What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How the U.S. should respond to growing wave of domestic terror attacks

The deadly weekend shooting at a San Diego synagogue appears to be the latest in a series of hate-driven domestic terror attacks across the U.S. This time, the killer left a manifesto praising other recent assaults. How is the Trump administration responding, and is it enough to quell the growing threat? Amna Nawaz talks to Nick Rasmussen of the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The shooting over the weekend at a San Diego synagogue appears to be the latest in a series of hate-driven domestic terror attacks around the nation.

    This time, the shooter left a manifesto, praising recent assaults on a synagogue in Pittsburgh and mosques in New Zealand.

    With an ever-growing spotlight now on these type of incidents, Amna Nawaz explores the Trump administration's strategy for preventing more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A Passover celebration interrupted by gunfire, the latest attack inspired by white supremacy to shake an American community.

    A 19-year-old gunman allegedly opened fire Saturday at a synagogue in Poway, California, during temple services, killing one and wounding three.

    Eight-year-old Noya Dahan was one of 100 people there that day. She was hit by bullet fragments.

  • Noya Dahan:

    I never thought that was going to happen, because it's a safe place. It's a safe place. You're supposed to feel safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The shooter posted an anti-Semitic letter online hours before the shooting. He was eventually arrested and charged with murder.

    At a Sunday vigil, the congregation's rabbi, who lost a finger in the shooting, spoke.

  • Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein:

    This is not supposed to happen. This isn't Nazi Germany. This isn't a pogrom. This is right here in Poway. This is our home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Poway shooting comes six weeks after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Six months ago, an avowed white nationalist killed 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. And a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, killed nine black parishioners in 2015.

    And in 2017, a white supremacist murdered a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a white nationalist rally there turned violent. President Trump said after there were — quote — "very fine people" on both sides.

    The day before the synagogue shooting, he defended those remarks.

  • Donald Trump:

    I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Across the country, meanwhile, a community mourns the loss of congregant Lori Kaye and seeks to make sense of another targeted mass attack in America.

    Here to discuss the United States' strategy to combat domestic terrorism is Nicholas Rasmussen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. That's the intelligence community's hub for analysis and information-sharing related to terrorism.

    He is now senior director for national security and counterterrorism programs at the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a professor of law at Arizona State University.

    Nick Rasmussen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    It's great to be here. Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, a little bit of late-breaking news today. Federal authorities said they have thwarted a domestic terror plot by an American military veteran. It was aimed at multiple targets, seeking retribution for those attacks against Muslim members of the community in Christchurch, New Zealand, at those mosques.

    This is someone who they say in the complaint was a recent convert to Islam and expressed support for the Islamic State. We now have this example. We have the attack we saw over the weekend in Poway.

    Broadly speaking, kind of explain to me the differences or the ways in which these two cases are similar.

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    Well, when a case occurs like the one that you just spoke about that emerged today, it's easier for federal law enforcement in some ways to pursue charges against the person in advance of them actually carrying out a criminal act.

    An individual who, either in their online activity or in speaking to an undercover person, an agent of the FBI, that offers support for the Islamic State, for example, that is enough to bring them into legal jeopardy and to give the FBI the ability to use a whole suite of investigative tools.

    On the other hand, the individual who carried out the attack against the synagogue in California is a harder problem for law enforcement. That individual may not have taken any steps or engaged in any behavior before the actual attack that would have allowed law enforcement to actually engage in investigative behavior.

    And that's somewhat of a distinction between domestic terrorism on the one hand and international terrorism on the other hand, a distinction that may not make sense in the current environment.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what needs to change within the system to address that?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    Well, one idea that's been talked about, and I think it's worth looking at, is whether there might be some creation, if not a domestic terrorism statute, at least including these types of domestic terror incidents in our terrorism statutes.

    That would perhaps allow the FBI at an earlier stage to be more intrusive with their investigative techniques and to bring more investigative techniques to bear, rather than simply waiting — not to suggest that the FBI is waiting for violence to occur.

    But FBI is often hamstrung in their ability to get in front of attacks like these.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the Patriot Act, right, that gives authority to folks — for folks to look — authorities to look into some of those cases, it's pretty broad. It gives broad authority to the Justice Department.

    There's pushback against the idea of you just proposed that is, if you include more cases under that, under that umbrella of terrorism, you're basically broadening the group of people that can be investigated by their own government. What do you say to that?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    And, of course, that's a concern. You would have to put parameters around this authority if you are going to give it to federal law enforcement, because we would not want to create a situation in which legitimate expressions of free speech, even if that free speech is deemed offensive or considered offensive by the vast majority of Americans, we don't want to create a situation where these tools end up chilling, chilling that expression of free speech.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The other thing to point out here is, there are investigative tools and prosecutorial tools to address cases like this, right?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Charlottesville, you saw he pled guilty to a federal hate crime. The Charleston shooter, the Charleston, South Carolina, shooter, right, there was a host of federal and state crimes that he was convicted of.

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    Correct.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So why create a new charge, a new statute? Why is that necessary?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    Two reasons.

    One is just pure moral equivalence. Terrorism, to me, is terrorism. When someone carries out a violent act aimed against innocent civilians for the purpose of advancing a political agenda, to me, that satisfies the definition of terrorism, whether that ideology that motivates that is an ISIS or an al-Qaida jihadist ideology, or whether it is some awful, hateful, white supremacist or anti-Semitic agenda.

    So there's a moral equivalence that I think we would — we would establish if we had the legislative or the legal framework in place to do just that.

    But, as I said, it goes beyond that. It also would — changing the statutory framework would also give FBI more tools. And, to my mind, we're seeing an uptick in the frequency of these kinds of events. And so I would want to give FBI the ability to intervene and to be more aggressive investigatively at an earlier stage, and hopefully get on the — get on the preventive side of this, rather than waiting for these incidents to occur.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned that uptick we're seeing in those far-right and white supremacist-inspired attacks.

    Why are we seeing that uptick?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    Well, that's the million-dollar question.

    I mean, you can certainly point to the broader political environment. And it's not just here in the United States. It's globally, where groups or individuals that feel aggrieved, disadvantaged or somehow downtrodden will look for some other, some other group, some other ethnic group, some other religious group, at which to lay the feet — to lay at the feet of the responsibility for their particular situation in life.

    And so the political — the kind of aggressive political narrative that we're seeing around the world that looks to amplify these grievances is only adding fuel to that fire.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That uptick you mentioned, though, has the federal government done all it should be, in your opinion, to be addressing it?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    I think there's more to be done. And I think the Trump administration can be and should be given some credit in their.

    In their counterterrorism strategy which was published last year, they did point to domestic terrorism as an issue that needs to be confronted and addressed. Of course, saying it in a strategy document is different from actually putting into practice, programs, guiding resources to the relevant departments and agencies, prioritizing this, among other issues — above other issues.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Have they done any of those things?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    And I think that's what we — what remains to be seen.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You haven't seen that yet from this administration?

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    I have not seen certainly anything nearly enough in this area.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nick Rasmussen, thank you so much for being here today.

  • Nick Rasmussen:

    It's great to be here. Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest