Understanding the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2017

The homegrown extremist threat in the United States is growing—and changing. A litany of reports, data analyses, anecdotes and investigations show that increasingly, the homegrown threat is fueled by right-wing ideologies. In response to the extremist violence that has erupted across the nation, 13 U.S. Senators are introducing a bill, “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2017” (S.2148), intended to address the growing threat posed by anti-government extremists, white supremacists, sovereign citizens and other right-wing extremist groups.

“Violent white supremacist groups and other right-wing extremists are the most significant domestic terror threat facing the United States today,” said bill sponsor Sen. Dick Durbin. “But too often when violent tragedy strikes our people, the conversation only shifts to terrorism if the perpetrator is from another country. Our own federal law enforcement agencies recognize that terrorism is on the rise in our own backyard, and it’s time that Congress take steps to address it.”

Indeed, U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and counterterrorism professionals have been cautioning for years that the right-wing extremist threat in the United States is on the rise. Today, the right-wing threat is at least commensurate with (if not exceeding) the threat from Muslim Identity extremists. A PolitiFact analysis of the U.S. Extremist Crime Database shows that from September 12, 2001 to December 31, 2016, right-wing terrorists were responsible 47% of all deaths from violent extremism in the United States. This year, the FBI reported the threat of white nationalist violence in the United States is at least as big a threat as that posed by ISIS and similar groups.

The proposed legislation was inspired in part by events at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., which ended in violence. The rally was a pivotal moment for the right-wing movement, demonstrating a mobilization of disparate groups across the extreme right ideological spectrum. In a case study performed by London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue, representatives of the alt-right movement described it as an “historic movement,” and in a terrible way, it was. Charlottesville was one of the first real-world events that brought together many loosely affiliated far-right communities of different ideological leanings. It was the result of heavy promotion across Facebook, Twitter, 4Chan, Reddit and multiple alt-right Discord channels, as well as extreme right-wing webpages and forums.

As the people of Charlottesville, Charleston, Portland and the Maryland campus of Bowie State know all too well, the terrorist threat from right-wing extremists is manifest. It is essential that administrators and lawmakers commence counterterrorism considerations with the solemn acknowledgement that terrorism and violent extremism are an existential threat to the nation, no matter whether they are driven by a religious, racist, bigoted or nationalistic ideology. That’s why the proposed Senate legislation and the debates it prompts come at a critical time. There are several important operational proposals included in the bill.

First, the bill proposes a Domestic Terrorism Unit, housed in the Department of Homeland Security Office of Intelligence and Analysis. This would be similar to the unit that was shut down in 2009 after releasing a report predicting the increased threat of confrontations between right-wing groups and government authorities, an uptick in violent acts targeting law enforcement, and attempts to recruit and radicalize veterans because of their combat skills and experience. The partisan backlash over evident data was so severe, the unit was disbanded.

The Senate bill also renews the FBI’s annual reporting on domestic terrorism. A practice that was discontinued in 2005, this unclassified report will be available to the public as a result of a joint effort between the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. And the legislation would also codify the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee (DTEC), an interagency task force originally created by the Justice Department in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The DTEC would be an appropriate and important organization to respond to emerging extremist movements, such as white supremacist Richard Spencer’s formation of a new organization to “plan and carry out bold demonstrations, train and mentor young activists, and foster collaboration among Identitarians in America and around the world.” Such goals tread close to the radicalization pathway and could lead to more extremist violence.

Effective homeland security and public safety policy is a bipartisan issue that should be rooted in data, not fear. Numerous studies over many years have repeatedly concluded that the homegrown threat to the United States exceeds that from foreign nations, and increasingly, right-wing extremists are threatening the safety and wellbeing of Americans. This is not a threat we can afford to discount any longer. The proposed Senate bill is a step in the right direction.

Erroll Southers

Dr. Erroll Southers is USC Associate Senior Vice President of Safety and Risk Assurance. He is the former Director of the Safe Communities Institute, a former FBI Special Agent, Presidential nominee for TSA Administrator and California Governor’s appointee to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. He holds roles around the world and throughout the international counterterrorism and national security arena.

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