The Politics of Domestic Terrorism

It’s been quite a year for Islamic terrorism news. Bin Laden and radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki were killed. There was a credible threat on 9/11/11 about a potential attack by Al Qaeda, and in Texas, a Muslim American soldier gone AWOL was apprehended with the makings of two bombs. Just last week, the underwear bomber plead guilty to attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction to kill 289 people on a commercial flight.

These were big news stories in the US, as well they should be, and the dialogue addressing the issue of Islamic terrorists has been robust on news shows, on the Internet, and in the halls of Congress.

In comparison, when terrorist plots, bombings, murders, and arrests involved non-Islamic villains, you could almost hear the crickets chirp.

Americans have a curious blind spot when it comes to home grown violence, a willful ignorance that is unfortunately mirrored in our political leaders, federal law enforcement agencies, and press.

The first problem is the terrorism label itself. When an Islamic radical intentionally flies a plane into a building, it’s clearly terrorism. When a Texas tax protester flies his plane into an IRS building, the FBI is quick to call it “a criminal matter … not to be considered terrorism.” When a US soldier who is also an Islamic extremist pulls out a gun and shoots 42 people at the Fort Hood military base, it’s terrorism, but when a 21 year old college drop-out shoots 20 people in Arizona, including a Congresswoman and a federal judge, he’s just mentally ill.

Why does it matter? Because we’re in a perfect storm for domestic terrorism in the US right now and the last time right-wing extremist anger, paranoia, and desperation reached these levels, Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds more.

The White House

The problem – a lack of meaningful dialogue – goes all the way to the top. On August 3, 2011, President Obama released an eight-page plan entitled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” The report, which was disappointingly short on practical solutions, contained a fatal flaw.

Throughout our history, misguided groups – including international and domestic terrorist organizations, neo-Nazis and anti-Semitic hate groups – have engaged in horrific violence to kill our citizens and threaten our way of life.

Today … al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents represent the preeminent terrorist threat to our country.

This may sound reassuring, but it simply isn’t true. While symbolic targets like DC and Manhattan may worry about future attacks by Al Qaeda, ask any police chief in the rest of the country and they’ll all say the same thing: it’s only a matter of time before the United States sees one or more significant acts of domestic terrorism take place at the hand of a right-wing extremist. Future Timothy McVeighs are a very real concern.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Interestingly, the White House didn’t always have its head in the sand when it comes to homegrown extremism.  In 2004, the DHS assembled an analytical team to monitor the various factions that make up the “patriot” community, and in 2009, this team issued a report to law enforcement agencies warning them of the rapid growth and inherent violent risk in the right wing extremist movement. Someone in law enforcement leaked the report to the conservative press, and, pressured by Fox News and conservative pundits, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano back-pedaled rapidly in an attempt to distance the Obama administration from the politically incorrect findings in the report.

In a move that may one day soon prove disastrous, the unit charged with monitoring non-Islamic, homegrown extremists – groups that could very well be incubating the next Timothy McVeighs – was dismantled.  Today, there is only one person in all of Homeland Security keeping track of a movement that has grown exponentially in recent years.

Federal Bureau of Investigation

Once again, ask any police chief in the country about the flow of useful intelligence from the federal government to the state and local level on the subject of domestic terrorists, and you’ll hear a common complaint. Bound by complex rules, and a culture of secrecy, quite simply put, the Bureau does not play well with others. While there may be more analysts tracking the right wing extremist movement, such information rarely gets passed down to the local agencies most likely to encounters these groups.

Even with the introduction of Fusion Centers around the country, which were designed to facilitate communication between federal and local agencies, the complaint is the same.

We haven’t been properly briefed on these right wing extremists. We get a lot of information from the DOJ on Al Qaeda, but nothing on domestic terrorists.  – Police Chief, West Memphis, Arkansas

Local law enforcement

When Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols decided to bomb the federal building Oklahoma City, they didn’t live in the area. The target was chosen out of phone book.

On May 20, 2010, sovereign citizens Jerry and Joseph Kane shot four police officers in West Memphis, Arkansas, killing two, before they died in a gun battle with law enforcement. The Kanes lived in Florida, had license plates from Ohio, and were traveling across the country from Las Vegas.

Thanks to the internet, the extremist movement is now national in scope, and must be monitored at the national level. Local police departments have absolutely no way of knowing what nightmares are heading their way and have to rely on federal agencies such as the DHS and FBI to keep them informed. With only one person monitoring an enormous movement, no intelligence reports on the subject have been produced by DHS since early 2009 and key information is no longer being provided to local law enforcement agencies, and the FBI close lipped policy means that any information provided is somewhat generic.


On March 10, 2011, the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on domestic terrorism. The only issue addressed was the radicalization of Muslims in America, and no comparable hearings have been held on the issue of right wing extremism, even though the vast majority of domestic terrorist acts in the US involve non-Islamic terrorists.

While it may be politically incorrect to focus attention on extremists from only one side of the spectrum, simply ignoring that there’s a problem and a potential for mass casualties is irresponsible and dangerous.

Sometimes, to win a fight, you have to be willing take a few hits. If an unpopular report gets leaked to the press, the appropriate response isn’t to dismantle the team that wrote it and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.


Maybe we’re too close to the issue of non-Islamic homegrown extremism to have a meaningful dialogue. Maybe the political environment is just too toxic to address the potential for right wing violence calmly. But we’d better find a way to deal with it quickly, because the consequences of ignoring it are too high.

Three months ago, news spread quickly about a bombing and mass murder in Oslo, Norway, and the press and pundits instantly assumed that it was the work of an Islamic terrorist. When it turned out to be a young Norwegian man with right-wing extremist beliefs, the comments made to the press by Oslo residents sounded eerily familiar.

I can’t believe this is happening in Norway.

Some of the Oslo comments went further.

It’s the kind of thing you’d expect in America.

Pay attention, DC.

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