As New Zealand grapples with whether it could have prevented a white supremacist from launching a deadly attack on two mosques, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says the United States must take the threat of domestic terrorism more seriously — starting with a bill he is reintroducing Wednesday that would strengthen the federal government’s response to threats.
The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, a piece of legislation Durbin originally introduced in 2017, would require federal agencies to issue an annual report on domestic terrorism and codify an interagency domestic terrorism task force, according to the draft legislation, details of which were first shared with PBS NewsHour.
“Violent white supremacists and other far-right extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States today,” Durbin said in a written statement. “For too long, we have failed to take action to combat the deadly threat in our own backyard. While federal law enforcement agencies recognize that white supremacist extremism is on the rise, our legislation would require them to take the concrete steps needed to address it.”
Attacks on religious leaders and institutions by right-wing extremists have been on the rise in the United States since 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, which tracks such assaults. 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 government does not collect much information on domestic terrorism, which the FBI defines as attacks inspired by primarily U.S.-based movements, because it is not treated as a specific federal crime with which defendants can be charged. Instead the government keeps tabs on crimes committed by people deemed motivated by domestic terrorism, like Cesar Sayoc, who mailed improvised explosive devices to media organizations, critics of President Donald Trump and Democratic politicians last year. Sayoc was charged with 65 felonies including “using a weapon of mass destruction” and “interstate transportation of an explosive.”
Durbin’s bill seeks to force government officials who focus on this area to work closer together in monitoring, analyzing, investigating and prosecuting domestic terrorism, and sharing those results publicly. Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for national security at the DOJ who worked on the domestic task force that this bill would enshrine into law, said in her experience, one element of the group’s work was on building relationships with state and local law enforcement, but that it was primarily focused on internal information-sharing.
“What’s important is that intelligence that any law enforcement agency is gathering about domestic terrorism gets shared with not just other federal agencies but state and local law enforcement who are in a position to do something about it,” McCord said. She added that Durbin’s bill is a good start but added another recommendation: making domestic terrorism a federal crime “to add some real direction and resources and heft behind a proposal like this.”
Requests for comment sent to the office of Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham — who would have to approve of the bill moving through committee — were not immediately returned.
A previous version of the bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary and House Homeland Security Committees after it was first introduced in 2017, but was never sent to either chamber’s floor by either committee. The bill has no Republican co-sponsors, and is therefore likely to meet the same fate in the Republican-controlled upper chamber. But a Democratic majority in the House may be more inclined to advance it through the lower chamber.
“There is consensus within the Democratic Caucus that domestic terrorism is a serious threat that demands action. I’ll be discussing this legislation with my colleagues because we cannot afford to wait for another tragic incident,” Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill., the sponsor of the House bill, said in a statement.
Durbin’s staff members who work on the issue say their timeline was not influenced by the New Zealand shooting. They say they were largely motivated by prior acts of domestic terrorism, including the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last year.
The new version of the bill is largely the same as the previous one, though it adds language emphasizing the need to address white supremacist and neo-Nazi infiltration in the uniformed services, according to Durbin staff members. Earlier this month, an active-duty member of the Coast Guard, who espoused white nationalist views and made threatening remarks about public figures online, pleaded not guilty to weapons and drug possession charges. There have been a number of other reports documenting the military’s concerns about such extremists in their ranks.
McCord, the former Justice Department official, said some of the president’s remarks on this threat — like his saying there were “very fine people” on both sides of the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed — have added to an overall sense of community for those espousing white nationalist sentiment. McCord made clear that she does not attribute any causality to Trump himself.
“The increase that we’re seeing in far-right extremism actually perpetuating itself through acts of violence and acts of terrorism is unfortunately fueled, at least to some extent, by the failure of leadership to unqualifiedly condemn it in the strongest possible way and certainly to suggest that it’s not a serious or significant problem,” McCord said.
When asked earlier this month whether he thought white nationalist violence was a growing threat for the U.S., the president said, “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
In addition to the legislative effort, Durbin’s staff has also sought since last November to have the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security schedule a joint briefing on domestic terrorism for Senate Judiciary Committee staff. According to emails reviewed by PBS NewsHour, as of Tuesday, March 5 – less than two weeks before the New Zealand shooting – a DOJ official told Durbin’s staff that they could not “confirm a briefing date at this time,” but said that an official in the department’s Office of Legislative Affairs was talking to Attorney General Bill Barr about the topic.
“I appreciate your patience,” the email concluded.
A DOJ spokesperson said the agency is working on scheduling the briefing requested by Durbin’s staff and is also working with at least one other congressional committee on a member briefing and hearing request. The spokesperson also said the DOJ is working to get Barr briefed on the topic.
In answer to questions about the administration’s response to domestic terrorism writ large, as well as the still-unscheduled joint meeting, DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton told the PBS NewsHour in an email, “The Department of Homeland Security is committed to combating all forms of violent extremism, especially movements that espouse racial supremacy or bigotry. DHS takes all threats to the homeland, both foreign and domestic, very seriously. We will continue to work hand-in-hand with our federal, state and local partners to carry out our mission of keeping our country safe.”
DHS officials also noted agency programs that are dedicated to combating domestic terrorism, including the DHS Center for Faith and Opportunity, which helps houses of worship prepare for acts of terrorism, and the community engagement section of its Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which conducts outreach with houses of worship and other non-governmental organizations throughout the country who might be the targets of hate crimes.
Robin Simcox, a counterterrorism expert at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, said that while the domestic terrorism threat to the United States is indisputable, it is important for the Trump administration not to lose sight of the persistent and distinct danger presented by foreign extremist groups like the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. He noted that one big distinction between domestic and foreign terrorist organizations worldwide is that foreign organizations have a much more established territorial foothold, even after the destruction of the Islamic State’s land-based “caliphate” in Syria.
“When you look at the overall picture of what’s happening in the West, the scale of what’s been planned by Islamist terror outfits like ISIS and [al-Qaida] especially, to me it’s still way up there as a very vital part of the overall threat picture,” Simcox said.
Durbin has previously sought to focus congressional attention on the issue of domestic terrorism. As chairman of a key Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 2012, he held a hearing on the issue following a white supremacist attack that killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
One of the officials who testified on that panel, former DHS analyst Daryl Johnson, hailed the bill’s reintroduction Wednesday, noting it incorporates some of his 2012 recommendations, including the production of an annual report on domestic terrorism.
“The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, I think, is the first step in developing a better strategy on how to combat these anti-government and white supremacist groups,” said Johnson, who runs DT Analytics, a firm that provides analysis and consultation on domestic terrorism for law enforcement and academic institutions.
Johnson wrote a landmark 2009 study on violent right-wing terrorism that noted that the economic downturn and the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, “present[ed] unique drivers for right wing radicalization and recruitment.”
But he says instead of focusing attention and resources on a growing problem, it sparked a conservative backlash, first in the blogosphere, and then in Congress. One lawmaker, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said at the time that DHS was “accusing honest, American citizens – because of their political beliefs – of being domestic terrorists.”
Then-DHS-Secretary Janet Napolitano ended up apologizing for Johnson’s report and the report was retracted. Johnson’s eight-person team, the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, was disbanded and Johnson left government the following year.
He sees Durbin’s bill as a good way to broaden the conversation about extremism. “This is all important data to gather so that we can brief our policymakers and so we can inform the media and academia and the public,” he said.