USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Kevin John­son and Kris­tine Phillips

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.

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