The Atlantic Council hosted a webinar on 25 January about the threat of domestic terrorism to the United States. Entitled, “What Comes After An Insurrection: The Future of the Domestic Terrorism Threat,” the panel consisted of five top experts in the field.
Before the panel, the scene was set by Graham Brookie, a former White House official who now works as the Director and Managing Editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research (DFR) Lab, which focuses on online disinformation and its real-world effects.
Brookie says that the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January, when supporters of former President Donald Trump tried to violently overturn the election results, was a clear case where the online information environment had a “primary causal effect” for the physical events of that day.
Brookie said that it was important, for the sake of policy-making, to understand that the insurrectionists were not one unified group, but a series of subgroupings along a spectrum of radicalization from private, albeit connected, QAnon conspiracy theorists and far-Right ideologues all the way across to unlawful Militias that have a clear command-and-control structure.
One significant difference between the various components of the mob that stormed the Capitol is how they communicate: the Q believers are ubiquitous on social media platforms, from very large and mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter, to smaller, “alternative” ones, while the hardened Militia operatives tend to engage in explicitly closed environments.
The aftermath of the U.S. election, where conspiracy theories about the outcome having been “stolen”, created an environment where these factions converged, says Brookie, and this matters because it means that this problem will not go away now that Trump is out of office. The aftermath of the election was a “motivating factor, but it is not the only driving and motivating factor for these online communities, especially those further down the spectrum of radicalization”, says Brookie. The events will have a “long tail of radicalization” with a “significant and dangerous shelf-life”.
In terms of a response to this problem, “de-platforming works in general,” says Brookie. By scattering the extremists, it prevents coordination either to arrange a major event or to react during one. De-platforming has the further benefit of preventing these types of narratives reaching a mainstream audience; the price of that is that those already engaged in extremism will tend to intensify their views and build structures that are resilient to measures like de-platforming.
The primary threat from the domestic extremism scene at the present time is “lone wolf” actions, Brookie says. These break down into three broad categories: (1) states that have been saturated in disinformation since the election like Pennsylvania and Michigan; (2) states that had a significant amount of Militia activity before the election like Kentucky and Idaho; and (3) states that have over the last year had significant protest activity like Minnesota and Oregon, the latter host to the city of Portland that has seen almost constant rioting and violent attacks on democratic authorities from Left-wing extremists like ANTIFA.
Charles Marino, a former Supervisory Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service and current CEO of Sentinel Security Solutions, says there is likely to be a wholesale review of how the U.S. government protects significant public events. The security situation was clearly insufficient at the Capitol on 6 January. The use of technology, enhanced screening, and unpredictable protective practices will be employed to keep state officials safe in an ever-evolving threat environment.
Michael McGarrity, the former Assistant Director for Counterterrorism at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who is now Vice President of Global Risk Services, says the FBI will now have to undertake an after-action report on what happened at the Capitol, which will inform future decision-making.
Preventing a terrorist incident within the U.S. is the FBI’s number one priority, McGarrity notes, and since racially-motivated and anti-government extremism is now clearly so much more of a threat than had previously been thought, more resources will be devoted to them.
The FBI’s field offices will be reviewing their human sources (HUMINT), their undercover operatives offline and online, since, McGarrity points out, the radicalization threat from lone-actor far-Right terrorists in the U.S. significantly develops in the online space, as was true of the Islamic State (ISIS) and is less true of Al-Qaeda. “The flash to bang can be very quick”, as he puts it, giving the example of the Christchurch attack in New Zealand, and these communities have now created internal incentives to escalate these attacks—to “one-up” each other.
McGarrity concludes that in addition to monitoring these groups through undercover sources, the platforms themselves need to come under pressure to regulate how they are being used. McGarrity adds that the prosecutions of events like the Capitol attack should take place not only in Washington, D.C., but in local areas where these people came from. This is not only a matter of bureaucratic capacity for the courts: law is a symbol, as much as anything; “you want local media coverage … as a deterrent”.
Francis Taylor, a former Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) who now works as an Executive Fellow at the Global Policy Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, says that DHS is critical in creating a whole-of-government approach to meeting this problem, creating fusion centers across the country that link national and state policy, and coordinating intelligence with the FBI in assessing the threat picture.
Taylor notes that the U.S. has had prior experience in dealing with domestic terrorism, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s with the Communist movement and since 2001 with Islamic extremism, and these lessons in how to disrupt and destroy terrorist groups, while preserving rights of free speech and free assembly, can be applied at the present time to this new danger.
Mary McCord, a former Justice Department official serving as a professor at Georgetown Law School, said that one of the primary changes with the new U.S. administration is likely to be a Justice Department that acknowledges and names the problem of white supremacist terrorism, rather than having the prior administration’s reflexive tick of pointing to the Left and ANTIFA when asked about domestic extremism.
McCord stresses that “prevention is preferrable to prosecution,” which means using tools like undercover operatives to interdict people going down the path of radicalization. This more preventive approach would also involve invoking laws that are on the books but infrequently used—like the ban on private Militias or collective training with the purpose of challenging state authority—to create a greater deterrent threshold against violent extremist behaviour, says McCord.
In the question-and-answer period, the issue of “insider threats” to the U.S. was raised and McGarrity said that the key way this is handled is by friends, colleagues, and family spotting the signs of radicalization and informing law-enforcement, as has happened with the Muslim community detecting Islamist extremists. For this to occur, an educational effort has to be made from the schools on-up.
McCord adds that the Justice Department can highlight the insider threat matter, but DOJ can only be one component alongside law-enforcement and the military. This might sound complicated, and some of it is; some of it really is not, however, with individuals posting regularly and in public their extremist beliefs and lawless intentions. The U.S., perhaps more than any other democracy, is very touchy about things like this because the First Amendment to the Constitution provides an absolute right of free speech, but McCord notes that incitement to, let alone planning, sedition is not free expression and is a legitimate basis for legal investigation.
There was a slight division within the panel on whether the U.S. needed new terrorism laws to deal with the rise in far-Right domestic terrorism. Some felt that there were enough existing tools; others felt there was merit in some kind of Domestic Terrorism Statute to give the appropriate sentencing and public gravity to this issue.
There was broad agreement that, though far-Right extremism is a domestic threat to the U.S., there is an international dimension that makes this a priority issue across the West: some terrorists travel overseas for training and there is a transnational Euro-centric ideology and online network, which inspires across borders—far-Right extremists in Germany, say, take satisfaction and lessons from attacks in (for example) New Zealand.