Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Blog

By Jennine Vari

Spring 2013 Intern

Yesterday afternoon the Center for American Progress hosted a panel discussion on the rise of right-wing extremist groups. The panel consisted of Daryl Johnson, a former domestic terrorism analyst for Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Mark Potok, a Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Amardeep Singh, Director of Programs at the Sikh Coalition, and Benjamin Armbruster, the National Security Editor at Think Progress. Their discussion focused on the establishment and dismantling of the former DHS team devoted to monitoring violent extremist organizations inside the US and the policies that the federal government can implement to address the growing number of crimes committed by these groups.

DHS Report

In 2004, DHS realized the need for a domestic terrorism team in order to handle the increasing number of groups and incidents. The intelligence team was comprised of analysts and former law enforcement officers, and was headed up by former ATF analyst Daryl Johnson. As an intelligence agency, they were limited to conducting passive internet monitoring, where they combed through publically-available information instead of conducting law enforcement investigations. Through their research and information-gathering, the team was able to better address the problem by studying the phenomenon of radical extremism and identifying unique differences between non-Islamic and Islamic terrorists.

After five years of monitoring active extremist groups, DHS issued a report which caught the attention of pundits and conservative media outlets. It warned of rising right-wing extremism, explained its primary causes, like illegal immigration and gun control, and explored their recruiting tactics. The report focused solely on violent radical individuals and groups, like militias, not law-abiding citizens. Nonetheless, it spurred a backlash from conservatives when the media got ahold of the report. They spun it to fit their narrative and claimed that anyone who is against abortion and illegal immigration was marked as a terrorist organization by the Obama administration and DHS. The negative publicity of the program caught the new Secretary of Homeland Security off-guard and shortly thereafter the Department adopted a risk-averse approach by dismantling the domestic terrorism team. Currently, there is only one analyst to monitor domestic extremist groups despite their resurgence in recent years.

Emerging Domestic Threats

According to SPLC, since 2000 the number of hate groups in the U.S. has grown from 602 to 1018. The rise in these groups can be attributed to the election of the first African American president, coupled with the economic downturn. Between 2000 and 2008, SPLC found that radical groups began to exploit issues that had a racial component, like illegal immigration, in order to build a following and even break the barrier into mainstream media and Capitol Hill. As domestic terrorist organizations like “patriot” or militia groups have grown, racially-motivated attacks have become more prevalent.

Despite this increase in violent attacks by domestic groups, the primary focus of the federal government is Islamic terrorism even though it only accounts for 12 percent of attacks. Domestic, non-Islamic terrorism by right-wing conservative groups on the other hand, comprise 56 percent of attacks. This disproportionate distribution of attention has allowed extremists to slip through the cracks and carry out their plans, such as in the Sikh temple shooting.

Policy Solutions

Ultimately, the panelists explained that there need to be fundamental changes to the federal government’s information-gathering and handling of hate crimes in order to address and curb these violent and destructive attacks. New policies to improve official tracking and monitoring of extremist groups, such as including categories for anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes, will allow domestic intelligence officials to identify trends and address the problem at the source. Greater resources should also be allocated to domestic terrorism units to provide more analysts for intelligence-gathering and law enforcement officers to carry out investigations. These failures remain some of the foundational flaws in the system.  According to yesterday’s panelists, it is imperative that the federal government take the necessary steps to identify and ameliorate domestic extremism.

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