Fighting domestic terrorism will require rethinking US intelligence strategy


Changes in the perceived terrorist threat may have put America at an inflection point. After two decades of almost exclusive focus on the terrorist threat posed by the global jihadist enterprise and its local supporters, the intelligence effort is now pivoting to tackle domestic violent extremism. It is an arena full of dangers for the country, because the perceived enemy is us.

The nation is deeply divided, its political system polarized. Getting it wrong in the fight against terrorism could make the situation worse. The challenge is to isolate and contain violent extremists without turning them into political martyrs or half the country into enemies of the state. This may require rethinking intelligence strategy.

Since September 11, the primary objective of collecting national intelligence has been to prevent terrorist attacks. It meant uncovering and thwarting terrorist plots before they could be carried out – in police parlance, operating “left of the boom”. The fear of new 9/11 attacks or even more alarming terrorist scenarios made prevention essential.

Swift action abroad dispersed al Qaeda’s leadership, and an intense international intelligence effort reduced the possibility of further 9/11 attacks. The United States has not suffered any other large-scale terrorist attacks from abroad. Instead, local jihadists, inspired by jihadist ideology, carried out low-level, albeit sometimes deadly, attacks. Most of them were on time. There were no jihadist groups capable of carrying out ongoing terrorist campaigns like those waged by various groups in the 1970s. Most of the plots and almost all of the attacks involved a single perpetrator, acting alone with limited capacities and resources. .

Authorities have uncovered and foiled more than 80% of jihadist plots, as tips from the community, informant information, or internet bluster attracted the attention of the FBI or local police to the plotters. Those who appeared to intend to resort to violence were the target of undercover operations. In the 20 years after September 11, jihadists in the United States killed a total of 105 people, including 49 in a single shootout at an Orlando nightclub. While each death was tragic, of course, it was far less than many feared in the immediate shadow of 9/11.

But the campaign against local jihadists is not the model for dealing with violent domestic extremists. Prevention can be more difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons.

The absence of a national 9/11 terrorist attack means there is no galvanizing event to unite the country in a common cause. The takeover of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 did not spark the same level of alarm and anger as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Political supporters cannot even agree that this was a disturbing event.

Unlike jihadists, domestic political extremists have a potential constituency. Jihadist ideology has never gained ground in American Muslim communities. The jihadists were isolated. In contrast, the beliefs motivating domestic American extremists, especially those on the far right, run deep in American society. Reflecting the dislike of what some see as a tyrannical federal government, one can expect less guidance from the community. Informants can be more difficult to recruit.

Political divisions could restrict intelligence operations. Limiting intelligence is a mission where political conservatives and civil liberties advocates have already united, albeit for different reasons.

Moving someone from a bitter extremist to a person of interest requires a reasonable suspicion of a connection to terrorist activity – a legal threshold that allows authorities to begin to take a closer look at the behavior and activities of the individual. this person to see if there is a predicate to open a criminal investigation.

The “material support” provision of the Patriot Act makes it a crime to join or otherwise aid designated terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. The law and the courts define material support broadly. Providing any form of assistance was sufficient for the prosecution, even if, in the face of terrorist plots, police undercover operations sought to demonstrate that the suspect was prepared to carry out an attack.

The lack of a national equivalent of the Substantive Dispositions Act means that the standard for investigation may be higher, which could mean that what constitutes a reasonable suspicion may also be pushed higher. Joining an organization is not enough.

Some argue that the United States should have a national anti-terrorism law. This would require legislation and an official designation of terrorist organizations. In the current environment, however, congressional agreement on the definition of terrorism, let alone who is a terrorist, seems unlikely. Satisfying the views on both sides could lead to vague criteria, producing a list of hundreds of “terrorist groups”, or – worse – political haggling – we’ll give you antifa if you give us Proud Boys. Some of the names mentioned are not even organized groups, but rather large movements or just shared attitudes.

The legal campaign against domestic extremism is not an attack on beliefs, a crusade to eradicate anti-government sentiments or to end racism. These are matters of national interest. But they go beyond law enforcement, which is an effort to deter violent crime by law enforcement – by identifying and bringing perpetrators to justice.

As it stands, today’s politicized atmosphere and deep political divisions will make prosecutions more difficult. The defendants are not motivated by an extraterrestrial jihadist ideology. They are more likely to be called William or Robert or James than Mohammed. More and more cases are likely to come to juries where a single sympathetic juror can result in the case being overturned. A simple connection to a hate group will not be enough. Prosecutors will have to prove their participation in the preparation or execution of a crime.

The historical record and research on trial results suggest that politicizing the prosecution by laying charges such as seditious conspiracy, emphasizing political motives, or using terms such as “terrorism” or “insurgency” may reduce the chances of conviction. Instead, prosecutors may want to focus on the violent crime, not the beliefs that motivated it.

Intelligence can be aimed at preventing group violence – larger plots, planned standoffs, exploitation of public protests by infiltrators bent on violence. In recent testimony to Congress, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “We are focusing very, very hard on how to get better sources, better information, better analysis so that we can make sure that something thing like what happened on january 6 will never happen again. . ”

But most terrorist threats seem to come from individuals or tiny plots on the fringes of larger movements. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was carried out by a man and an accomplice, neither of whom was from a larger organization.

Most of today’s terrorists in the West are solitary, self-selected actors motivated by extremist ideologies, seeking recognition by surpassing other spectacular attacks. The right-wing extremist who in 2011 detonated a bomb killing eight people in Oslo, Norway, and then shot dead 69 people in a nearby youth camp; the self-radicalized jihadist who in 2016 drove a truck through a crowd in Nice, France, killing 86 people; and the racist gunman who live streamed his murder of 51 worshipers in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, are examples. Like mass shooters, they will be difficult to intercept.

A variety of programs aimed at identifying and deterring individuals who appear to be on the verge of violence have been implemented, but the success of intervention in the retail trade as a preventive strategy remains to be proven.

The current circumstances are different. Preventing violent crime remains a goal, but expectations may need to be tempered. While intelligence could be an essential part of America’s counterterrorism strategy, there are reasons why it may also be wise to revert to a more traditional approach that focuses on investigating violent crime and prosecuting perpetrators. justice.

Brian Michael Jenkins is Senior Advisor to the President of the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and author of numerous books, reports and articles on terrorism-related topics.

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