A specter is haunting the United States, the specter of domestic violent extremism (DVE). With the “war on terrorism” apparently over—after all, there have been no lethal, jihad-inspired terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 2019—our domestic security authorities are now urgently aiming to solve this obstinate and sometimes deadly problem.
Earlier this year, in April, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called DVE, “the most lethal and persistent terrorism-related threat to our country today.” In May, the White House announced an ambitious but vague national strategy to combat it. And according to The Washington Post, the FBI has made confronting DVE a top national security priority. The ongoing House investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot probably will renew the push to pass a “Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act” to give the FBI more authority to crack down on homegrown extremist groups.
Government agencies and think tanks may claim a trend in rising DVE attacks, but the numbers are ambiguous and appear well short of crisis proportions. So, how serious a threat is DVE? And how do we evaluate this problem and our efforts to combat it? Is this even a problem that can be solved?
Defeating DVE is a special challenge because it is a classic “wicked” problem—a term widely used in the scientific and public policy communities as well as by intelligence analysts. Tame problems, such as working out a math equation, can be identified and solved, at least in theory. Wicked problems, however, are nonlinear and difficult to grasp, with neither a clear definition, an endpoint or even a “right” solution. Defining wicked problems in public policy almost always is subjective and requires a political judgment call. Attempted solutions can be counterproductive, even disastrous.
In a seminal article from the 1970s, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” authors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber stated, “Social problems are always wicked problems and social problems are never solved. At best they are only resolved—over and over again.” These important caveats are relevant to our current DVE problem.
DVE Issue Is Difficult To Define
Domestic violent extremism has burbled under the surface for decades. It is part of America’s grotesque mosaic: Think of the Klan, the Weather Underground, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Macheteros. They can be racists, separatists, anti-government conspiracists, ethnic nationalists, religious millenarianists. Many of them, like MOVE of Philadelphia or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard from no more. But many, like the Aryan Brotherhood, go underground and never really disappear.
The government defines domestic violent extremists as U.S.-based actors who conduct or threaten activities that are “dangerous to human life in violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any state” and “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
By this definition, most of the “war on terror” was in fact a war against DVE. Since 9/11 few jihadist-inspired incidents in the United States were connected to international actors or groups. Most of the plotters were American citizens or residents. They differed from other violent extremists only in their expressed motivation.
The government’s definition of extremism is unhelpful. The intelligence community’s 2021 DVE estimate defines “extremism” to include many mainstream views, such as opposing corporate globalization, government overreach or animal cruelty. Compounding this problem is the fact that the government uses terms like “terrorism” and “extremism” interchangeably, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Muddying the waters further, some federal data contradicts the official judgment that the DVE problem has gotten worse. According to a joint report by the FBI and DHS, domestic terrorism arrests between 2015 and 2019 actually declined, from 211 to 107. In 2019, the worst year since 1995, 32 people were killed by domestic violent extremism. Even so, one attack skewed the numbers: The El Paso shooting committed by a racist lone gunman caused 23 of those 32 deaths.
If DVE were a growing problem, you might expect bombing incidents to be increasing. Instead, we see the opposite. As reported in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms’ most recent Explosive Incident Report, bombing incidents have decreased significantly, from 439 in 2016 to 251 in 2019.
Similar ambiguity comes in data from the think tank world. According to a well-publicized report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, DVE incidents rose last year, but fatalities were significantly down, with only five people killed in domestic terror attacks. For its part, the Anti-Defamation League (a strong advocate for more government action to fight extremism) acknowledges that the 17 murders it attributes to violent extremists in 2020 were the lowest annual total since 2004.
Some events have been labeled to lend credence to the idea that DVE is on the march. For example, politicians and government officials have extravagantly called the Jan. 6 Capitol riot domestic terrorism. But it doesn’t fit the definition of intimidation of the population or mass destruction, based on the definition cited above. Moreover, University of Chicago researchers concluded that the vast majority of the Jan. 6 riot participants had no connection to extremist groups.
Extremist Groups Are Not Behind the Worst Attacks
In fact, the deadliest DVE events have been committed by lone actors (usually a man) not associated with or controlled by extremist groups. This is true of the 2019 El Paso shooting, the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue attack, the 2017 congressional baseball shooting and the 2016 ambush of Dallas police officers, among others. What’s more, a 2020 U.S. Secret Service report entitled Mass Attacks in Public Spaces—2019 demonstrates just how complicated motivations for these attacks can be, with mental illness and prior criminal history playing an important role along with ideology.
These factors are bad news for enforcement, which has consistently demonstrated little capacity to thwart these kinds of attacks by lone gunmen. Indeed, this year’s U.S. intelligence community estimate on DVE admitted detecting and disrupting the lone gunman threat is a “significant challenge.” In other words, it’s extremely hard for public authorities to stop the main threat coming from domestic violent extremists.
What Public Authorities Do Changes the DVE Problem
With wicked problems, attempts at solutions sometimes make the problem worse. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, for instance, the FBI’s controversial COINTELPRO program—short for Counterintelligence Program—was aimed at the DVE threat, but in doing so also abused civil liberties. Later efforts at containing DVE stumbled due to overly aggressive tactics. For example, the Philadelphia police’s attack on the black separatist group MOVE in 1985 burned down a city block, killing 11, including five children. The 1992 Ruby Ridge and 1993 Waco debacles inspired Timothy McVeigh to launch the devastating 1995 attack on Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 186. In these tragic cases of police overreach, it was not DVE violence that had initially motivated law enforcement to act.
More recently, a few events identified as major DVE attacks would never have happened had civil and police leadership acted with some foresight and planning. For instance, the 2017 neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in one death, should never have been permitted and was poorly policed, and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot could at least have been contained and mitigated had the U.S. Capitol Police leadership acted on intelligence reports.
Likewise, the 2020 conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by a collection of disgruntled misfits was only putatively a DVE attack. FBI informants had infiltrated the group so thoroughly it is impossible to conceive that the gang could have even attempted the kidnapping. How DVE groups will react to the Feds’ controversial tactics in this case remains to be seen. It might discourage some groups, but it probably will harden the anti-government stance of others.
Asking the Right Questions, Setting the Right Priorities
In their article, Rittel and Webber make the point that “Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.” We need to take every expert pronouncement on security matters with this advice in mind. Reviewing the facts on DVE in America reveals some serious problems, but it is far from the crisis or a worsening situation many experts in the field make it out to be.
We also need proper perspective. As a public security menace, DVE pales in comparison to the malign activities of domestic violent non-extremists—common criminals. Drug traffickers and gangs account for a bigger threat to our personal security. In fact, DVE violence—approximately 32 murders in 2019—represented only 0.2% of the 16,456 homicides in 2019. And the damage DVE has caused is completely overshadowed by the illegal drug overdose rate, which has hit record levels.
Federal law enforcement should assess the actual DVE threat level with a risk-based approach that accounts for DVE capabilities, intentions and probability of attacks, to plan an appropriate response and balance it against other priorities.
Given the nature of the threat, Congress’ push for a Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act giving law enforcement more capabilities and powers to prosecute DVEs appears unnecessary. There is no compelling reason why the low-scale DVE threat cannot be handled with laws already on the books. Identifying extremist groups as “domestic terrorists” risks politicizing our intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement.
The Feds have more than enough capacity to handle the known threat of domestic extremism. If about 200 FBI-led joint terrorism task forces and 80 DHS law enforcement “fusion centers” nationwide—the overgrowth of the war on terrorism—cannot manage the current DVE threat, then we need a serious overhaul of our domestic intelligence apparatus.
Addressing the DVE problem decisively but intelligently is important. In our pluralistic democracy, increasing violence by extremist groups is intolerable and might have serious consequences. But domestic violent extremism is a “wicked” problem and will defy easy solutions. If we learned anything from the successful but expensive and, in some ways, counterproductive war on terrorism, we should be skeptical of sensationalizing this new “specter.”