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An American Tragedy Part Two: Domestic Terrorism

The following is Part Two of our blog discussing the laws surrounding the mass shootings that occurred on August 3 and 4, 2019, in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, respectively.


A lot. After two mass shootings in 14 hours last week, the FBI announced it was opening a domestic terrorism investigation into the first tragedy, the shooting in El Paso, Texas. Prior to that horrific event, the killer allegedly posted a manifesto online that contained white-supremacist, anti-immigrant extremist ideology. But what is domestic terrorism and what does the designation empower the FBI and other government agencies to do? A little background is helpful.


The single most deadly act of domestic terrorism is still the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War Veteran seeking revenge for the botched FBI raids at Waco,Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. After 9/11, our focus naturally shifted to international terrorism and fighting jihadist terrorism. But the truth is, that since 9/11, white supremacists and other far-right extremists have been responsible for almost three times as many attacks on U.S. soil as Islamic terrorists, according to government statistics. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that attacks by far-right perpetrators more than quadrupled between 2016-2017. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) found that every extremist killing in 2018 was linked to right-wing extremism. Finally, sadly, more people were killed in the El Paso shooting than on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria combined this year.

Despite these statistics, more FBI resources continue to go toward fighting international terrorism than countering domestic terrorism and violent extremism in the U.S. Funding for grants going to organizations established to fight neo-Nazis, white-supremacists, anti-government militias, etc., has been cut. DOJ policies rank far-right terrorism below international terrorism as a priority, even though the former is on the rise in the U.S.

Even more disturbing is the fact that there is no federal law against “domestic terrorism” or providing material support to a white supremacist or far-right extremist. The infrastructure and laws that were set up post-9/11 to empower the federal government to aggressively counter the threat of international terrorism and radical jihadists have not been replicated for the threat of domestic terrorism. The FBI currently has no ability to designate neo-Nazi groups or white supremacists as terrorist organizations, put them under surveillance, monitor their movements and chats, and charge extremists with providing material support to these groups. No matter how many guns are bought, manifestos posted, or marches undertaken, until these activities cross a very blurry line from protected constitutional speech and assembly to inciting violence or spewing hate speech, the groups cannot be charged. When they do cross the line, individuals are charged under hate crime laws, not terrorism. (Notably, over half of hate crimes reported in 2017 were motivated by racial or ethnic bias, and anti-Semitic crimes rose 37%.)


Recognizing the magnitude of the problem and naming it is a good start. The rise of white supremacy and calling it what it is—domestic terrorism—allows it to be given the attention it needs to be taken seriously as a law enforcement priority. The next step is to assign the resources commensurate with the severity of the threat: the FBI must have more agents for intelligence, cyber monitoring and investigation to counter the online radicalization of these young men on platforms such as Gab and 8chan, and must have the resources to work with state and local partners to know when online chats become overt preparation for violence. Congress needs to pass laws that establish a similar infrastructure to those for international terrorism; i.e. laws making domestic terrorism a crime, making providing support to groups deemed domestic terror groups a crime, etc. There will obviously be a political debate about what constitutes a domestic terrorist group or organization—just as there is at times with designating a foreign terrorist organization. But politics should not stop us from calling out extremism in all its forms and confronting radicalization that leads to violence.


If you or someone you know feels threatened by the words, online postings, or actions of a co-worker or neighbor, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights. If you feel that someone poses an immediate danger, contact local law enforcement.

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