Posted by Tess Waggoner on June 06, 2019 in Blog

A series of congressional hearings conducted in recent weeks focused on the federal government’s approach to counterterrorism, specifically when it comes to investigating and prosecuting acts that fall within the federal definition of “domestic terrorism.” Most of these hearings have touched on the threat of white supremacist violence and the availability of data to demonstrate the nature of the threat and that of the federal government’s response. While these hearings have shed light on some aspects of the federal government’s approach to white supremacist violence and other counterterrorism activities, conversations about data collection and oversight have been inconclusive.

When it comes to the federal government’s counterterrorism activities, AAI recognizes data collection and reporting as an opportunity for improving our understanding of the threats posed by white supremacist violence and the federal government’s efforts to address those threats. As Congress seeks answers from the federal government on the response to acts that meet the definition of domestic terrorism, AAI is focused on improving data collection and creating opportunities for increased oversight of federal counterterrorism activities. Writing in Just Security last week, AAI Policy Analyst Kai Wiggins outlined three potential sources of federal data on "acts meeting the definition of domestic terrorism."

The first possible source is incident-level data collected under the Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA), but there are limitations. Not all hate crimes meet the definition of "domestic terrorism," and vice versa. Plus, we've seen significant undercounts in HCSA data. As AAI’s hate crime research has demonstrated, most hate crimes are not reported to law enforcement, and even those that do get reported, including  high-profile cases, can fall through the cracks. The killings of Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer, for instance, were not reflected in federal statistics.

Conviction data from the Department of Justice can also be used to better understand the challenges domestic terrorism. The federal government utilizes an array of statutes to prosecute acts meeting the definition of domestic terrorism. Publishing this data would show the nature of the threat, and, critically, that of the federal government’s response.

Data from investigative records could also provide context. The FBI used to publish a report on domestic terrorism in the U.S., but stopped in 2005. As Wiggins wrote, “The abandonment of federal reporting on domestic terrorism dovetails with the general sense that federal counterterrorism efforts over the last two decades have focused on one threat at the expense of others.”

This point is critical, and particularly for Arab Americans, who alongside other communities of color have faced excessive and disproportionate targeting at the hands of counterterrorism authorities. Our 2019 issue brief on surveillance issues addresses these concerns head-on, explaining, “As a securitized community, Arab Americans face discriminatory national security policies and inordinate threats to constitutional rights.”

Thus, Wiggins argues that if federal authorities did more to publish data on domestic terrorism, it would allow us to better understand the issue, and it would increase the potential for oversight of federal counterterrorism efforts. He wrote, “As members of Congress seek to address the threat of white supremacist violence and other acts meeting the definition of domestic terrorism, these concerns should inform their approach. If not, Congress risks doing harm to the same communities it is trying to protect.”

These concerns motivated AAI to submit a statement for the record in a recent hearing before the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties entitled, “Confronting White Supremacy (Part II): The Adequacy of the Federal Response.” In the statement, which you can read in full here, AAI discusses two potential sources of federal data on acts that meet the federal definition of domestic terrorism, which would include some incidents of white supremacist violence, and concludes with a consideration of data collected under the Hate Crime Statistics Act.

Transparent data collection would empower stakeholders and local communities to have a better sense of the threats posed by white supremacist violence and acts meeting federal definitions of domestic terrorism. It would also open up the possibility of greater accountability and oversight of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.