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Illustration by Michael Austin

Domestic Terrorism is on the Rise

​To the people who knew him, 19-year-old Dylann Roof was a quiet young man from a broken family who was open but vague about his views on race in the United States. But to some experts, Roof, who shot and killed nine people at a historically black church in South Carolina this past summer, represents the new face of domestic terrorism: “the extremist who acts alone after being radicalized and inspired online by an extremist ideology,” said J. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), during a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security.

What has come to be known as the Charleston massacre shocked the nation and highlighted the threat of terrorist acts by individuals who were born, raised, and indoctrinated with extremist ideologies in the United States. And lawmakers, researchers, and community leaders are trying to figure out how to address the problem. 

“The threat of radical-right terrorism in our country is a serious one,” Cohen said in his testimony. “It is critical that the federal government devote sufficient attention to countering that threat and not allow its resources to be inappropriately skewed toward the fight against terrorism from Islamic extremists.”

The hearing in July was held in conjunction with the committee’s approval of the Countering Violent Extremism Act of 2015 (H.R. 2899), which would amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to establish the Office for Countering Violent Extremism. The bill would authorize $10 million to identify risk factors that contribute to the radicalization of individuals or communities in the United States, and craft a counter-messaging program. 

Much of the hearing was devoted to discussing whether the proposed office would focus its efforts on Muslim millennials susceptible to jihadist extremism or right-wing extremists, like Roof.  

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), who introduced the bill, focused on the increasing number of homegrown terror plots inspired by Islamic terrorist groups during the hearing. But Seamus Hughes, program director at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, testified that a singular focus on one form of extremism presents a challenge to the administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

“The recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, was a painful reminder, if there was ever a need, that Islamist extremism is hardly the only form of extremism that poses a threat,” Hughes explained. “This should not be an either/or proposition.”

Different statistics tell different stories about the prevalence and lethality of domestic terrorist activity in the United States. The International Security Program, which is funded through organizational grants, has kept a database of homegrown extremist activity since 2001. 

According to the database, which compares individuals motivated by jihadist ideology to those motivated by right-wing, left-wing, or idiosyncratic beliefs, 314 individuals have been charged with jihadist terrorism since 2001, compared to 183 nonjihadists. However, in that same period of time jihadists killed 26 victims, while right-wing extremists killed 48. 

But Erin Miller, the program manager of the National Consortium for the University of Maryland-based Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism’s (START) Global Terrorism Database, points out that the vast majority of nonjihadist terrorist attacks in the United States are nonlethal. 

START’s database documents terrorism incidents around the world dating back to 1970 and is primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). More than 90 percent of all terrorist attacks in the United States involved no casualties, according to START’s database, which defines terrorism as the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a nonstate actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.

“There’s this almost unusual dichotomy to terrorism in the United States between the actual lethality of the attacks that we observe and the potential for deadly attacks,” Miller tells Security Management. “The majority of attacks cause property damage, and this has been historically true throughout the past four decades or so.”

The amount of property damage caused by nonlethal attacks between 1970 and 2013 totaled more than $227 million, according to START’s report, Patterns of Terrorism in the United States, 1970-2013. Nonjihadist terrorist attacks tend to target buildings and infrastructure rather than individuals, the report notes.

Another hallmark of domestic terrorism in the United States is the wide variety of ideologies behind them, Miller notes. The START database includes attacks by more than 160 organizations, including the far left, the far right, antiabortion activists, sovereign citizens, and more. 

“There are quite a variety of actors in the global terrorism database,” Miller explains. “They’re sometimes very idiosyncratic, as well. For example, in 2013 an organization carried out pipe bomb attacks on a war memorial in Oregon because it was opposed to the fact that the memorial was religious in nature—it had a cross on it.” The group? Veterans United for Non-Religious Memorials.

The past 15 years has also seen an increase in activities carried out by individuals like Roof—during the 1990s, 17 percent of attacks were carried out by unaffiliated individuals, compared to 31 percent since 2000. In fact, in 2012 and 2013, half of the 28 attacks carried out were attributed to unaffiliated individuals, according to START’s report. These patterns—or lack thereof—have stymied counterterrorism efforts. 

“In the first 14 years of the 21st century, perpetrators and targets in the United States were especially varied and somewhat less predictable,” the START report said. Attacks “were relatively infrequent compared to earlier decades, but they were extremely diverse with respect to lethality, perpetrator motivation, location, types of weapons, and types of targets.”

In his testimony, SPLC’s Cohen stressed that the federal government needs to support local communities when it comes to domestic counterterrorism efforts, especially in the wake of increased antipolice sentiment. Cohen cited a study saying that earlier this year, law enforcement agencies said they consider antigovernment violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat they face.

At least 43 on-duty police officers were intentionally killed in 2014, and 31 were killed in 2013, according to a 2015 study by the journal Violence and Gender. Of those, two of the 2013 deaths and seven of the 2014 attacks are included in START’s terrorism database. Miller notes that this type of crime is often difficult to classify because the distinction between crime and terrorism lies in the details and motivation of the attack. 

“Given that policing can be a high-risk occupation, it can be difficult to get explicit information on the motives of the perpetrator,” she says. “Threats of violence alone, in which no kinetic action is taken by the person making the threat, do not qualify for inclusion in the database.”

Both START and other databases that track all police deaths, regardless of whether they’re considered terrorist attacks, have noted an increase in attacks against police over the past three years. Especially when it comes to right-wing extremists or sovereign citizens, counter-extremism messages may not be received well coming from the federal government, Cohen stressed.

“I’m skeptical about the ability of the government to craft credible messages that will persuade people not to become radicalized,” Cohen said. “That’s a job for our churches, schools, for everyone. It’s important that the government be involved in training efforts at state and local levels to help law enforcement officers protect themselves and the public from extremism.”

Miller agrees that addressing this type of terrorism requires a ground-up approach. “Because these attacks are very idiosyncratic, and so many of the perpetrators are unaffiliated individuals, the attacks are in some ways indistinguishable from conventional crime,” she explains. “They’re not well-organized—the Charleston shooter wasn’t part of a well-organized group of people—and so it sort of changes the profile of the attacks from what most people think of as a large-scale effort, like those that are backed by ISIS. It’s just a different challenge for law enforcement to deal with.”