The warnings were frequent. In September, FBI director Christopher Wray said domestic terrorism was the greatest threat to American citizens, adding that white supremacists made up the largest share of that threat. On October 6, the Department of Homeland Security named white-supremacist groups as “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” Two days later, the FBI announced the arrest of 13 men in Michigan for allegedly plotting to kidnap and execute the governor of Michigan. Which is why national-security experts were shocked, but not surprised, by Wednesday’s riots, in which Trump loyalists and far-right extremists stormed the Capitol.
President Trump approached violent extremism the same way he approached climate change and the pandemic. He ignored it and then tended to it for political gain, even as his own security officials sounded the alarm. From his infamous “very fine people on both sides” remarks after Charlottesville, to his refusal to disavow QAnon conspiracists, to his incessant demands to “liberate” states where strict COVID-19 rules were in effect, to his defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, the militia member charged with killing two George Floyd protesters in Wisconsin, Trump made the country more vulnerable to far-right extremist violence. Experts agree Wednesday’s violence is an escalation, not a climax.
“This is an enduring issue for the rest of the country, not just Washington, D.C.,” said Javed Ali, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “Empirically, [Wednesday’s riot] showed a proof of concept — it worked. Beyond inauguration, what events, statehouses, or government buildings, will be subjected to this? People can swarm these places quite easily thanks to social media.”
On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden called Wednesday’s rioters “domestic terrorists,” which some have interpreted as a willingness to give federal prosecutors and law enforcement officers broader authority to investigate and charge extremists. In recent years, lawmakers have debated whether a federal statute should criminalize domestic terrorism, simplifying the current process which requires prosecutors to make cases against violent extremists using a wide range of charges that often don’t explicitly mention the word terrorism, even when the crimes meet the federal definition of domestic terrorism. For example, prosecutors charged Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant who stockpiled arms and ammunition with the intent of carrying out a mass murder in the name of a white homeland, with firearms and drug charges despite the fact that prosecutors had explicitly called Hasson a domestic terrorist.
“A domestic-terrorism statute would certainly help investigators,” said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the data suggests that there are plenty of people who aren’t associated with a group that are still going to be willing to conduct attacks. You’re not going to be able to use a domestic-terrorism statute or designation on someone who may be sympathetic to Atomwaffen Division, but he’s operating on his own. He’s never had any ties. He’s not providing material support.” While the Trump administration avoided the issue for nakedly political purposes, resistance to a new statute isn’t divided along neat partisan lines. Those who oppose one say it would run the risk of infringing on First Amendment rights.
“You wouldn’t expect a new law that gives more authority to be used on white supremacists and far-right militants — you’d expect it to be used on groups being investigated, but prosecutors don’t have a way to charge,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program. “You see the way the Trump administration went after protesters involved in the DisruptJ20 protests, the way the Obama administration’s FBI and Justice Department went after environmental groups and Standing Rock water protectors and Black Lives Matter activists. The problem isn’t a lack of authority, but a lack of attention on white supremacists and far-right militants. It’s not as if they’re charging a lot of white supremacists for decades but not successfully convicting them. They have a pretty good record when they actually pay attention to the violence.”
For some, the Trump administration’s efforts to label Antifa a terrorist organization was a parable, proof that any new statute granting the government broad authority to classify groups of Americans could be misused. In 2018, Jason Blazakis, a former counterterrorism official at the State Department and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, argued in favor of a law that would allow federal agencies to label individuals as “Specially Designated Terrorists” and groups as “Domestic Terrorist Organizations.”
“I’ve walked back my view over the past two years,” Blazakis said recently. “Unfortunately, politics being what it is, I worry that politicians would use it as a mechanism to chill free speech.”
Despite his comments on Thursday, Biden has yet to map out a clear plan to address domestic far-right extremism. Biden launched his presidential bid with a video that recounted the violent 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and he continued to reference that rally throughout his campaign. During the first presidential debate in September, he pushed Trump to disavow the Proud Boys. Now, as Inauguration Day draws near, counterterrorism experts are eager to see where homegrown extremism will rank on the new administration’s list of priorities.
While domestic terrorism isn’t mentioned on Biden’s transition website, his campaign website includes a plan to establish a task force to “focus on the connection between mass shootings, online harassment, extremism, and violence against women.” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice for national security adviser, has said the president-elect asked him to “reimagine national security” to include “threats to democracy, racial justice, and inequality in all forms.”
“My concern is that the Biden administration will think things were going swell during the Obama administration and that all we have to do is go back to what we were doing then without recognizing that there was a problem during that period as well,” German said. “What I would hope the Biden administration is focused on is collecting the appropriate data and presenting a clear picture of the threat before we develop new methods to address the threat.”
Across the board, experts agree that more data is essential. The FBI does not share its data on domestic terrorism, and when it does, it’s packaged in imprecise categories such as “racially motivated violent extremists,” which doesn’t distinguish between violence perpetrated by white supremacists and acts by so-called Black Identity Extremists (a term that should make anyone familiar with the FBI’s history of investigating civil-rights activists uneasy).
For some, Biden’s experience is an auspicious starting point. “Just the fact that Biden’s going to run a normal process, that alone will make us safer because you’ll actually have people paying attention and addressing these issues,” Elizabeth Neumann, a former senior Homeland Security official in the Trump administration, told USA Today. Incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland, for one, who oversaw the prosecutions of the Oklahoma City bombers and the Unabomber, seems to offer an indication of Biden’s intention to prioritize domestic terrorism. Garland’s deputy attorney general, Lisa Monaco, previously served as chief counterterrorism advisor to Barack Obama. But conspicuously absent from Biden’s recent announcement of National Security Council posts were key positions that address counterterrorism and homeland security.
“I have a hard time believing they’re going to come up with a status quo approach,” said Ali. “It wouldn’t square with the reality of the threat.”