Violent Extremism and the Reality of Domestic Terrorism in America
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
It’s fascinating to watch as many in the US government, in particular in the US Congress, and in the media, feign surprise at the level of threat posed by domestic terrorism in the US. Warnings about white supremacists and radicalization of racist extremists have been known for a long time. Is it because the greatest threat of domestic terrorism is an outgrowth of an ideology grounded in white racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry why it has been ignored? Racist, because the greatest threat is from white extremists with ties to major politicians and a significant segment of the far right core of the Republican Party. Xenophobia and religious bigotry, because of the incredulous fear of non-white immigrants and others who practice a religion other than Christianity, such as Judaism and Islam, perpetuated by the words and actions of these same conservative actors.
For several years now, as an Adjunct Professor, I have used the opportunity of my class on Terrorism at the University of the District of Columbia (Homeland Security Graduate Program) to expose my students to the threat of Domestic Terrorism in the United States. I have highlighted to them the major deficiency federal prosecutors face because domestic terrorism is not a prosecutable offence in the Federal Criminal Code. The fact is, because of the lack of domestic terrorism as a criminal offense, federal prosecutors are forced to prosecute domestic terrorists under other provisions of the Criminal Code, and are constrained in describing these criminal offenders as terrorists.
White violent extremism is domestic terrorism
At the same time, it is important to note the FBI definition of domestic terrorism as: “Violent criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”
In the wake of the terrorist attack on the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, questions are now being raised as to why the US Congress has failed to act on legislation making domestic terrorism a criminal offense in the United States, as it is in many western democracies. The only logical answer lies in the underlying support for white racism in America among many white conservative political leaders and legislators. This is the environment in which a racist rose to leadership of the Republican Party and elected president of the United States in 2016. This is the environment in which white violent extremism found fertile ground to grow and given the imprimatur to carry out the attack – the insurrection – on the Capitol Building.
Most Americans have been misled, thus forming misguided beliefs that terrorism is exclusively within the ambit of radicalized Islamic violent extremists, especially of Middle Eastern heritage. Hence, the profiling and xenophobia in the early targeting by the Trump administration in banning immigrants from certain Muslim countries were overlooked by most. In the definitions formulated by the FBI and other national security and law enforcement agencies in the United States, there is a thin line between the definitions of international terrorism and domestic terrorism. But, there are differences which, if applied indiscriminately, would force law enforcement agencies to pay far greater attention to the threat from homegrown white violent extremists.
Domestic terrorism rooted in racism
Among the factors often overlooked in categorizing the rationale for mass killings by white extremists of people of color as acts of domestic terrorism are the tendency to ignore the religious bigotry and political objectives of these racist actors, including denial of the political rights of non-white populations in the United States. Whenever any of these mass killings by white supremacists occurred during the semester, my students ask puzzling questions as to why these egregious acts are not referred to as acts of terrorism. They ask me why these acts – mass murders – are treated differently from similar acts perpetrated by individuals of Middle Eastern heritage. It is indeed puzzling, when law enforcement agents in seeking to find motives for these crimes often unearth political, racist and extremist religious ideology, including manifestos outlining the process of radicalization of the perpetrators.
As a response to these anomalies in the treatment of white perpetrators, vis-à-vis perpetrators of other races and nationalities, I always dedicate a session of my classes on the ‘faces of terrorism’ and I generally lead with an image of the white terrorist Timothy McVeigh. This white terrorist McVeigh and his white accomplice Terry Lynn Nichols carried out the largest terrorist act in America prior to the international terrorist act of September 11, 2001. McVeigh exploded a powerful truck bomb, more than two tons of explosives, destroying the Edward P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children; and more than 300 nearby buildings were damaged. The FBI described this as the worst act of homegrown terrorism in the history of the United States. So there should be no surprise to anyone that white domestic terrorists attacked the poorly protected Capitol Building.
It is also incredulous for anyone being surprised that as much as 20% of white extremists have served in the US military. This was not a secret prior to January 06, 2021. Both McVeigh and his white accomplice Terry Lynn Nichols served in the US military. This was not an aberration. There are thousands of former military service men and women known by law enforcement agencies to be active in right-wing militias and white extremist racist groups.
Let me repeat, acts of domestic terrorism are often ignored as such because of the race of these American citizens. In support, I cite examples of white terrorist acts, including the Mother Emmanuel AME Church attack by white supremacist Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, killing nine African-American worshipers; and the Las Vegas, Nevada mass shooting by Stephen Paddock, a white violent extremist, on October 1, 2017, resulting in the deaths of 61 people and injuring 867. The FBI, perhaps in deference to the then president, failed to identify the political motivation of this white extremist. Neither of these two mass killings were prosecuted as acts of domestic terrorism.
FBI and DHS finally in sync
It wasn’t until February 2020 before FBI Director Christopher Wray classified the the issue of white violent extremists as a threat. And, in a statement before the House Homeland Security Committee on September 17, 2020, Wray recognized Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs), alongside Homegrown Violent Extremists (individual terrorists with international links), as a growing threat to the US. Wray went on to describe DVEs as posing “a steady and evolving economic harm to the United States.” Wray said, “The trends may shift, but the underlying drivers for domestic violent extremism–such as perceptions of government law enforcement overreach, sociopolitical conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and reactions to legislative actions–remain constant.”
More recently, on January 21, 2021, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a federal alert warning the public of domestic terrorist threats to the US. According to the DHS warning, these threats are “fueled by false narratives” including false claims about the conduct and outcome of the presidential elections of November 3, 2020. I need say no more. Question is: Has America been awakened to the reality of domestic terrorism and prepared to take action to suppress and prevent this scourge? Only time will tell.
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post
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