How Can America Counter Domestic Extremism?
Five considerations and lessons learned from two decades of the Global War on Terror
America’s terrorism threat has inverted in the two decades since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Instead of foreign attackers or foreign incitement of homegrown terrorist recruits, America now hosts a wide range of domestic terrorists willing and able to attack inside the U.S., with only a handful of white supremacists maintaining light connections to foreign terror groups. Today’s great national security challenge is not how to prevent al Qaeda or the Islamic State from pulling off another 9/11, but how the U.S. government can stop another Oklahoma City bombing or Capitol insurrection. In 2021, more domestic terrorists motivated by white supremacist, anti-government and misogynist ideologies have better training, more access to weapons and targets, and a greater commitment to violence than all of the homegrown jihadist terrorists since 9/11. What should America do to stop this new wave of extremism threatening the underpinnings of our democracy?
The first part of this discussion, “Virtual Insanity to Real World Calamity: How Will Lies Power Domestic Terrorism in 2021?,” sought to provide parameters and a resulting landscape for understanding extremism emanating from within America—a threat mapping of a complex environment. The imperfect Figures 1 and 2 in the previous post plotted four variables outlining today’s domestic terrorist collectives: ideology, propensity to violence, structural tendencies, and estimated age. The disparate nature of this threat landscape suggests to me that any conception of a single, whole-of-government strategy to counter domestic terrorism—one that mimics last decade’s approach for countering violent extremism (CVE)— will be doomed to failure. The extremist landscape in 2021, shaped by several divergent forces, suggests the need for three or more strategies focused on differing aspects of the domestic terrorist landscape. Each tailored strategy would also require differing combinations of government and civil society partners, and law enforcement will not always be in the best position to lead each course of action. Across all of these strategies, here are some guiding principles strategists and practitioners might consider when seeking to prevent future domestic terrorism.
If they organize online, intercept them in person.
The most frequent, violent attacks—and also the most difficult to detect—arise from what I refer to as the “stochastic haters” (Figure 1). Often isolated in the real world but not alone in the virtual world, these terrorists are seen as an outgrowth of social media and the Internet, and thus leads researchers to push for more cyber sleuthing to study their habits and patterns, understand their ideology and assess their psychology. But we’ve been down this path before. Researchers studying online jihadists over the last two decades didn’t ultimately find many insights resulting in tangible, consistent methods for quelling the violence of angry young men online. Isolated extremists grasped at a mishmash of often incoherent or even contradictory justifications for killing people and their motivations spanned a vast spectrum of personal and group grievances that were only distinguishable from America’s swathes of mass shooters for their use of a one or a few words—jihad, al Qaeda, ISIS, or all of the above.
Rather than attempting to decipher the musings of the confused and oftentimes mentally disturbed, I recommend the opposite approach for disruption: breaking the isolation, severing the digital connections between extremists, and intercepting the most violent folks online with in-person interventions or online interventions in a private setting. Interventions should move as quickly as possible to assess their commitment to violence and off-ramp as many potential perpetrators as possible before a violent physical assault. Law enforcement should follow the same principle with the next potential mass shooter as they do with real mass shooters—identify, connect with and eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. (Figure 3 below, Zone A)
If they organize in person, engage them online.
On the opposite end of the lone-wolf killers are organized militia extremists. Challenging militia extremists in person, whether its law enforcement or counter-protestors, routinely feeds into their objectives and personal motivating narratives, incites provocations that may lead to violence, or further radicalizes their adherents and attracts new supporters—Ruby Ridge, Waco, Bundy Ranch offer a few relevant examples. Often, the local public refrains from denouncing militia demonstrations due to safety concerns. Infiltrating these extremist groups has been notoriously difficult and dangerous as well. An alternative approach to impede their strength organizing in person is to use online spaces to increase internal and external pressure on the group—impeding their ability to communicate, separating members from a larger base of public support, and exploiting infighting between chapters and cliques. (Figure 3 below, Zone B)
If they are younger, move quicker.
The younger the extremist, the more quickly they tend to radicalize and mobilize to violence. Isolated stochastic haters and organized violent cells of young extremists have few real-life challenges to their violent ideas but core online supporters in echo chamber discussion spaces that encourage them to kill. Nascent ideological justifications for violence can quickly be conflated with a range of personal grievances leading to devastating attacks that are difficult to anticipate because they’re often not tied to any logical, coherent and discernable ideological purpose—the goal is violence first, purpose second. To stop the violence, get to them quicker.
If they are older, proceed slower.
Older terrorists exist, but are fewer in number, as there are often physical limitations to conducting an attack, greater costs to friends and family and radicalization tends to be more in person than online. Isolation still matters and can correlate with violence—we should not forget the case of the Unabomber, the Las Vegas shooting, and the recent Nashville bombing. But law enforcement might consider moving more strategically with older collectives as confrontation with authorities is a central tenet of many extremist beliefs, and provides them justification for action and feeds their narrative. Additional attention to older extremists, particularly when showcased in national media, can increase the reach and power of more seasoned extremists who understand how to walk the line between protected free speech and incitement to violence. Countering the older extremists requires patience, a plan and partners—civil society can help.
Don’t repeat what didn’t work in the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
America’s recent history of countering terrorism in the homeland offers many lessons learned pointing to what we should not do. A decade ago, CVE became the moniker for a catchall, highly funded bucket of disparate, ineffective measures to decrease sympathy for terrorist groups and their beliefs. Many years of catered working group meetings deliberating over irrelevant terminology, convoluted strategies placing no one in charge, nationwide sensitivity training aimed to achieve vague feel-good objectives of no consequence, seeking consensus from those not actually involved in policy execution while micromanaging practitioners, worrying more about whether journalists approve of the strategy and its marketing campaigns than if the activities achieve any particular effect—let’s skip all that this time and selectively implement those most effective programs, grow the most essential capabilities, and rapidly move to prevention of terrorist attacks rather than accepting a position of reactive response to mass casualty events. A whole-of-government approach similar to that implemented for international terrorism is not warranted and would simply create bureaucratic infighting, over-complicate what is already quite complicated, and wouldn’t achieve any measurable effect during a time of intense political partisanship.
Countering domestic terrorism: three strategies, not one
The domestic terrorism landscape sketched out in Part 1 of this series of posts and these five notes from the last twenty years of terrorism and counterterrorism suggest to me there are three “zones” of extremists in America and three different strategies we might pursue in quashing their violence. Figure 3 offers three zones where strategies might be planned, resourced and conducted, and in the next three posts I’ll address some concepts for how America might do something about our domestic terrorism problem—that’s if we want to move past talking about the problem and start doing something about the problem.
Part 2.1 - Strategy 1: Zone A - D.A.D. - Detect, Assess, Disrupt On Scale
Part 2.2 - Strategy 2: Zone B - Make Villains Not Martyrs
Part 2.3 - Strategy 3: Zone C - Crash Conspiracies Into The Reality Horizon
See you later in the week.