era of partnering with industry around terrorism has largely been characterized by minor reform that is inadequately enforced. The public needs more support from the administration to fight online extremism – beyond basic engagement – including resources for researching the impact of algorithmic amplification of extremist content and enforcement actions to better hold perpetrators of domestic terrorism accountable for their actions online and platforms accountable for their role in fueling domestic violent extremism. As a baseline, the administration needs to make clear what it is prepared to do to address the issue of hate and extremism online, and the strategy is seriously lacking in the robustness needed to tackle the industry’s flaws.
Create a clearinghouse for online extremism content. The FBI should not be scouring the internet, looking at protected political speech just in case it becomes a violent, criminal conspiracy. However, we need people looking at online content and flagging it for the FBI when it does cross a line of criminality. For that reason, ADL has proposed the creation of an independent, non-government entity that would examine online content for signs of extremism and – only when criminal behavior is suspected, and only under the oversight of civil liberties partners – flag it for law enforcement and social media companies. The administration’s strategy notes the priority of finding more “open-source information” and a senior official commenting on the strategy noted that the hope is to “[augment] information sharing the government does with tech companies.” It is unclear what this means but could be interpreted to suggest more government review of online content, which could pose a grave civil liberties concern. At the least, this must be clarified.
Targeting overseas white supremacist terrorist groups similarly to foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS. The government’s authority is far more robust in terms of overseas threats, and the threat of white supremacist extremism is a global one. And yet, only one overseas white supremacist organization is designated as a terrorist organization, and with less severe sanctions than groups like ISIS. Moreover, the State Department could create a multilateral approach to global best practices to address white supremacist and similar extremist movements and catalyze significant efforts worldwide. The strategy pledges to examine whether designations are appropriate for overseas white supremacist groups, to explore international terrorism prevention, and to share more information with foreign partners. However, it stops short of a global mobilization on par with that of countering ISIS, such as a global envoy or significant work with multinational organizations, a United Nations Security Council Resolution, or support for the Global Counterterrorism Forum to address this new era of terrorist threat.
The Biden administration’s new strategy is historic. It signals the right direction to address the challenge, and it contains a multitude of new and reaffirmed policies that mark a new era in counterterrorism. It is missing some key details on complex topics, like a stance on the criminalization of domestic terrorism and clarity in how it will address the tech industry and online extremist threats. Many of these details will be illuminated as the administration moves toward implementing the plan, and notably after Congress has had the opportunity to weigh in. Consensus throughout Congress is notoriously difficult to obtain, but many Members with considerable authority over how this plan can be implemented have signaled that domestic extremism is a priority they plan to take on.
While there is more to be done to counter the domestic terrorism threat, this strategy is the critical first step needed to begin to tackle the challenge. As a framework, it represents a new era of counterterrorism and a glimmer of hope for reducing terrorism in U.S. communities.