EVENT RECAP: “Enemy Within: The Challenge of Domestic Terrorism”

April 1, 2021


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By Stephanie Clute

In a virtual conversation hosted by the Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security on Thursday, March 25th, Hayden Center senior fellow David Priess, former deputy director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, and former Homeland Security official Elizabeth Neumann covered topics ranging from violent extremism to QAnon to improving the DHS and FBI’s domestic extremism investigations. Priess, who moderated the discussion, kicked off the event with a question to McCabe and Neumann about a controversial 2009 DHS bulletin that warned that soldiers returning home could be vulnerable to recruitment by right-wing extremist groups. Neumann believed that “the bulletin could have been edited to have a clearer message,” but its lasting impact was to create a general hesitancy among analysts to address these issues due to potential career concerns resulting from the professional repercussions the bulletin’s author faced. Eventually, when there was an increase in hate crimes and extremist group activity, there was limited expertise available to address the issue.

McCabe went on to define and divide domestic terrorist groups into four major categories: racially motivated extremists, anti-government extremists, anti-abortion extremists, and environmental extremists. Noting distinctions between domestic and international terrorism, he pointed out that by FBI standards, any member that is a follower of a foreign terror organization is considered an international terrorist. Comparatively, the first amendment protects domestic extremist groups, and their activities only become illegal when a federal crime is broken. Priess added, “there’s a balance between constitutionally protected rights and fighting extremist views.”

During the conversation, Priess asked McCabe and Neumann if they believe having a domestic intelligence service would better prevent domestic terrorism, to which McCabe respond succinctly: “No, next question.” He went on to cite the U.K. and Canadian domestic intelligence services as examples of such agencies, stating they suffer from a lack of communication between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. A domestic intelligence agency would also raise many questions about how to prevent violations constitutionally protected rights. Given that many domestic terror threats are ideologically based, such an agency would likely be seen as infringing on rights, and as Neumann stated, could lead to increased radicalization given the current climate.

McCabe and Neumann also discussed the events of January 6th. McCabe stated that those who participated and are government employees should be investigated and held accountable if their acts are found to be inconsistent with their positions. This led to the broader question of whether or not there was a fundamental failure to understand the threat that the group responsible for the attack on the Capitol posed. McCabe argued, that if the answer is yes, then there needs to be a thorough review of the FBI’s sources and intelligence gathering capabilities. On the DHS side, Neumann believes that a lack of personnel with institutional knowledge may have contributed to any failure to appropriately respond. To prevent similar occurrences, Neumann argued, the Biden administration needs to expediently nominate, and the Senate needs to confirm, DHS officials to start the process of restoring capabilities and strategic knowledge within the department.

During the Q&A portion of the event, an audience member raised critical question of how the public can identify and report potential domestic violent extremism. Neumann mentioned that various researchers have attempted to identify commonalities across attackers, which has provided behavioral indicators that someone may be predisposed to violence. It’s important for the public to identify individuals who may have been radicalized to try and get them help. This deradicalization effort requires both threat assessment and prevention capabilities. Congress began funding this initiative in fiscal year 2020 and is hoping to aid state and local partners in growing this capacity to do so over the next 5-10 years. Finally, Neumann emphasized that now is the time to check in with loved ones and make sure they’re okay. Family members tend to see signs that something is off with an individual first. Neumann encourages, “if you see something wrong, find out more and see how you can help them.” In her closing, she emphasized that empathy tends to have more of an impact on deradicalization than arguing does.

A video of the event is available at the Hayden Center’s YouTube page.

Stephanie Clute is a student in the Master’s in International Security program at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.