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Why domestic terrorism is an underestimated national threat

The weekend mass shooting in El Paso appears to have been motivated by white supremacist and anti-immigrant sentiment. In response, President Trump said Monday the FBI has been tasked with disrupting “domestic terrorism.” What is the nature of this movement, and how can we address it? Amna Nawaz talks to the University of Chicago’s Kathleen Belew and George Washington University’s Seamus Hughes.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, from the debate over gun safety, to a resurgent threat here in the United States. That's domestic homegrown terrorism, motivated by racism, white supremacy, hatred of government and immigrants.

    The president, whose own language has been frequently condemned for stoking those hatreds, spoke to these issues this morning:

  • President Donald Trump:

    In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.

    Hate has no place in America. We have asked the FBI to identify all further resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism — whatever they need.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So how pervasive are these racist ideologies in the U.S. and beyond? What is the U.S. government doing, or not doing, to combat this threat here at home?

    We're joined by Kathleen Belew, a professor at the University of Chicago who is an expert on the history of white supremacists and author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America." And Seamus Hughes, he's the deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

    Welcome back to you both.

    Kathleen, I would like to start with you.

    Address for me, if you can, the president's first remarks there, the bigotry, that white supremacy. What do we know about that threat? How do we know that's led to violence? And how has that changed over time in America?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    What we're seeing now in El Paso and elsewhere is not simply a single act of violence.

    We often think about these events as singular acts of horror. And it's hard not to think about it that way when it's in your community and in your home.

    The thing is what we're looking at is generations old. It's organized. It's part of a social movement that has had a broad purchase across the United States in every region, across gender, across age, across class.

    And what we're — what we're seeing is really the fruition of decades of organizing. That movement came together after the Vietnam War. It brought together Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other activists into a coherent white power movement.

    And where we are now is responding to the fact that we have never had a coherent prosecution of this movement. We have never had a large-scale public response to this movement. And it's a very major problem for our nation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kathleen, I want to clarify. When you say we're seeing the fruition of this decades-long movement, are you saying now that the threat is larger than it's ever been before?

  • Kathleen Belew:

    I think it is.

    One thing that you can learn from looking at the archive of this movement, from the history of that earlier period, is that, when these activists think about violence and acts of violence, like the El Paso shooting or the Oklahoma City bombing or the attacks on synagogues, those acts are not meant to be the end point of this organizing.

    Those acts are meant to be political and ideological actions that bring other activists into the movement, that — quote, unquote — "awaken people" into joining this groundswell.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Kathleen, I want to ask you. I do want to ask you…

  • Kathleen Belew:

    The end point isn't a bombing. The end point is race war.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I apologize for interrupting.

    I do want to ask you about some of that recruitment in a moment.

    But I want to make sure we bring in Seamus Hughes here to respond to the other part of what President Trump said, which was that he has asked federal authorities for what resources they need.

    What do we know about what federal resources are going to combat what Kathleen says is clearly a growing and larger threat than ever before?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    We know that domestic terrorism has always been an afterthought when it comes to addressing these issues. It's always been underutilized, under-resourced.

    You have less FBI agents, less analysts that are looking at this issue. At the same time, you have got 1,000 active investigations when it comes to ISIS and 1,000 active investigations when it comes to domestic terrorism.

    I think it's time to take a hard look at where we're putting our resources.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What would you say now about where the resources are going? Are they going where they should be?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Not quite yet. And I think it's fair to say that they're woefully understaffed as it stands right now.

    We're going to need to focus this in a coherent way. We're also going to look at this as a movement around the country, right? You're not just talking about these one-off events. I agree with my colleague on this. This is an ideology that's pervasive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kathleen, back to you on this, that idea that this is a movement in some way, and that a lot of this recruiting goes on online.

    I heard one former white supremacist talking about the Internet as sort of a 24/7 hate buffet.

    Tell me a little bit about how this movement grows.

  • Kathleen Belew:

    This is another area where what seems very new to us, because of social media and because of the way that these attacks go viral in our current moment, is actually a strategy that's been perfected in this movement over decades.

    This movement went online in 1983-'84 in kind of the pre-Internet chat rooms, called the Liberty Net. And on those chat rooms, they were exchanging not only hit lists and assassination targets and things like this, but also recipes, and they posted personal ads.

    In effect, they were doing social media before social media even existed for the rest of us. So the idea that that's new is erroneous.

    What is new is, of course, the same scale permitted by these kinds of outlets and the way that technologies of communication and technologies of killing allow the body counts to go higher and higher and higher.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seamus, I want to ask you about how we approach this in a federal way to combat this threat.

    And I want to play for you a sound bite from FBI Director Christopher Wray. He was asked about that domestic threat by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin in July. Take a listen to this.

  • Christopher Wray:

    I think the greatest terrorist threat to the homeland is the homegrown violent extremists.

    I will say that we take domestic…

  • Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.:

    These would be foreign-inspired…

  • Christopher Wray:

    Which is jihadist-inspired violence.

    That does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we don't take domestic terrorism, including hate crime committed on behalf of some kind of white supremacist ideology, extremely seriously.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seamus, the FBI director there is distinguishing between Americans inspired by foreign terrorism and Americans inspired by domestic ideas, white supremacy, and so on.

    Do you agree with his assessment there, that one is a bigger threat than the other?

  • Seamus Hughes:

    If you look at the numbers, they're generally on par when it comes to violence.

    Now, the difference is how we address it. When it comes to law enforcement, you have something called the material support to terrorism clause, which allows you to interject yourself, law enforcement, at a much earlier process than you do for domestic terrorist groups.

    So there's less tools available for law enforcement. There's also less coordination going on, on the federal level.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kathleen, the big question here, of course, is what is driving the growth of this movement. A lot of people, of course, have concentrated the conversation around some of the political rhetoric, some of it coming from President Trump himself.

    You have studied this movement for years and years. So tell me how you assess what's fueling this hatred right now.

  • Kathleen Belew:

    I think it might actually help to take a step back and think about what we're thinking about and what we call these groups and these ideologies.

    White supremacy is much bigger than what we're talking about when we think about an event like El Paso. White supremacy, we could think about as undergirding enormous parts of our electoral politics, our legal system, our court system, and more.

    What we're talking about here is a small fringe movement that is attempting an overthrow of the United States through guerrilla violence, in order to provoke and incite race war.

    I'm not overblowing this. This is what is in the writing. This is what people are trying to accomplish in these manifestos.

    When we think about a phrase like white nationalism, I think too many people still think about sort of just overzealous patriotism, or whiteness within the United States, or promoting whiteness within the United States.

    But the nation at the heart of white nationalism is not the United States. It's the Aryan Nations. It's imagined as a transnational white polity that is fundamentally opposed to the interests of the United States.

    So, no matter how much wink and nod is coming from the elected officials — and this is an area for serious concern — we still have to attend to this fringe violent movement that is interested in a much more radical future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A lot of work to be done, and hopefully more resources from our federal government as well.

    Kathleen Belew and Seamus Hughes, thanks to you both.

  • Seamus Hughes:

    Thank you.

  • Kathleen Belew:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And thank you, Amna.

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