Following a surge of criticism that it has ignored the growing threat of domestic terrorism, the Justice Department said this week that it has created a new office to focus on homegrown extremists.
Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin announced the move at a terrorism seminar this week at George Washington University. He said the Domestic Terrorism Counsel will serve as the main point of contact for federal prosecutors working on domestic terrorism cases.
Carlin said the new office was created “in recognition of a growing number of potential domestic terrorism matters around the United States.”
The announcement bolsters findings earlier this year by The Kansas City Star that law enforcement had shifted its attention from domestic to foreign terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. As a result, the newspaper investigation found, federal authorities had lost sight of domestic extremists.
That lack of focus, funding and information-sharing across disparate agencies occurred at a time when violence was metastasizing, leading to fatal consequences for unsuspecting victims around the country.
Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the Justice Department move a positive step.
“We’ve been pushing for something like this for quite a few years,” Potok said. “We feel like it’s very much a step forward, although we’ll have to see how it plays out.”
Potok said the move was an effort to restore balance in how the government fights terrorism.
“Certainly, there is a very real and substantial Islamist threat,” he said.
He added, however, that domestic extremism is a very real problem, too.
“This isn’t some nightmarish fantasy dreamed up by the politically correct left,” he said.
In a speech Wednesday, Carlin said the new counsel would coordinate domestic terrorism cases and play a key role in efforts to identify trends and analyze ways to disrupt the threats.
Carlin, who runs the Justice Department’s national security division, said authorities had been sharply focused on Islamic extremists in recent years.
“Much attention has focused on those inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) message of hate and violence spreading worldwide and reaching homes here in America through the group’s unprecedented social media recruitment efforts,” he said. “And rightly so.”
However, he said, “Looking back over the past few years, it is clear that domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists remain a real and present danger to the United States. We recognize that, over the past few years, more people have died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than in attacks associated with international terrorist groups.”
Recent examples he noted included the June shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., that left nine dead and the April 2014 shooting rampage at two Jewish centers in Overland Park that killed three.
A recent analysis by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based research center, reported that since 9/11 , terrorists motivated by extreme anti-government views or virulent neo-Nazi/anti-Semitic beliefs have killed more people in the United States than jihadist terrorists motivated by al-Qaida’s ideology.
And a study released in June found that despite public perception about the threat of extremists inspired by al-Qaida and the Islamic State, law enforcement officers are more concerned about the homegrown terrorist next door. In addition, the study — published by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University — said the violence associated with foreign-inspired extremists has remained low in comparison to domestic terrorism.
The Star’s report in April found that 52 people had been killed in attacks since 9/11 by domestic extremists, including white nationalists, militias and sovereign citizens. The list followed the definition of domestic terrorism used by the FBI, which does not include attacks on American soil by those who live here but are inspired by violent jihadist groups abroad.
The Charleston attack and a shooting rampage in a Lafayette, La., movie theater in July brought that total to 63.
In the Charleston killings, prosecutors say the 21-year-old accused shooter, Dylann Roof, had come to the church and sat in on a Bible study session for nearly an hour before opening fire on the participants. The massacre was one of the worst acts of violence by domestic extremists in decades, and federal hate crime charges have been filed against Roof.
Thirty-six days later, John Russell Houser opened fire in a movie theater in Lafayette, killing two people and injuring nine others before turning the gun on himself. His digital footprint indicated a complicated mix of government hatred and white supremacist ideologies, including praise of Adolf Hitler and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Racial hatred motivates many of the acts committed by violent extremists, Carlin said.
“Among domestic extremist movements active in the United States, white supremacists are the most violent,” he said. “The Charleston shooter, who had a manifesto laying out a racist worldview, is just one example. His actions followed earlier deadly shooting sprees by white supremacists in Kansas, Wisconsin and elsewhere.”
Law enforcement agencies also are concerned about violence associated with anti-government groups, particularly the growth of the sovereign citizen movement, Carlin said. Adherents to the sovereign citizen ideology believe the government is corrupt and out of control; therefore, they do not recognize local, state or federal authority.
Carlin said authorities were seeing two traits emerge among both foreign and domestic extremists: the prevalence of “lone wolf” attacks and an increase in the number of those who are inspired to commit violence and spread their hate over the Internet and through social media.
Carlin said the new office will work closely with the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, a task force originally created by the Justice Department in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing.
The group disbanded in the aftermath of 9/11 . But in April, the month of the 20th anniversary of the bombing, the Justice Department announced that the group was being resurrected.
Bob Paudert, the former police chief of West Memphis, Ark., whose son and another officer were gunned down by sovereign citizens during a traffic stop in 2010, said he was pleased to hear of the Justice Department’s announcement.
“I think it’s a great idea if they follow through with it,” said Paudert, who now travels the country conducting seminars for law enforcement agencies on the dangers of sovereign citizens. “I tell my classes that the FBI has done a great job of keeping us safe from international terrorists, but not so good at keeping us safe from domestic terrorists. I think that they’re acknowledging that now. They’ve been awakened to the fact that the domestic terrorists are a real problem.”
The creation of the new office infuriated some groups that the government labels “anti-government.”
“We’re all threats to them,” said Mike Vanderboegh, former leader of the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment Constitutional Militia and a longtime figure in the Patriot movement. “I’ve fought white supremacists and neo-Nazis all my life. But they lump veterans and constitutionalists in with all the others.
“This is very scary stuff. To say that militias, for example, are a worse threat than ISIS? All the militia says is they’re Second Amendment activists and they won’t be rolled back any further from their Second Amendment rights.”
But Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security who was pilloried in 2009 for writing a report warning that there could be a surge in violence committed by domestic extremists, said he welcomed the announcement about the new office.
Johnson said when he was at Homeland Security, he worked with the Justice Department’s domestic terrorism coordinator to launch meetings in 2007 with law enforcement agencies to discuss domestic terrorism issues.
“We got everybody together, went down to Justice, had a meeting with them,” Johnson said. “But it was mainly exchanging business cards between Homeland Security, FBI, the marshal’s service and park police. And everybody talked about what we might want to do in the future.”
They decided to meet regularly, he said. But the group disbanded after the second meeting because of a lack of interest.
“This sounds like the same thing, just renamed and repackaged,” Johnson said. Still, he said, “I’m optimistic that it’s a move in the right direction. So I’m holding out hope that it’s a sincere effort and will do something positive.”