Getting a grip on the domestic terror threat

  • 29 August 2017
  • NormanL
Getting a grip on the domestic terror threat

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service examines domestic terrorism -- how widespread it is, and what government can (and should) do about it. The report provides an overview of several varieties of domestic terrorism, including militant animal rights activists, eco-terrorists, violent militias, as well as anarchists, white supremacists, and black separatists.

Descriptions of these groups and their recent criminal activities is very useful, adding context to the events we witness in the headlines today. But the report also notes several challenges government has to dealing with these groups, including the lack of a public list of plots and threats:

A publicly available official accounting of domestic terrorist plots and incidents may help policymakers understand the scope of the threat in lieu of a regimen designed to name domestic terrorism organizations. However, the federal government does not produce such a document. The National Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) had provided an official record of terrorism incidents around the globe, including the United States. This was a publicly accessible database active from 2004 to early 2012. It included basic information regarding terrorist incidents. Prior to the advent of WITS, the FBI used to publish regular reports on terrorist activity in the United States.

The lack of a publicly available federal accounting of domestic terrorism plots and attacks makes it especially difficult to determine the scope of this diverse threat, which, for example, can be investigated and prosecuted at the state, local, or federal level. Also, the lines between domestic terrorism and other forms of criminality such as tax fraud or hate crimes can be blurry. A fuller accounting of domestic terrorism plots and attacks may reveal the instances in which FBI investigated individuals as domestic terrorists but DOJ did not prosecute them as such. This could offer policymakers a clearer sense of the domestic terrorism threat.

The government also needs a good handle on the size of the problem in order to respond effectively:

A better sense of domestic terrorism’s scope publicly proffered by the federal government may assist policymakers. It may be of policymaking value for executive branch agencies to release annual statistics on domestic terrorism prosecutions, naming individuals and movements involved. Congress may also consider requesting an even more detailed annual public report that counts and describes the domestic terrorist plots dismantled; the number of attacks investigated; and the federal, state, and local agencies involved. The lack of such an accounting makes it difficult for policymakers to exercise oversight by comparing the levels of domestic terrorist activity against items such as homegrown violent jihadist activity and other threats to the homeland. A regular public accounting could also help policymakers assess the effectiveness of the government’s response to the domestic terrorist threat. It may also assist policymakers who wish to compare one domestic terrorist threat against another. It can help inform the allocation of resources to specific federal counterterrorism efforts, such as those designed to keep people from radicalizing and becoming violent extremists in the first place. Finally, without a clear, publicly available understanding of the domestic terrorist threat, it may be difficult to measure how much federal funding is allocated to this issue.

Naming names is a good start. It would help the general public better understand what's going on as well. America isn't (yet) in the grip of widespread, 1960s style violence. But without hard, consistent, timely data, there's no real way for us to know just how big the problem is. Congress can fix that -- and must do so as soon as possible.