Domestic terror: extremists, sovereign citizens and law enforcement
As Charlottesville, Va., struggles to recover from last weekend’s deadly violence and authorities warn of increased threats from domestic extremists, the Justice Department is quietly shutting down a program that trains officers on combating terrorism.
The State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training program, which has served more than 142,000 law enforcement officers in every state in the country, has run out of funding. Its last day is Sept. 30.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” said Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, which represents a network of 79 centers across the country designed to help law enforcement agencies collect and share terrorism-related information.
“Eliminating programs that are critical to preparing our people in the field to identify threats before they manifest and cause harm to our public is an egregious error.”
Sena and other law enforcement experts also question the effectiveness of a domestic terrorism task force the Justice Department revived in 2014. At a time of heightened concerns about violence, they say, they’ve heard nothing about the task force or its efforts, nor have they been asked to participate.
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated questions for comment about why the anti-terrorism training program was being eliminated or whether the task force was still active — and if so, what it has accomplished.
Domestic terrorism exploded on the radar last weekend when throngs of white nationalists — among them neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and racist skinheads — swarmed Charlottesville, Va., to protest the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument. Those who monitor extremist groups called the rally the country’s biggest gathering of white supremacists in more than a decade.
One counterprotester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, died, and 19 were injured when a man rammed his car into a crowd. The alleged driver, James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio, has been described as an open admirer of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the incident “an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack” and said it met the definition of domestic terrorism. His comments raise even more questions, some law enforcement experts say, as to why the government would eliminate a program whose mission was to help thwart such attacks.
“This is one of the best training programs in the country, and it’s provided free to law enforcement,” said Bob Paudert, a former police chief of West Memphis, Ark., whose son and another officer were gunned down by anti-government sovereign citizens during a traffic stop in 2010. “You can’t get a straight answer. And I have even sent word to the Trump administration. It’s just ridiculous.”
Oklahoma City spurs action
The State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training program, known as SLATT, was created in 1996 in response to the worst act of domestic terrorism committed on U.S. soil — the April 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The program trains officers “to understand, detect, deter and investigate acts of terrorism in the United States by both international and domestic terrorists.”
Administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the program is funded through Justice Department appropriations. The agency says the training sessions, briefings and publications are regularly requested by U.S. attorneys’ offices, the FBI, national policy organizations, and state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.
“Everyone is familiar with that training,” Sena said. “It’s the type of training that every agency wants to have.”
An assessment conducted last year by the Rand Corp. said there was a huge demand for the training.
“The SLATT Program receives more requests for training than it can fulfill,” the study said, adding that one staff member noted “it is not uncommon to have a backlog of 120 requests for SLATT training.”
The study determined that because state and local law enforcement play a key role in detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, continued training was critical.
“Fifteen years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, does terrorism-related training for law enforcement still need to be an important priority?” the report asked. “Given the current and evolving threat picture, the answer, in our view, is clearly yes.”
Paudert knows that firsthand. At the time of their death, his officers had never heard of the sovereign citizen movement.
Since the deadly ambush, Paudert has traveled the country teaching those in law enforcement and the court system about the threat posed by sovereign citizens. Many of those sessions are through the SLATT program.
“And now Congress will not give the money for it,” he said. “It’s sad. I challenge them to go look at the ratings the officers give this training. But they just don’t listen.”
No more money
Funding the program has become an uphill battle in recent years.
Justice Department appropriations documents show that the program received $2 million in 2012 and 2013 and $1 million in 2014. President Barack Obama requested $2 million for 2015, but Congress didn’t approve any funding. The Justice Department told The Star at the time that it would provide $1 million from within the agency’s budget to keep the program going.
Congress rejected the funding again in 2016 and 2017. The Trump administration did not request any funding for fiscal year 2018, which starts Oct. 1.
Several law enforcement sources said those who inquire about the training are told that the program is being folded into the VALOR Officer Safety Initiative, which is designed to prevent violence against officers and promote officer safety.
But those are two distinct programs, they told The Star.
“This other training program is geared toward tactical training, like how to protect officers from a police ambush,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security. “It doesn’t teach them how to identify the terrorists and their beliefs.”
While the Charlottesville attack has been in the headlines for days, other acts of domestic terrorism have received little attention outside their locales.
In June, an anti-government sovereign citizen was sentenced to 12 years in prison for driving through a crowd during a Fourth of July fireworks show in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in 2015, killing one and injuring eight.
And on Monday, authorities in Oklahoma City announced that two days earlier — the same day Heyer was killed in Virginia — they arrested a man who espoused militia and anti-government views after he allegedly built and tried to detonate what he believed to be a 1,000-pound bomb outside a downtown bank.
Watchdog groups wondered why there was so little coverage of a plot that could have resulted in a massive explosion with major casualties.
“The muted reaction to the terrorist plot shows how the threat of anti-government and racist groups is systematically underestimated even as it is nationally surging,” tweeted The Soufan Group, a consulting firm that advises governments and corporations on security and training.
Indeed, in May, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning that “the white supremacist extremist movement likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year.”
The report, obtained this month by Foreign Policy, said that white supremacist extremists committed 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016, more than any other domestic extremist movement.
Over the next year, the report predicted, most of the lethal violence involving white supremacists will be committed by lone offenders or small cells rather than large groups because the movement is so decentralized and unorganized.
“Although plot-derived mass-casualty violence remains possible, we judge it more likely that violence will continue to be spontaneous and involve targets of opportunity,” it said.
The report, law enforcement officers told The Star, is all the more reason why eliminating the SLATT program is a mistake.
Some feel left out
Meanwhile, another strategy designed to help detect and prevent domestic terrorism appears to be stuck in low gear.
The Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, a task force created by the Justice Department after the Oklahoma City bombing, was disbanded in the aftermath of Sept. 11 when the focus turned to foreign threats. But the group was resurrected in 2014 in the wake of a shooting rampage by an avowed neo-Nazi that left three dead at two Overland Park Jewish facilities.
“The Department of Justice has rededicated itself to the fight against homegrown threats and has been aggressive in going after those who would inflict violence on their fellow citizens,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement to The Star in April 2015 when it published a series called Ignoring the Terror Within. The stories showed that law enforcement had shifted its attention from domestic to foreign terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks and as a result, federal authorities had lost sight of domestic extremists.
In October 2015, the Justice Department announced the creation of a new position to focus on domestic terrorism. The agency said the “domestic terrorism counsel” was created “in recognition of a growing number of potential domestic terrorism matters around the United States.”
The new office would work closely with the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, the Justice Department said.
The new counsel, Thomas Brzozowski, spoke at a domestic terrorism conference in May in New Jersey.
One of the best ways to combat terrorism, he said, “is to partner with state and locals with a view toward disrupting domestic terrorism plots before they come to fruition.”
But several law enforcement officials and organizations that monitor extremist groups say that hasn’t happened. It’s odd, they say, that the very groups that have foot soldiers in the trenches who could share useful information haven’t been contacted or consulted.
“I have not heard anything about them,” said Johnson, the former Homeland Security analyst who now is a terrorism consultant. “Seems to me like it’s more lip service.”
Sena, who heads the fusion center network and also is director of the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, said he’d heard nothing, either.
“And obviously, that’s a big missing gap,” he said.
As for Brzozowski, Sena said, “I’ve heard the name, but here’s the problem. You can come up with whatever kind of foundation you want as far as a theory of how to deal with the threats, but the bottom line is that threat is going to be encountered and stopped by the people in the field. And those are the connections that need to be made.”
So has he been asked to work with that office?
“Not at all.”