FBI and DHS failing to address threat of domestic terrorism, according to new Senate report

White supremacists and other extremists are a "persistent and lethal" threat — and law enforcement hasn't adjusted

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published November 28, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

FBI Agents (Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
FBI Agents (Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

A new investigation by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee into the rise of domestic terrorism has found that the federal government is failing to adequately address domestic terror attacks, which are predominantly perpetrated by white supremacists and anti-government extremists.

Although the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have identified domestic terrorism, specifically white supremacist violence, as "the most persistent and lethal terrorist threat," the federal government has continued to allocate resources to focus on international terrorist threats instead, according to the report

The 128-page report is the culmination of a three-year investigation, which relies on public testimony and interviews with federal law enforcement officials and executives from Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, as well as more than 2,000 "key documents" that offer insight into the most significant terror threats facing the U.S.

The report also identifies the role social media companies have played in amplifying extremist content, and says that both DHS and the FBI still fail to track and report data on domestic terrorism, despite a provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that requires them to do so.

"DHS and FBI's inability to provide comprehensive data on the domestic terrorist threat creates serious concerns that they are not effectively prioritizing our counterterrorism resources to address the rising domestic terrorist threat," said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich, the committee's chairman, in a statement.

Over the last two decades, Congress restructured federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies to focus on the threat posed by international terrorists following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But it's also true that in recent years attacks from domestic terrorists have surged, with 110 domestic terrorist plots and attacks in 2020 alone — a 244 percent increase from 2019, according to a 2021 Center for Strategic and International Studies study.

"The data is clear that the problem is right-wing extremism when it comes to terrorism," said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. "That was most on display on Jan. 6, when white supremacists were mixing with QAnon conspiracists and anti-government people to literally overthrow our democratic system,"  

Social media has also contributed to the growing threat of far-right extremism, since it allows people to access "white supremacist materials within seconds and become indoctrinated," Beirich added. Even more concerning, she says, are people in positions of power who are adapting or mainstreaming the same messaging as domestic terrorists. 

It's not just that the "great replacement" theory is all over the internet, Beirich said. "It's also that politically powerful people are endorsing and furthering it, so it doesn't sound like some fringe idea that should be stuck way out on the edges of society."

Beirich pointed out that several Republican candidates for office in the midterm election endorsed the "great replacement" conspiracy theory — a white nationalist ideology centered on the claim that immigrants are being deliberately imported into the U.S. and other Western countries to "replace" the white population. Belief in the "replacement" theory has been linked to several acts of racist violence, including the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand and the August 2019 mass shooting in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

"It's not just that this material is all over the internet," Beirich said. "It's also that politically powerful people are endorsing and furthering it, so it doesn't sound like some fringe idea that should be stuck way out on the edges of society. They're giving it an endorsement."

The Senate report found that social media platforms have allowed for "increased recruitment, dissemination, and coordination of domestic terrorist and extremist related activities."

While these platforms may have rules and guidelines in place to remove extremist content, their business models are designed to maximize user engagement, which often ends up promoting extreme content that can translate into real-world violence.

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A study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses on Terrorism found that, in 2016 alone, social media played a role in the radicalization process of nearly 90 percent of extremists in the United States. 

Federal agencies have failed to adapt to the shifting landscape of social media and adequately address domestic terrorist threats online, said Patrick Riccards, the CEO of Life After Hate — a nonprofit that helps deradicalize people from violent far-right groups and other extremist organizations. 

"These groups are incredibly smart, incredibly savvy," Riccards added. "When you look at their skill and abilities with regard to the digital universe, in terms of recruiting, organizing and executing action, they are a generation or two ahead of where the FBI was." 

On top of this, the FBI and DHS both have different definitions for "domestic terrorism," which can lead to the agencies categorizing the same event in different categories, the report highlights. Terrorist acts labeled as "international" rather than "domestic" provide law enforcement and national security agencies access to greater surveillance, investigative and prosecutorial tools and resources.

"These differences often lead to disparate treatment of immigrant and U.S. minority populations and inconsistent investigations of terrorist attacks, including whether or not to categorize an attack as terrorism," the report said. 

"These groups are incredibly smart, incredibly savvy. When you look at their digital abilities in terms of recruiting, organizing and executing action, they are a generation ahead of the FBI." 

One reason why these agencies are still so focused on international terrorism, Riccards said, is because it's still "more acceptable" for them to spend "federal government resources going after the future generations of bin Ladens — going into the Middle East and saying, we're not going to let another 9/11 happen again — than it is to go after Americans who half of this country may share political beliefs with."

Riccards continued: "Now the domestic terrorists are wearing suits and ties. They're not stomping heads in the streets. They're raising money. They're organizing. They're incredibly successful at [promoting] online propaganda and constantly creating new platforms to spread it. It's a new world when it comes to domestic terrorism, and in many ways we're still trying to fight it under old rules and old ways of thinking."

He added that, to this day, when shootings take place in a synagogue, a mosque or an LGBTQ-oriented nightclub, the media does not reflexively refer to them as "terrorist" acts and instead often describes such events as committed by a "lone gunman" who suffered from mental illness or who lost their way. That contributes, Riccards said, to a wider failure to address the real problem. 

The administration in power also plays a significant role in influencing the federal government's priorities when it comes to counterterrorism. Under Donald Trump, DHS focused on international terrorism despite the clear and rising threat of domestic extremism, the report points out. That led to a decrease in staffing and budget allocations directed at countering anti-government extremists, white supremacists and other potentially violent actors.

DHS's Countering Violent Extremism program, which was focused on preventing violence and terrorism of all kinds, was also impacted by Trump's presidency. While the program had largely focused on combating Islamic extremism, its focus shifted toward the end of the Obama administration, Beirich said, to include white nationalism and extremism.

In 2017, DHS announced that 31 grantees would receive $10 million in funding to support local efforts to combat extremism, with at least two of those groups focused on countering right-wing extremism. After Trump took office, both of those grantees — Life After Hate and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — were cut from the list. 

"Life After Hate works with people who are trying to leave extremist movements like white supremacy and whatnot, and the Trump administration came in and just canceled it," Beirich said.

When shootings take place in a synagogue, a mosque or an LGBTQ club, the media doesn't reflexively call them "terrorist" acts. Instead, we hear that such crimes are committed by a "lone gunman" who lost their way.

In 2021, Joe Biden became the first president to issue a national strategy aimed at dealing with domestic terrorism, and that same year DHS also designated combating domestic violent extremism as a "National Priority Area" within its Homeland Security Grant Program for the first time. Furthermore, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has established a dedicated domestic terrorism branch within the DHS Office of Intelligence & Analysis (I&A). 

While the Biden administration has taken a steps in the right direction by acknowledging the longstanding threat of domestic terrorism, the Senate report finds that "DHS has not provided the Committee with sufficient information or data that would enable the Committee to determine what actions it has taken to accomplish those goals and assess the effectiveness of those actions."

In discussing both his organization's specific goals and the overall challenge of addressing domestic terrorism, Riccards said: "We love telling stories about redemption in this country, but we don't necessarily like practicing redemption, in believing that people deserve second chances." Homeland Security under Biden and Mayorkas is trying to address the challenge, he said, "but you're talking about throwing a pebble in the ocean at this point. There is so much happening that we are just playing catch-up each and every day." 

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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