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 DHS Terrorism Targeted Violence Framework

Illustration by Egle Plytnikaite

DHS Releases a New Framework for Countering Changing Threats

The U.S. threat environment is an ever-changing one, and it has now reached a stage of unprecedented diversity, national security officials say.

“The threat of terrorism and targeted violence within our borders is more diverse than at any time since the 9/11 attacks,” then U.S. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan said in a September briefing. “While the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda persists, we are acutely aware of the growing threat from enemies, both foreign and domestic, who seek to incite violence in our nation’s youth, disenfranchised, and disaffected, in order to attack their fellow citizens and fray at the seams of our diverse social fabric.”

Given these diverse threats, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is widening its counterterrorism mission scope beyond foreign terrorists. It will also focus on domestic extremists who are radicalized to the point of violence. DHS recently marked this expanded mission with the release of a new guidance document, Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence, released 20 September 2019.

As DHS says in the new document, the Framework “places a new emphasis on our domestic prevention mission.” (The Framework’s official launch was held 20 September 2019, at The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit policy think tank in Washington, D.C., where McAleenan made his remarks.)

Combining domestic and foreign terror components in the Framework made sense to DHS, given the recognizable overlap in the tactics, techniques, procedures, and motivations of the attackers. “The threats of terrorism and [domestic] violence increasingly intersect with one another, and there is likewise some alignment in the tools that can be used to counter them,” the Framework says.

So besides foreign terrorism, the Framework addresses domestic attacks on soft targets such as schools, houses of worship, and public spaces, which it calls “targeted violence.” In doing so, DHS says the Framework “is the first national-level strategy to explicitly state that terrorism and targeted violence overlap, intersect, and interact as problems, and that they necessitate a shared set of solutions.”

This category of targeted violence includes racially, ethnically, and religiously motivated violence. “The continued menace of racially based violent extremism, particularly violent white supremacy, is an abhorrent affront to the nation…,” the Framework reads. “It has no place in the United States of America, and we will work to defeat it.”

The Framework provides an extended assessment of these types of domestic-based threats and offers a rundown on the preventive tools capable of deterring them, regardless of the particular ideology or other motivation that drives them.

Overall, the Framework sets out four goals. The first is to understand the evolving threat environment, and support partners with this knowledge. The second is to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. The third is to prevent actual terrorist attacks and targeted violence. The fourth is to improve community preparedness and infrastructure security.

To advance these goals, the Framework proposes some new initiatives. One is a new state-of-the-threat annual report aimed at educating the government and the public: “The report will enable DHS to educate government officials, policymakers, and the public about the types of threats the U.S. faces, while helping with policymaking and agency prioritizations.”

The Framework also calls for better data collection and dissemination of intelligence to local communities, and a greater unity of effort in dealing with disinformation and radical content sharing. “Social media companies, for instance, made great strides in keeping radical Islamic content hard to find and share online—if only they did as much for white supremacist material,” the Framework reads.

According to DHS, there will be a push to increase and expand existing prevention education and training efforts between the department and local communities and law enforcement agencies. The new initiatives might require additional money, so DHS has already begun its efforts to secure this funding.

Outside of government, another group that has weighed in on the need for new approaches to counter changing terror threats is the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute.

In a Brennan Center expert brief released 2 October 2019, Faiza Patel, codirector of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, says that it is reassuring that the U.S. government is taking the threat of domestic violence seriously.

Nonetheless, the Brennan Center is concerned that, after the August 2019 El Paso shooting, two members of Congress—Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Rep. Randy K. Weber Sr. (R-TX)—introduced two separate bills that would create a new crime of domestic terrorism, citing lethal white nationalist crimes as the justification.

“Such legislation is both unnecessary and creates serious risks of abuse,” Patel says. “…By creating a new crime of domestic terrorism, the proposed bills would give the Justice Department and FBI access to broad additional charges that could be used to target minorities and activists.”

For example, Patel argues that the Schiff proposal would be broad enough to allow the U.S. attorney general to file charges of terrorism against anyone who threatened to assault someone or damage property, if the attorney general determined the threat was intended to intimidate a population or influence policy.

Thus, instead of proposing broad legislation like this, members of Congress should be trying to ensure that the government, especially the FBI, allocates enough resources to properly address domestic terror, such as white nationalist violence, Patel argues. “For too long, the Justice Department and FBI have failed to track critical data, including the number of white supremacist attacks and the number of fatalities they produce,” she says.

To help do this, the Brennan Center is calling on the U.S. Justice Department to develop a strategy to combat white nationalist violence. Such a strategy should indicate where this type of violence ranks in the FBI’s list of priorities, and what resources will be used to deter it. Currently, fighting terrorism ranks as the FBI’s top priority, but hate crime investigations, which are generally used to target white nationalists, rank as the FBI’s fifth priority.

“How these crimes are categorized determines the amount of resources devoted to these investigations,” Patel declares.