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The Domestic Extremist Threat: Recap & Review

Domestic homegrown terrorism is on the rise as of late. In the United States, Americans have been wondering— what are the roots of this homegrown violence? 

On Wednesday, March 11th, the Council spoke with Seamus Hughes, Deputy Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, about the threat of domestic terrorism. Hughes is an expert on terrorism, homegrown violent extremism, and countering violent extremism.

The year began with mayhem when pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol on January 6th in an attempt to force Congress to undo the election results. This violent insurrection shined a bright light on domestic extremism, a problem that has been metastasizing around the country for a long time now. 

In the Council’s conversation with Hughes we discussed the roots of homegrown violence, the motivations of domestic extremist groups, and the threats they pose to the country and world. 

Hughes stated that by March 3, 2021, over 300 people had been charged in connection with the January 6th riot.  He also stated that the investigation is ongoing; FBI director Christopher A. Wray recently testified that they have received 250,000 tips from the public about the insurrection.  

“That attack, that siege, was criminal behavior, plain and simple, and it was behavior that we, the F.B.I., view as domestic terrorism,” Director Wray said of the Capitol riot. “It’s got no place in our democracy.”

Hughes characterized the crowd at the violent insurrection as a diverse group of people. “Think of [the insurrection] like a bug light,” he said, “It attracted all forms of domestic extremists.” There were organized groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, along with clustered networks— people who came with friends and families to the riot. Additionally, a third group involved solo inspired believers, many of whom are believers in the widespread QAnon conspiracy theory. 

Hughes identified age as one key difference when comparing the profiles of domestic and foreign extremists. He comments that whereas so-called Islamic State extremists are recruited in their early 20s, the average ages of people arrested on January 6th were 39 for men and 45 for women.

Domestic recruitment is often aimed towards military veterans and law enforcement as they have skillsets highly valued by domestic terrorist groups. For instance, the Oath Keepers is an American far-right anti-government militia organization whose members include former military personnel with operational backgrounds. Several members of the Oath Keepers have been arrested in connection with the Capitol riot. Their founder, Stewart Rhodes, is currently under investigation for contacting rioters before and during the protest.

Hughes also discussed the impact of technology on homegrown violence. He said, “social media has been able to connect these folks in a way they haven’t been able to connect before–people can connect with those who have the same dangerous beliefs as them online”.  He also mentioned how technology company’s de-platforming extremists online has been extremely helpful in reducing extremist voices online. A company called Zignal Labs announced a 73% drop in misinformation after Trump had been deplatformed.

However, while deplatforming reduces reach, the tradeoff is a potential increase in mobilization. Hughes says, “You may reduce the radicalization pool – the number of people who are drawn to it and see that message – but the mobilization pool – the folks who are going to commit a violent act – may be strengthened and get deeper because they’re only talking to the folks they want to talk to. It’s an echo chamber online. So, we as a society have to decide: what’s our level of acceptance of extremism on our public forums?”

Finally, Hughes discussed the future of domestic counter-terrorism. 

“First and foremost we have to get more information on the number of arrests and active investigations from the FBI. We need some level of clarity on the details of these investigations because domestic terrorism is a catch-all phrase.” 

The public should develop and practice better Internet safety measures and infrastructure, so that citizens do not fall for dangerous conspiracy theories. However, there is a careful balance between informing the public of the risk of domestic terrorism groups/ideologies without giving such groups too much publicity and opportunities for expansion.

After the tragic events of 9/11, the federal government created the National Counterterrorism Center who “lead and integrate the national counterterrorism (CT) effort by fusing foreign and domestic CT information, providing terrorism analysis, sharing information with partners across the CT enterprise, and driving whole-of-government action to secure our national CT objectives” (DNI). Hughes believes that it should be expanded to mandate domestic terrorism as well. 

The FBI warned the Department of Defense 60 times last year that they had an active investigation on some members of the U.S. armed forces. Hughes argues the U.S. should expand reporting requirements so that if the Department of Defense knows that a military member is under active investigation for partaking in a Neo-Nazi group, he or she should face some restrictions. 

The failure to prevent the insurrection at the Capitol this year shows that there are systemic issues in the U.S. government hindering its ability to successfully combat domestic extremism. Hughes suggests that to successfully address the issue, the U.S. should consider a commission to address these issues to minimize failures like the events on January 6th, 2021.

Written by Kaylen Jackson, Communications & Social Media Assistant

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