In Brief

The Domestic U.S. Terror Threat: What to Know

The latest mass shootings have prompted calls for more vigorous action by U.S. counterterrorism authorities, but the target is elusive.

The mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have revived concerns about domestic terrorism in the United States. How should U.S. authorities respond?

There are no quick fixes. The complexity of this issue is underscored by the fact that while the El Paso shootings clearly were an act of terrorism—with an evident political dimension and hate crime component—we still do not know the motive of the Dayton shooter. Until that is established, as tragically similar as the Dayton incident is to the one earlier that day in El Paso, it cannot be labeled terrorism.

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That said, the United States is clearly facing an unprecedented crisis. Gun violence is already tragically commonplace. And, with what now seems a depressing regularity, individuals inspired by self-perpetuating online echo chambers that peddle malignant, exclusionary ideologies and conspiracy theories have taken up arms and perpetrated a chain of lethal copycat assaults. The attacks are a product of twenty-first-century social media platforms that reach wide audiences, and racists, anti-Semites, xenophobes, and conspiracy junkies use them to appeal to and target like-minded individuals who are acutely susceptible and responsive to their violent entreaties.

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The challenge is that, unlike in the past, this violence is not fueled by identifiable terrorist organizations or terrorist leaders. Rather, it is driven by these individuals’ wanton embrace of conspiracy theories and ideological diatribes against immigration. These rants have now found their way into the mainstream of political discourse via campaign rallies, tweets, and similarly calculated diatribes by President Donald J. Trump and other political figures. Coupled with the availability of highly lethal firearms, the inevitable outcome is tragedies such as those in Pittsburgh and in Poway, California—and, this past weekend, in El Paso. Approaches used to counter threats from groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaeda will not necessarily work. Any new domestic terrorism legislation will therefore have to frame a new approach to threats that emanate from sulfurous internet platforms. It is imperative for the president and leaders from both parties to deliver on their declamations of this past weekend’s violence with legislation to address this toxic mix of hateful online propaganda and easily obtainable firearms.  

Is mental illness a cause of these shootings, as the president, among others, claim?

It is both a canard and, moreover, a step backward in our understanding of terrorism’s ineluctably political dynamic to dismiss such violence as the product of mental instability or some mysterious, idiosyncratic teratogenic process. A review of terrorist case history shows little correlation between terrorist acts and mental illness.

A makeshift memorial near the scene of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
A makeshift memorial near the scene of the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Although mental illness and terrorism do not always go hand in hand, terrorism and hate crimes are inseparable. As I have previously argued, terrorism is the ultimate hate crime. The intention is the same: a choreographed violent act to attract attention to the perpetrators and their cause, as the New Zealand and El Paso shooters’ manifestos make abundantly clear. Their violence is not only premeditated but calculated to intimidate and coerce—the essential elements in the U.S. legal code’s definition of terrorism.

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How serious is the threat of white nationalist terrorism?

Extremely serious, but not necessarily new. The last resurgence of violent far-right extremism, in the early 1980s, was similarly triggered by a combination of anti-immigrant xenophobia, acute political polarization, and simplistic but dangerous conspiracy theories about the country’s changing socioeconomic demographics. We need to understand it as part of a continuum that should be addressed more vigorously today by bolstering the resources of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

The FBI is already intensely focused on the domestic terrorist threat, in addition to threats from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. This is not an either/or choice, but resources have to be devoted to the entire spectrum of threats. So far as the intelligence community is concerned, the National Counterterrorism Center has been focused exclusively on foreign threats and their homegrown manifestations—almost entirely from Islamist extremists. It should expand its work and mandate to include domestic terrorist threats. Inexplicably, a special unit in the Department of Homeland Security that tracked these threats was recently disbanded as part of a reorganization that deprioritized threats from the violent far right.

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Only a new sense of priority from the White House, directed through the now-vacant position of director of national intelligence, can achieve the needed focus on domestic terrorist threats. Hence, it is essential that the president quickly appoint a director fully knowledgeable of the range of terrorist threats facing the country and the tools at the disposal of the U.S. intelligence community to effectively combat this menace.

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