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It’s Time to Reform Domestic Counterterrorism Policy Members of the FBI Dallas Swat Team Engaging in a Training Exercise, May 1, 2014. Image courtesy FBI.

It’s Time to Reform Domestic Counterterrorism Policy

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Last week, the Department of State designated the Houthis as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group for the group’s attacks against American maritime vessels in the Red Sea. Although posing geopolitical threats, the attack belies a core dynamic of the current landscape of counterterrorism. Recent reports indicate that domestic terrorism has surpassed international terrorism as the most significant terrorism threat to the United States.

Despite this trend, the federal government has long neglected domestic terrorism, only recently introducing a network of working groups with little cohesion between them. To effectively fight domestic terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should empower its Counterterrorism Coordinator with more investigative authority to work with the agency’s working groups and institute a standardized disclosure system to inform Congress on emergent domestic terrorist threats.

Trends of Domestic Terrorism

Between 2013 and 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) number of open domestic terrorism-related cases grew from 1,981 to 9,049 cases. Incidents of far-right terrorism constitute most of the recent domestic attacks. Incidents of far-left terrorism have accounted for 15.6% of all ideologically motivated domestic attacks between 1990 and 2020.

National security officials are expressing concerns over this rise of domestic terrorism. Senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism Michael Jensen outlined that 70% of individuals committing domestic terrorism are either “lone wolf” actors or part of “isolated cliques” of three to four people. In contrast to large global terrorist groups often focusing on non-American recruitment in languages other than English, the path to domestic radicalization and terrorism is incidentally more accessible and reaches many people as a matter of course during an average day. Individuals who are susceptible to extremist messaging can find their path to radicalization through mundane social interactions with peers in-person or online, partisan media indoctrination. and the self-affirming social networks that most users of the internet in the U.S. have likely encountered.

Current Deficiencies of Federal Responses to Domestic Terrorism

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress restructured the federal government to better combat on international terrorism. This restructuring included the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2004, which was designated to support counterterrorism efforts by reporting data on terrorist actors.

Because the NCTC was assigned to counter international terrorists, it was prohibited from sharing data on domestic threats. In a 2019 letter to Senator Ron Johnson and Senator Gary Peters, DHS Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Christine Ciccone outlined that the DHS “does not track,” nor regularly report, “statistics regarding the number of people killed and injured in the United States by…domestic terrorist attacks.”

This prioritization of international terrorism resulted in the underfunding of domestic counterterrorism programs. Investigations of domestic terrorists began to increase after the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995. However, the Trump administration shifted focus from domestic terrorism to international Islamic extremism, claiming that asymmetric attacks from Islamic extremists uniquely threatened national security. The shift in priorities hampered responsiveness to domestic terror threats. When the creation of the DHS’s Office of Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention was announced in April 2019, the Office acquired a budget of less than $3 million and less than 10 employees.

In June 2021, the Biden administration released its first-annual National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. Although the administration improved information-sharing efforts by updating the US Violent Extremist Mobilization Indicators booklet to document emerging threats, it has yet to grant stronger investigatory powers to working groups within the DHS.

Policy Recommendations

By focusing more on global threats, the federal government has inhibited agencies’ counterterrorism efforts at home. However, these policy deficiencies can be remedied.

First, the federal government should increase the investigatory powers of the DHS’s Counterterrorism Coordinator. The Coordinator is the most senior official leading policy matters on counterterrorism activities. DHS has struggled to centralize its authority to lead other working groups within the agency, in part due to the limited powers these groups possess to investigate domestic attacks. A Counterterrorism Coordinator with greater authority to designate responsibilities and cooperate with such groups can more effectively establish formal leadership.

In collaboration with the DHS, the FBI and Department of Justice need a standardized system for reporting data on domestic terrorist investigations, arrests, and convictions to Congress. As Peters and Johnson outlined, the federal government does not have an established disclosure requirement. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 required the FBI and DHS to disclose to Congress the general terminology and data methods they used in investigations, but it did not require annual disclosures. Requiring annual disclosures to Congress would keep Congress informed on emergent terrorist threats and further streamline counterterrorism efforts.