Foreign Relations & International Law Lawfare News

A Sea Change in Counterterrorism

Carly Gordenstein, Seamus Hughes
Sunday, June 13, 2021, 11:00 AM

The Biden administration's forthcoming strategy for tackling domestic extremism will formalize major changes already set in motion over the past few months.

Rioters clash with police outside the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Photo credit: Blink O'fanaye via Flickr; CC BY-NC 2.0

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Editor’s Note: Even before the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the threat of domestic extremism was painfully clear, with terrorist attacks, assaults on minorities and other violence eclipsing the threat posed by jihadist groups such as the Islamic State. Recognizing this danger, the Biden administration will soon release a new, unprecedented strategy document for fighting domestic terrorism. Carly Gordenstein and Seamus Hughes of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism detail the numerous changes the administration is already making and argue that these are important steps forward in the fight against domestic extremism.

Daniel Byman


Although the speculation surrounding the potential congressional commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol siege makes for attention-grabbing headlines, behind-the-scenes work is being done to update and expand the national security apparatus in order to better address the threat of domestic terrorism. According to senior officials, the Biden administration is on the cusp of releasing a first-of-its-kind strategy to counter domestic terrorism in the United States. The document is the result of the White House’s more than 140-day review of previous counterterrorism efforts. It will, in many ways, simply codify significant and lasting policy changes to countering domestic terrorism that have already occurred in the past five months.

The question of both the size and the scope of the domestic extremism threat has faced a whirlwind of politicization for more than a decade. Consequently, it has not been met with a formidable, comprehensive strategy to counter it until now. The Biden administration’s efforts represent a sea change in the way the U.S. government handles domestic extremism. Since Jan. 6, the federal government has been updating threat assessments, restructuring offices and increasing resources to combat domestic violent extremism. For the first time in two decades, domestic terrorism, and not jihadism, is at the forefront of counterterrorism policymakers’ minds.

Reassessing the Threat

While awaiting the findings of the White House review, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a first-of-its-kind assessment in early March on the heightened threat of domestic terrorism. The research concluded that racially motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) and militia violent extremists (MVEs) are the most likely to carry out lethal attacks as lone actors or small cells, writing that “RMVEs [are] most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians and MVEs typically target[] law enforcement and government personnel and facilities.” Notably, the report called attention to the threat of domestic violent extremist lone actors. These individuals pose a significant challenge to law enforcement as they can radicalize independently, move discreetly and easily obtain weapons for attacks—all while avoiding criminal thresholds necessary for law enforcement to interdict and arrest them.

Following the ODNI analysis, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) put out a joint report in May containing a strategic intelligence assessment and data on domestic terrorism. The review found that, although domestic terrorism-related deaths have been increasing every year since 2015, the FBI has been arresting fewer domestic terrorism perpetrators annually.

Additionally, the FBI-DHS report noted that the most lethal and common form of domestic violent extremism (DVE) is carried out by white supremacist groups but that other ideological groups contribute to domestic terrorism as well. Single-issue extremists—including those concerned with abortion, animal rights and the environment, as well as other ideological extremists—contribute to recorded incidents of domestic terrorism. This report was the first joint intelligence assessment and data report about domestic terrorism and provided much needed transparency into the investigations, law enforcement processes and scope of the threat.

Finally, both the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security are looking within, focusing on extremism in their workforces. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has already ordered several measures to combat extremism and established a working group to assess how these measures are being implemented and what other objectives the Defense Department should undertake. The group has begun meeting and is expected to release a report on its recommendations by mid-July. The Defense Department is also working to update its definition of extremism and improve transition instructions about the dangers posed by extremist groups for individuals leaving the military. These groups often try to recruit former service members on account of their leadership and weapons abilities. Similarly, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has established a coalition aimed at addressing DVE within the department. DHS, the third-largest government agency, is home to many law enforcement personnel and functions largely outside a direct chain of command structure to the secretary. A former DHS senior official told CBS that this means “even a small number of ‘problematic officers’ can be ‘corrosive’ to the institution at large.”

Restructuring Offices

The Department of Homeland Security has had a busy year already. In addition to its joint report and forthcoming internal review, DHS has implemented a department-wide overhaul. In February, Secretary Mayorkas identified DVE as a National Priority Area, for the first time in department history. He then announced on May 11 that DHS would be closing the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (OTVTP) and replacing it with the newly established Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). This new center is intended to leverage community relationships in order to empower neighbors, friends, and family to recognize the signs of radicalization and report them to the appropriate authorities. Although it will retain the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grants, the CP3 will focus its efforts more toward the local level and pre-radicalization interventions than its predecessor. The OTVTP faced criticism of perceived discrimination and targeting of minorities, especially American Muslims. Biden’s presidential campaign promised to close the OTVTP and “conduct a thorough review of past programs and regularly consult with leaders from historically targeted communities, including Arab Americans, to ensure that civil rights are protected,” before opening new offices such as CP3.

Along with the newly minted CP3, DHS established a new domestic terrorism branch within its Office of Intelligence and Analysis in May. The primary goal of the branch is to improve intelligence gathering on domestic terrorism, especially through social media monitoring. Following Jan. 6, critics lamented that evidence had been in plain sight on public social media postings, arguing that this proved that DHS should have been more prepared. In response, the department is now working to survey social media postings for indications of domestic attacks or DVE-related activities. DHS stresses that the focus is on mass data rather than individuals and that this process is being carried out by analysts instead of algorithms, which would in theory prevent some of the more concerning and untested “extremism predictive” analysis that many of those programs promise. The future of domestic terror intelligence gathering is still uncertain, and civil liberties groups have an abundance of legitimate concerns about this practice. But for now, this social media monitoring initiative indicates an evolving intelligence response to countering domestic terrorism.

The Biden administration is also working alongside Silicon Valley to counter extremism by joining the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online. The call comes after the March 2019 live-streamed shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, and serves as a global commitment among governments, nongovernmental organizations, and tech companies to eliminate and counter the proliferation of violent extremist content. Under the Trump administration, the United States had refused to join, citing free speech concerns. Now the United States joins 54 other countries and 10 major tech companies in the call. The tech companies—which include Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter—have pledged to transparently outline their community standards and enforce consequences against breaches of those standards whenever necessary. Time will tell if that lofty goal comes to fruition, but the symbolism—that the United States will work with partners abroad as well as at home to fight terrorism—is important.

Increasing Resources

In light of both the events of Jan. 6 and the updated guidance from the national security community, the Biden administration is asking Congress to increase resources to counter the threat. The Department of Justice has requested a total of $85 million in additional funding for programs to investigate, prosecute, counter and police issues pertaining to domestic terrorism. Attorney General Merrick Garland is asking for $45 million to increase funding for FBI domestic terrorism investigations and another $40 million in aid for U.S. attorneys to manage the increasing domestic terrorism caseloads. The FBI is currently undertaking one of its largest investigations in history as it prosecutes those involved in Jan. 6 and will need more money and staffpower to get the job done. Lastly, Garland requested $33 million to help bolster the prosecution of hate crimes.

Garland released new guidelines last month that provide significant updates to the way the federal government investigates and prosecutes DVE. These new guidelines require that any case involving suspected DVE be approved by the National Security Division at the Department of Justice. Main Justice is also responsible for coordinating investigations and tracking relevant data, a novel initiative that aims to streamline prosecutions and enhance domestic terrorism reporting.

Collectively, these new policies make clear that the Biden administration has taken dramatic steps to change both the scope and the direction of American counterterrorism efforts. A strategy document is a significant step and an important marker, but it comes after months of a full-speed sprint. It is clear that structural changes are underway that aim to root out extremism in and out of government, attempt to concentrate efforts more efficiently, and invest in the issue of domestic extremism at a rate that is unprecedented in the United States.

Carly Gordenstein is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.
Seamus Hughes is a senior research faculty member and policy associate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha-based National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE)

Subscribe to Lawfare