The Tough Last Mile on Domestic Counterterrorism
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies understand the roots of domestic terrorism. But identifying and stopping lone actors before they attack remains difficult.
Although the full details behind the racist attack in Buffalo are still being determined, the latest incident of domestic terrorism in America raises an important question for public officials and law enforcement agencies. Mainly, what can we do collectively to better identify and stop ideologically motivated terrorists—particularly lone wolf white supremacists, jihadists, or militia types—before they strike?
Looking at the raft of well thought out counterterrorism research papers and strategies developed in the past few decades, we seem to have a lot of knowledge about how these domestic terrorists are created but less certainty about to intervene before they kill people. For example, a Department of Justice study by researchers at Indiana State University examined 98 separate lone wolf terrorism incidents between 1940 and 2013 (38 carried out before and 60 after 9/11) and found several common links that nine years later make a good deal of sense given what we know about events like those in Buffalo and the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh:
The radicalization model indicates that lone wolf terrorism begins with a combination of personal and political grievances which form the basis for an affinity with online sympathizers. This is followed by the identification of an enabler, followed by the broadcasting of terrorist intent. The final commonality is a triggering event, or the catalyst for terrorism. The ability of law enforcement and intelligence communities to detect and prevent lone wolf terrorism demands a clear understanding of these radicalization processes. Such insight may provide investigators with a sort of detection system, or “signatures”—as minimal as they may appear—that an individual with a terrorist intent will demonstrate in preparing for an attack. Crucial to this understanding is the broadcasting of intent. While lone wolves physically isolate from society, at the same time they seek recognition for their causes through spoken statements and threats, manifestos, e-mail messages, texting and videotaped proclamations.
In 2021, the White House launched the first national strategy for countering domestic terrorism building on insights like these with a focus on four main pillars: better understanding and sharing of domestic terrorism information across all levels of government; preventing domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization; disrupting and deterring terrorist activity; and confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism including bigotry, unchecked gun circulation, and online radicalization. The White House strategy rests on research by multiple experts who conclude: “the two most lethal elements of today’s domestic terrorism threat are (1) racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race and (2) anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, such as militia violent extremists.” The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) also released in 2021 unclassified information and assessments about domestic violent extremists pointedly stating:
The IC assesses that domestic violent extremists (DVEs) who are motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States pose an elevated threat to the Homeland in 2021. Enduring DVE motivations pertaining to biases against minority populations and perceived government overreach will almost certainly continue to drive DVE radicalization and mobilization to violence. Newer sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some DVEs to try to engage in violence this year.
The Justice Department followed up this year with the creation of a dedicated domestic terrorism unit, again citing white supremacists and anti-government militias as the most pressing threats internally. Importantly, both the White House and Department of Justice are launching these new efforts with a keen understanding of the need to protect civil liberties and civil rights given the thorny constitutional issues surrounding free speech and surveillance of American citizens. Similarly, the DNI brief clearly states, “Mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophical embrace of violent tactics may not constitute violent extremism, and may be constitutionally protected.”
All of the background research and strategies for approaching domestic terrorism make good intuitive sense. People who are driven to racist or ideologically motivated killings usually have some combination of personal mental health problems or personal grievances. They become radicalized into crazy ideas like antisemitic and anti-immigrant “Great Replacement” theory, race war propaganda, or homegrown jihad—finding loads of information to back up these extremist beliefs and supporting voices online. They seemingly have uninterrupted access to high-powered weaponry. And when the time comes, they justify their attacks publicly and increasingly seek to broadcast the actual event through social media and other platforms.
But where are the family members, friends, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, neighbors, loose acquaintances, or people online with a conscience who can identify these people to authorities? Is there a community-led strategy for domestic counterterrorism? If someone does identify one these potential lone wolf radicals to law enforcement or other public officials—as appears to be the case with the Buffalo killer who was brought in by state police for a mental health evaluation one year ago after threatening to carry out a mass shooting—who or what agency is responsible for taking these threats seriously and stopping them? How was this individual allowed to go on buying weapons and plotting his attack without any more intelligence surfacing, as the Buffalo police commissioner stated?
Since American communities are seemingly outmatched by rogue individuals with batshit ideas, high-speed Internet access, and massive gun collections, we need to think harder about what we can do as a society—within the bounds of our constitution and laws—to prevent this in the future. This must go beyond important bureaucratic steps to figure out direct measures individual Americans can take to help intervene before killers attack, and more broadly how Americans of all stripes can be enlisted to counter radicalization—of any kind—while building a better politics in the country with less hatred of one another.
Government and law enforcement agencies know a lot about the roots of domestic terrorism and they are doing their best given serious legal and resource constraints. But America obviously has difficulty finishing the last mile to stop more of these domestic terrorist events from happening.
Rather than just shrug our shoulders—or issue unrelated denunciations of one another in our daily politics—perhaps the government and citizens can work together to develop a practical strategy with concrete guidance to help identify potential domestic terrorists at some point in the radicalization-to-violence cycle, disrupt their plots, and stop them from killing innocent people.