The federal charges against a Missouri man for allegedly aiding in what he thought was an Islamic State terror plot are a sign of the government’s stepped-up focus on Islamist extremism, terrorism experts said Tuesday.
But some said that strategy is resulting in less scrutiny of another source of terrorism that is just as serious a threat: violent domestic extremists.
“The percentage of the population that embrace white supremacy, militia and sovereign citizen extremists far outweigh the percentage of Americans that support ISIS, yet these ISIS cases get churned out at a much greater rate,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
“I’m not saying this guy’s not a threat. Obviously, he had some violent tendencies. I just wish the FBI paid as much attention or put just as much energy into looking at the social media sites of neo-Nazis and KKK members and did these reverse stings on them as well. They do it here and there, but for the most part they’re not really monitoring this stuff.”
Robert Lorenzo Hester Jr., 25, was charged in U.S. District Court in Kansas City with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. The Columbia man is accused of plotting a Presidents Day jihadist attack on buses, trains and a train station in Kansas City.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the Trump administration planned to redesign its Countering Violent Extremism program to target only Islamist extremism. The program was originally established to counter all violent ideologies, including white supremacists that have been involved in bombings and shootings.
That raised serious concerns among those who monitor extremist groups.
“Programs to combat violent extremism need to focus on all of the threats,” said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “I understand the information today about this individual in Missouri, but just last week there was a white supremacist who was arrested for allegedly trying to attack a synagogue Dylann Roof-style.”
Since early January, Segal said, there have been four waves of bomb threats against Jewish community centers across the country. A total of 69 threats were made against 54 institutions in 27 states, he said, including 11 on Monday.
“While bomb threats are not new to the Jewish community and other communities, frankly, this level, this amount, is unprecedented,” he said.
The threats occurring in recent weeks, Segal said, are more diverse than ever.
“Even within extremist movements, there’s a range of what they believe in,” he said. “And at the end of the day, people are getting radicalized online a lot of the time. They aren’t necessarily affiliated with a specific group, but they are impacted by hateful ideologies, and some want to act on it. And I don’t care if they do it in the name of ISIS or in the name of the alt-right or something else. We can’t ignore any of it.”
Johnson, now a homeland security consultant, said U.S. authorities are pursuing homegrown violent extremist cases — those involving people living in the U.S. but inspired by foreign ideologies — at a ratio of about four to one over domestic terrorism cases.
“I don’t want to criticize the FBI tactic per se, but I will criticize the fact that they emphasize these types of cases and churn them out at a much greater rate than they do the right-wing extremism,” he said.
He acknowledged that authorities last year did uncover what they alleged was a plot by a militia group that planned to detonate bombs at a Garden City apartment complex where a number of Somalis live.
“But they’re churning these ISIS cases out at a much greater rate when we know that there’s more white supremacists and sovereign citizens than there are ISIS supporters in the United States,” he said. “You give me the same resources and money that the FBI’s putting into these cases, and I will turn out just as many right-wing plots.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said it’s almost impossible to predict where the next threat will come from, but the strong focus on Islamic State-related extremism is warranted.
“For those of us in the analytic community, the focus should be on wherever the heck the threat is,” he said. “And right now, we have a diverse threat matrix of which violent Salafist jihadists are the most prominent, but by no means the only ones.”
He said authorities also are concerned about what’s coming from the far-right and the hard-left, as well as mentally unstable people and copycats.
“That’s what I find so unnerving about this,” he said. “So for now, what I’m saying is that the vineyard of extremism has a lot of varieties of grapes falling from the vine. But violent Salafist jihadists have the most plants.”