Violent Extremism: National Uptick Catches Feds Off-guard

After the attacks in El Paso and Dayton, Pittsburgh and Poway, calls to action sound. It’s worth asking what federal law enforcement agencies were doing to safeguard against those incidents. Could the attacks have been prevented? And how does the government handle the information they receive on threats?

On June 4, 2019, Michael McGarrity, Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, testified before the House Oversight Committee on the threat of domestic terrorism in the United States. The assistant director was “most concerned” with lone offenders who commit acts of violence without clear group affiliations. These lone offenders, motivated by racial bias and hatred, are responsible for the deadliest attacks in the country. To combat the threat, the FBI allocated resources and established a Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell. The DT-HC cell shares information between different branches of the FBI to more effectively combat the threats of domestic terrorism.

This cell is a single-agency example of the information sharing that has existed across the intelligence community since 1981. After President Reagan signed Executive Order 12,333 , information sharing between federal intelligence agencies became the norm, and continued to the present day. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, four Inspectors General investigated and reported on information handling and sharing between federal intelligence agencies. The report summary, prepared by the Inspectors General for the Intelligence Community, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Justice, and Department of Homeland Security, was published in lieu of the classified 168-page report. The summary laid out the information gaps that preceded the Marathon Bombing, but ultimately concluded that the agencies followed proper procedures in information sharing and threat assessment, and “found no basis to make broad recommendations for changes in information sharing and handling.”

This report shows there is a precedent amongst IGs to review procedures after a terrorist attack. Public and political pressure made the difference and encouraged the IGs to investigate. This oversight is critical in ensuring intelligence agencies are not failing in their practice and are not understaffed and underperforming. So why have no IG reports followed the attacks in, say, Charlottesville?

There was another information sharing report published in March 2017, five months before the incident at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. All agencies involved in the 2014 report save the CIA worked on this new report on counterterrorism efforts, which said that federal, state, and local agencies and organizations are all sharing information, but the groups “were unable to quantify the significant personnel and funding resources dedicated to this effort.”

The IGs found that, due to “unpredictable federal funding”, cells at state and local levels like the DT-HC fusion cell are focused only on keeping afloat, rather than improving their capabilities. DHS and FBI officials worried about overlap in their counterterrorism efforts. The report also made recommendations both to the agencies and to Congress, specifically calling on Congress to “codify an overarching engagement and coordination body for the terrorism-related [Information Sharing Environment].” In addition, the DHS and DOJ IGs made a variety of specific recommendations to their agencies.

Were these implemented? How did this 2017 report change intelligence sharing? And what impact did it have on counterterrorism efforts? Between March 2017 and September 2019, there has been a rise in terrorist attacks in the United States and worldwide, and racially-motivated extremists have been at the forefront.

One problem seems to be priorities. The DT-HC cell published a Threat Guidance document for agents from 2018 to 2020 that leaked to The Young Turks. The guidance document detailed the level of attention and focus the FBI placed on various domestic threats, and called White Racially Motivated Extremists a “medium” threat for 2018, whereas Black Racially Motivated Extremists was designated an “elevated” threat. In their 2020 Threat Guidance document, the DT-HC cell combined the categories for Racially Motivated Violent Extremism, and upgraded the impact level to 1, which means “considerable loss of life and/or widespread fear or psychological/physical trauma with collateral implications”. The FBI’s impression in 2017, as they prepared the 2018 report, was that white nationalism would be on the decline: “ongoing attrition of national organized white supremacy extremist groups will continue over the next year, yielding a white supremacy extremist movement primarily characterized by locally organized groups, small cells, and lone offenders.”

Another problem is funding.  President Obama released a plan in 2011 to reduce violent extremism in American, and grant money was gifted to organizations dedicated to that end. After President Trump took office in 2017, the program’s grants were gifted to different organizations that target minority groups, particularly Muslims. In addition, the FBI asked for less money in 2019 compared to 2018, and in their budget request for 2020, outlined no new plan to counter violent domestic extremism.

One final problem lies in the law itself. After opening an investigation, the FBI cannot bring charges, and must often turn over cases to local prosecutors. In addition, there is no domestic terrorism statute in place that federal prosecutors can use against a potential violent extremist or someone who has already carried out an attack.

So what can be learned from all of this? We are seeing a reverse trend between national problems and federal government solutions on domestic terrorism. While racially motivated violent extremism is on the rise, government agencies are proposing no new solutions, and shifting their priorities to other threats. Rolling Stone outlined the problem succinctly after American Oversight made a FOIA request to the DHS regarding right-wing extremism and received a jumbled response: “bizarre and troubling.” In addition, Congress has been loathe to act, and has implemented no gun control regulations nor established an overarching intelligence sharing body, as recommended by the IGs in the 2017 report.

Now may be the time for the Inspectors General to weigh in. The actions of the Inspector Generals in their year-long investigation following the Boston Marathon bombings were commendable, and gave confidence to the public in the information sharing that takes place between federal agencies to protect the country. That same confidence is missing, and it falls upon the upper echelons of the executive branch to make these assurances.

The American people have had no answer from Congress to help prevent violent extremism in the United States, so the agencies ought to get their heads together and figure out new solutions, or the Inspectors General report on any shortcomings these agencies are facing. A good place to begin would be with the implementation of the recommendations from the 2017 report. Did implementation work and did it effect any change?