Domestic terrorism is a bigger threat to US than foreign attacks -terrorism expert Peter Vincent
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Former senior official under the Obama administration and terrorism expert, Peter Vincent, explained to the Future Citizen Institute that right-wing extremism has become an imminent threat, accounting for 70% of domestic attacks in the US in the past decade. For this reason, the synagogue massacre last Saturday should have come as no surprise:
“Although we should all be saddened and sickened by this obscene massacre in Pittsburgh, none of us should be surprised or shocked, because going back years now, my colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security and partners at the FBI have noticed the growing right-wing extremists movements […] which since 2001 have been responsible for the largest number of deadly attacks in the United States”.
On Saturday 27 October, Robert Bowers, 46, entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, and opened fire using Glock 57 handguns and an AR-15. In a span of 20 minutes, he killed 11 worshipers and wounded 6 in what was deemed the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history.
The shooting was “undoubtedly” an act of terrorism, says Vincent, but there is no specific charge of domestic terrorism in the US legal system. Prosecution is limited to certain provisions that enable the government to bring “hate crime” or terrorism-related charges that could result in the death penalty, but Robert Bowers’ criminal record will not label him as a terrorist.
“The Federal law certainly contemplates, and expressly notes and identifies, terrorism, including domestic acts which constitute terrorism, but the charges ultimately brought in the Federal System are not terrorism per se”, says Vincent.
The implications for not having a formal domestic terrorism charge goes beyond legal terminology, call it a hate crime or call it terrorism, Robert Bowers will spend the rest of life paying his dues. The issue is that ‘domestic terrorism’ is not formally written into any legal or security framework that enables government agencies to dedicate the appropriate funds and energy to treat these attacks like the terrorist acts that they are.
Combating Right-wing Extremism
Vincent says that there is a “very disconcerting imbalance” between the amount of attention and funds dedicated to fighting foreign terrorism and the amount dedicated to the “more imminent threat” of domestic terrorist organisations.
“Terrorism” for the Federal government, involves anything done in support of, inspired, or carried out by specific "Foreign Terrorist Organisations" (FTO's) that are recognised and compiled into a public list. Being related to these organisations automatically warrants either surveillance or an investigation.
But the rise of right-wing extremism in the United States poses a bigger threat to the country than any other foreign terrorist groups, like ISIS/ISIL or Al Qaeda.
The problem with deeming “white supremacy” anything other than violent extremism is that the threshold for initiating an investigation or deploying anti-violence units is set much higher. Counter-terrorism units in the US government almost automatically intercept communication and inhibit movement of mainly Islamic fighters in the event of an attack, or even before it. Attacks led by an individual are treated in the name of the organisation they belong to, and sympathisers to any of the foreign terrorist organisations are subject to surveillance and scrutiny. However, right-wing extremism and white supremacist sentiments are not held to the same standard, but it is as much of violent extremism as the foreign organisations.
Vincent also explains that considering right-wing extremist groups ‘Domestic Terrorist Organisations’ similar to FTO's, including white nationalists, sovereign citizen organisations, and various militia groups, would require a Federal statute to be raised to the same level of importance as foreign terrorism. This would enable the US government to prosecute membership and support of these organisations, which fall short of being an actual act of terrorism, but carry similar implications.
What to do next
To say domestic terrorism is a more imminent threat to US safety than foreign terrorist groups is not to say they are worse, or that foreign groups should fall into the periphery of law enforcement’s scope, it is to say that the same resources allocated to counterterrorism efforts should also employed against right-wing extremism and white supremacy.
Proper surveillance and mitigation of foreign terrorist threats should remain a priority for the US Department of Homeland Security, considering it was created after the 9/11 attacks to deal with that particular issue. But while law enforcement and intelligence agencies look to the outside, white supremacists are radicalising at a fast pace, engaging in domestic attacks often deemed products of ‘mental illness’ or attributed to lax gun laws. Both of which are true, but neither of which are comprehensive enough to properly address the underlying issue.
The Tree of Life Synagogue Massacre should be the last of its kind, but with president Trump allocating all the counterterrorism funds towards the Islamic State, right-wing extremism is on the rise.
Vincent suggests: “I think this administration, along with all law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies, need to spend more time and money on countering violent extremism in the form of the very real threat of domestic terrorism”.
Author: Ana Hernandez