In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) introduced this bill to foster transparency surrounding domestic terrorism data and increase research on the issue:
“Domestic terrorism, fueled largely by a surge in white supremacist extremism, presents a growing threat to the security of our homeland. In 2018, the lives of 50 Americans were taken as a result of domestic extremist-related killings — all connected to right-wing extremism, and mostly tied to white supremacism. Yet, few Americans know much about what exactly the Federal government is doing to prevent domestic terrorism. There’s an urgent need for robust, centralized, and transparent Federal data to inform counterterrorism policymaking – and Americans deserve to know exactly how their government is allocating resources to understanding and confronting the scourge of domestic terrorism. At this critical time, Congress needs to lead on the issue of domestic terrorism and direct Federal agencies to prioritize efforts to counter these homeland security threats.”
In an op-ed in The Hill, Rep. Thompson added that the information that this bill’s programs would generated would lead to better-informed policy discussions:
“The American people deserve an informed debate. Policy discussions about new laws surrounding domestic terrorism are premature until and unless we have complete transparency on domestic terrorist incidents and what the government is doing to keep us safe.When Americans’ safety is on the line, we can’t put together this puzzle with a handful of pieces. It’s time to pass [this bill] to provide the American public the full picture.”
Writing for Just Security, Harsha Panduranga, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security program, and Faiza Patel, Co-Director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, warn that efforts to combat “domestic terrorism” can easily be distorted to target minority communities. With this in mind, they recommend this bill for “giv[ing] Congress more of the tools it needs to formulate effective and rights-respecting policies to address white supremacist violence.”
Since President Trump took office, his administration has made Islamic extremism, versus all violent ideologies, its primary focus. As a result, DHS has shifted resources away from programs aimed at combating far-right and white supremacist groups. The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law reports that at least 85% of “Countering Violent Extremism” grants go to intervention, deradicalization, social services, and community outreach efforts aimed at minority groups, including Muslims, LGBTQ Americans, Black Lives Matter Activists, immigrants, and refugees.
This legislation passed the House Homeland Security Committee and was discharged by the House Judiciary Committee with the support of 58 Democratic cosponsors. It is also endorsed by the ADL, the Arab American Institute, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Of Note: Data collected by civil rights groups and others show a rise in domestic terrorism in recent years. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that in 2018, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the U.S., making for the fourth-deadliest year on recent for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970. The 2018 figure was a significant increase over the 37 extremist-related killings documented in 2017, although still lower than the 2015 and 2016 totals (70 and 72 killings, respectively).
A May 2017 intelligence bulletin by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that white supremacist extremism poses a persistent threat of lethal violence. It also noted that white supremacists were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 — more than any other domestic extremist movement.
According to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, which tracks attacks on religious leaders and institutions by right-wing extremists, such attacks have been on the rise since 2014. There were 15 attacks in the U.S. in 2015, 25 in 2016, and 13 in 2017. The average number of annual attacks between 2004 and 2014 was three.
The Washington Post reports that, at 92 out of 263 attacks, right-wing extremists committed a third of all acts of domestic terrorism in the U.S. from 2010-2017. This figure was more than the number of attacks committed by Islamic terrorists (38) and left-wing terrorists (34) put together. In early March 2019, unpublished FBI data leaked to the Washington Post revealed that there were more domestic terrorism-related arrests than international terrorism-related arrests in both FY2017 and FY2018.
The ADL also finds that there were more extremist-related killings in the U.S. from 2009-2018. Of 427 extremist-related attacks it found, the ADL found that 73.3% were committed by right-wing extremists, 23.4% by Islamist extremists, and 3.2% by left-wing extremists. Further, the ADL found that three out of four (75%) of killings committed by right-wing extremists in the U.S. were committed by white supremacists; in total, there were 313 such killings from 2009-2018.
On May 8, 2019, FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Michael McGarrity testified before the Committee on Homeland Security that the FBI was investigating 850 domestic terrorism cases (a decrease from the approximately 1,000 investigations in 2018). He also told the committee that of those cases, about 40% involved racially-motivated extremists, mostly white supremacist extremism.
On July 23, 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary that there had been a similar number of arrests of domestic terrorism suspects compared to arrests of international terrorism suspects in Q1-Q3 of FY2019.
At present, public data compiled by outside stakeholders is the best available data on domestic terrorism in the U.S. While the federal government published similar information in the form of a Terrorism report capturing both domestic and international terror incidents in the U.S. from the early 1990s until 2005, it hasn’t done so recently. Rep. Thompson says of this report, “The picture it provided was far from complete, but it was better than what we have now.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / South_agency)