President Biden's New Plan to Counter Domestic Terrorism: A Step Forward

Can the U.S. conduct a whole-of-society approach when all-of-society is not on board?

A decade ago, the Obama administration issued two national strategy documents aimed at countering violent extremism: The strategy (document one) and the implementation plan (document two) were meant to guide wide swaths of counterterrorism efforts aimed at thwarting al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its adherents in the United States. The documents were written in such a way as to seem agnostic to motivation—as if the strategy encompassed a broader set of extremist ideologies to include homegrown domestic groups as well. But it quickly became apparent that no part of the U.S. federal government was particularly interested in policing white men with guns, even after a white supremacist Kevin Harpham built and deployed a sophisticated improvised explosive device at a Martin Luther King parade in Spokane, Washington, in 2011. See here from a 2019 discussion at FPRI:

Countering violent extremism became a cottage industry last decade where much was said and ultimately little got done—and what was done was not particularly effective. Soon after the strategy emerged in 2011 and programs rolled out, the U.S. saw the largest spike in foreign-inspired homegrown violent extremism in its history as ISIS ravaged Syria and Iraq and their attacks brought American terrorist recruits to the Middle East and spawned bombings and shootings across the U.S. Meanwhile, a series of mass terror acts and murders committed by white supremacists—like the 2015 Charleston mass shooting, the 2018 Tree of Life mass shooting in Pittsburgh, and the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein—also brought attention to the domestic terrorism problem in the following years with little broader action that followed to limit extremist groups.

Before discussing the new National Strategy For Countering Domestic Terrorism (June 2021), I’d note that I admire the Biden administration for undertaking an effort to counter domestic terrorism. Having testified to the Senate Homeland Affairs committee on this topic in 2019, I left fairly disappointed about the conduct of that hearing and with limited hope of true progress toward mobilizing U.S. resources in response to a recent spate of horrific white supremacist attacks on minorities. Domestic terrorism is a tough challenge to tackle, and by issuing this strategy, the Biden administration has done what all before them have dodged. They should be commended for taking a step forward into this political minefield and putting the safety of all Americans first over the partisan bickering of D.C.

The strategy rightly rehashes the domestic violent extremism threat assessment from the Directorate of National Intelligence in March 2021. But the strategy document also sets up what will be the D.C. acronym discussion space for the next few years. To look like an insider in the Beltway, one will have to rattle off these acronyms routinely, even when they don’t fit the context of the conversation. These labels serve as a way to dance around the U.S. government’s inability to designate domestic terrorist groups in the way the the Department of State has designated foreign terrorist groups.

Here’s a quick violent extremist menu for deciphering government talk, which includes the acronyms used in this new strategy document and the FBI-DHS Strategic Intelligence Assessment and Data on Domestic Terrorism from May 2021:

  • VE = Violent Extremists – That’s all violent extremists, foreign or domestic

  • HVE = Homegrown Violent Extremists – This is last decade’s term that served as a catch-all label for Americans inspired by foreign jihadist terror groups like al Qaeda, the Islamic State, al Shabaab (Somalia), and a range of other jihadi affiliates that occasionally inspire Americans to commit violence on U.S. soil. The term developed a decade ago because an individual American might never have an actual physical connection or communications with the core terrorist group and was simply inspired by the ideology to kill fellow Americans. The framing provided a bridge for investigating those inspired by international terror groups. One might ask: “Aren’t all American terrorists homegrown, regardless of the foreign or domestic origin of their ideology?” The answer is yes, but a decade ago, when the U.S. government penned the “HVE” acronym to reference foreign jihadist groups, they likely didn’t imagine they’d be writing the same strategy for domestic terrorists a decade later.

  • DVE = Domestic Violent Extremists – This is the higher-order, more current label for all terrorists inside the U.S. outside of HVE—those individuals using violence or the threat of violence in pursuit of political, social or religious aims (for terrorism definitions, Bruce Hoffman is the go-to resource; see here). DVE labeling is a way to bypass a larger overarching problem with the U.S. counterterrorism system at home—the U.S. government cannot designate domestic terror groups in the same way it can designate foreign terror groups.

  • RMVE = Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism – Also known as white supremacists. Sure, there is a small fraction of the RMVE landscape that includes other races, but it’s small. 

  • MVE = Militia Violent Extremism – Militia groups; it’s a strange moniker since this focuses on the members of the militias without designating the entire militia as a terrorist group, even though the group may actually state they are dedicated to using violence or the threat of violence in pursuit of political, social or religious change.

  • AGAAVE = Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremists – This umbrella group includes extremists targeting government or law enforcement (think: Boogaloo extremists), Sovereign Citizen Violent Extremism (SCVE), and anarchist groups (Anarchist Violent Extremism [AVE]). I can’t wait to use this at a counterterrorism conference and pronounce it like the succulent plant often infused in tequila - /əˈɡävē/.

  • Animal Rights/Environmental Violent Extremism: No acronym used; however, this category has been a mainstay inside the government for decades.

  • Abortion-Related Violent Extremism: No acronym used, but represents extremists with pro-life or pro-choice ideological agendas.

  • Left out of the assessment is conspiracy-inspired violence. I’m not sure if that is deliberate or the result of the government running out of acronyms. Seriously, I’m not sure what combination of letters they’d use. But I’d recommend QVE: QAnon-Inspired Violent Extremists. 

The new strategy organizes around four pillars each with supporting strategic goals.  The four pillars are below, and I’ve made a few notes on each. 

1. Understand and Share Domestic Terrorism-Related Information:

The goals of more research and information sharing are admirable and mirror what was done during the international terrorism days fighting al Qaeda and the Islamic State with one exception: The document calls for “understanding the threat by supporting and making appropriate use of the analysts performed by entities outside the government that bring to bear relevant expertise.” This is a nice way for the U.S. government to avoid researching groups and ideologies that support violence, but can lead to a very partisan and tricky pathway should the administration switch parties. 

A separate goal focuses on information sharing across federal, state, and local partners, but there’s one big challenge with domestic terrorism. Several current and former law enforcement officers surfaced in past domestic extremism cases to include the January 6 insurrection. I foresee some of this future information sharing turning into political theater when individuals sympathetic to certain political candidates appear in government reports or members of law enforcement adhere to violent ideologies or deny that President Biden is in fact the president and pose a threat of taking action on such a belief. 

2. Prevent Domestic Terrorism Recruitment and Mobilization To Violence

Pillar 2, well ... it worries me. It feels a little too familiar. All of the recommendations are well and good, but I don’t believe many concepts posed here will make any measurable dent in terrorist recruitment and most were tried last decade with little effect. I noted in March in the post “How can America counter domestic extremism?”:

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.  

Some programming recommendations in Pillar 2 include “digital programming, including enhancing media literacy and critical thinking skills, as a mechanism for strengthening user resilience to disinformation and misinformation online for domestic audiences” and increase  “grant funding available in this area in support of evidence–based programs.”With the amount of money being committed ($100 million), I don’t see how these programs will make a meaningful dent in domestic terrorism and will likely only shave away at the main effort, which should be Pillar 3.

3. Disrupt And Deter Domestic Terrorism Activity

Pillar 3 should be Pillar 1, the main effort—to identify violence or the threat of violence and eliminate it. All resources, money, and manpower, should be focused on policing violence, and the DoJ has emphasized that in its public remarks. The FBI likely needs a 50% or more increase in agents and analysts to deal with all of the “priorities” it is currently facing in domestic terrorism, international terrorism, ransomware, public corruption, white collar crime … the list is endless. BLUF: Get more people investigating domestic terrorism as quickly as possible and give them what they need —legislative reforms and authorities to detect and disrupt extremists on and off the Internet planning real-world violence and attacks. 

4. Confront Long-Term Contributors to Domestic Terrorism

Pillar 4 represents a long list of parallel issues enabling domestic terrorism that call for a “whole-of-society” approach to countering America’s ills. All of it is nice, and as a strategy, this section is aspirational, admirable and unattainable. I appreciate the principles, but a whole-of-society approach requires all-of-society to be on board with reforming the country, filling its fissures, and healing its wounds. America is just not there right now.  

The strategy document as a whole … is fine. It captures all the elements of past terrorism approaches and calibrates for some new problems. I’ve been tardy in my follow-up from my previous post where I discussed what I think the U.S. government should not do in countering domestic terrorism. And next up, I’ll offer an alternative to how the U.S. might build and implement strategies to counter the domestic terrorism threat based on how the threat manifests. Here’s a quick recap from March, and next up, Strategy 1 - Detect, Assess and Disrupt (D.A.D.).

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. 

Next up:

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