FIGHTING DOMESTIC TERROR
ODESSA DAYTON EL PASO VIRGINIA BEACH AURORA THOUSAND OAKS PITTSBURGH ANNAPOLIS SANTA FE PARKLAND SUTHERLAND SPRINGS LAS VEGAS ORLANDO
Battlefield has shifted, but law enforcement tools haven’t shifted with it
WASHINGTON – In the weeks after a pair of massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 dead, local police and federal authorities scrambled to contain a succession of chilling new threats.
A Florida man allegedly vowed to “break a world record” for mass shooting casualties; a disgruntled hotel cook in California threatened to transform a Marriott lobby into a killing field; a Jewish community center in Ohio was the target in a suspected shooting plot.
Police stopped each one before anyone was harmed. But the arrests, spanning just over a week, highlighted a frequent theme in the government’s efforts to prevent domestic terrorism and other forms of mass violence: law enforcement didn’t see the potentially deadly storms approaching until members of the public stepped forward with crucial information, and authorities had little power to intercede until an attack appeared imminent.
The FBI has warned for months that domestic terrorism, often animated by racial animus and religious discord, represents one of the United States’ most pressing national security threats. Yet time after time the central weapons against such threats for local and federal law enforcement have largely proved to be timely tips, or even a stroke of luck.
In the 18 years since 9/11, the U.S. has taken aggressive steps to prevent terrorist acts in the name of the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other international terror groups. The government built a vast security apparatus to target threats to the United States from extremist groups based overseas, including an extensive effort to identify, track and arrest Americans who give them support.
Potential domestic attackers, largely untethered to specific organizations and protected from police scrutiny by free-speech rights, have proven more difficult for the government to investigate. An affiliation with a designated international terrorist group makes someone fair game for U.S. criminal investigators; expressing extreme, or even violent, views without such a connection typically does not.
“I think it is time to rethink our approach,” former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said.
“The goal has to be to identify and intervene in advance. But there is no corresponding designation or consequences for domestic actors.”
To ‘intimidate or coerce’
Congress could be moving in that direction: Recent mass shootings have prompted members of both parties to seriously consider legislation that would expand the government’s authority over domestic terrorist threats. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., have proposed bills that would essentially allow federal law enforcement to pursue domestic terror suspects as they would international operatives.
While domestic terrorism is codified in federal law as an effort to “intimidate or coerce” a civilian population or government, there are no corresponding criminal penalties to back it. That has law enforcement officials moving to head off potential threats with the tools at their disposal, including leaning on
the public to provide tips and charging suspects with violating weapons laws, hate crimes or illegal threats in the absence of a domestic terrorism charge.
Not every attack would meet that standard. Local and federal investigators said they have found evidence of the Dayton shooter’s “violent ideology,” though they did not offer specific information on the gunman’s motivations. And some of the plots authorities said they thwarted in recent weeks did not have a clear political motive. But they raise similar questions for authorities seeking to prevent them.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the internet quickly emerged as key battleground in the war on al-Qaida and later the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Both terror groups used digital tools to spread hatred online and enlist recruits with surprising ease. The United States responded by blocking and infiltrating the corners of the internet where terrorists’ recruiting was most effective.
Undercover agents and informants mined internet message boards and social media looking for Americans who expressed an interest in Islamic terrorism and occasionally targeted them in elaborate sting investigations in which agents led them down the path toward radicalization, offered them the chance to carry out imaginary attacks and arrested them.
For homegrown violence unconnected to overseas terror groups, investigators are limited in the battle. President
Donald Trump seemed to call for more aggressive internet monitoring after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, but there is widespread disagreement on how much power the government should have to do that, and on how it would work if it did.
New rules come with a risk
Michael German, a former FBI special agent who specialized in domestic terrorism, has opposed an expanded domestic terrorism statute, saying giving law enforcement unfettered access to investigative and surveillance techniques can lead to perverse consequences.
German cites an elaborate sting operation targeting Nicholas Young, a former Washington transit police officer who converted to Islam and whom the FBI monitored for several years. Young was arrested in 2016 after he sent $245 in gift cards to a friend he believed had gone to Syria to join the Islamic State. Unknown to Young, the friend was an informant, and Young was charged with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State.
Prosecutors argued that Young’s activity was anything but benign, saying the cards were intended to assist ISIS recruitment efforts. He was sentenced in June to 15 years in prison.
German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said there are other potential dangers in arming investigators with more authority in domestic terror inquiries. Targeting radical rightwing groups, he said, could thrust law enforcement into the realm of policing political speech.
“You can’t imagine how many people entertain conspiracy theories who would never commit an act of violence,” German said. “Clearly a lot of these people are engaged in the political process.”
Group such as the American Civil Liberties Union oppose expanding domestic terrorism laws, saying doing so would target people of color and other marginalized communities.
Mary McCord, former acting chief of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said the extreme violence that has marked recent attacks and the stream of further threats of mass attacks have all but eliminated the distinction between international and domestic terror.
After the October shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, McCord urged Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime, saying doing so would create a moral equivalency between domestic and international actors.
“It’s the same crime,” McCord said, adding that a domestic terrorism statute would give the FBI “the mandate and the impetus and the resources” to conduct undercover and sting operations. Had Patrick Crusius, the suspected shooter in El Paso, pledged allegiance to ISIS, “he would be prosecuted right now for terrorism,” McCord said.
In the case of Crusius, who is accused of writing an anti-immigrant screed before the attack and confessed to police that he had targeted Mexicans, a federal terrorism prosecution would not likely make a difference in the range of possible punishment. The 21-year-old suspect has been charged by state prosecutors with capital murder, which carries a potential death sentence.
In cases of extreme violence, distinctions between domestic and international terrorist threats should not matter, said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, a global security research organization.
“I don’t know what has to happen for us to treat perpetrators of violence equally,” Clarke said. “I thought it would’ve been Pittsburgh. That clearly isn’t the case. … It’s temporary outrage. Rinse and repeat. Thoughts and prayers. Go back to daily life until the next shooting. … We’ve been so focused on al-Qaida and ISIS that people have seen white supremacy as more of a nuisance than a significant threat. These aren’t just a bunch of crazy people.”
A memorial sprung up outside a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 after a gunman killed 22 people in an attack authorities say targeted Mexican immigrants.