Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas says that domestic violent extremism now constitutes the greatest terrorism threat to the United States, exceeding that from al-Qaida, the Islamic State or other radical jihadi groups.
“I consider it and I think we consider it collectively the most significant terrorism-related threat impacting the homeland,” Mayorkas said in an interview with Yahoo News.
Mayorkas made those comments as he unveiled the U.S. government’s first national strategy for combating the domestic terror threat — a problem the Trump administration was accused of downplaying but that has taken on new urgency in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The document pledges greater information sharing among federal and state agencies and steps up monitoring of social media in order to thwart “online terrorist recruitment” and identify so-called insider threats, including extremists serving in the U.S. military as well as in state and local law enforcement agencies.
“I will tell you that we see incendiary language that gives us cause for concern,” Mayorkas said when asked whether he is receiving intelligence reports indicating that domestic extremist groups are planning further attacks. “There’s no explicitly articulated intention to commit violence, but it’s certainly language that worries us. And it’s our job to worry, because worry speaks of alertness, alertness speaks of readiness, and readiness speaks of partnership in our communities across the country.”
Mayorkas’s comment that domestic extremists now pose the primary threat to the homeland is especially striking coming from the head of a department that was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and has been largely devoted to threats that originate overseas. But it also illustrates the political minefield that arises when the government attempts to crack down on domestic extremists.
The Biden administration defines the domestic threat as coming from racially or ethnically motivated extremists whose “racial, ethnic or religious hatred leads them toward violence.” It also says other components of the threat come from “anti-government or anti-authority” extremists, including militia groups, as well as “anarchist violent extremists who violently oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization and government institutions,” a framing that suggests it includes antifa.
But Mayorkas emphasized that the department’s initiative is apolitical. He declined to identify any particular groups that would be targeted under the new strategy, ducking questions about the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, two outfits whose members are known to have been involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
He also emphasized that the department’s civil liberties office was closely involved in formulating the department’s responses. DHS’s Office of Intelligence is already monitoring social media to identify potentially violent extremists, and under the new strategy, that will be expanded, with government contractors brought in to conduct both monitoring and analysis of social media postings.
But Mayorkas also said there will be limits on what both government and contractor monitors can do.
“For example, they can track publicly available social media postings,” he said. “They can harness the work in academia and nongovernmental organizations. They do not necessarily have the right to adopt a persona that law enforcement is able to do in an undercover capacity to infiltrate an encrypted channel.”
Another component of the strategy is an assessment of whether domestic violent extremists are receiving financial or other support from foreign right-wing extremist groups — a finding that could lead the State Department to officially designate those organizations as terrorist groups and the Treasury Department to impose sanctions and put them on a blacklist.
“So we certainly have observed a nexus between foreign-based individuals and individuals here in the United States,” said Mayorkas. “We’ve seen the communication on social media with respect to the distribution of the ideology, the dissemination of the ideology, expressions of intent to travel, interest in traveling for a particular purpose for a particular event, that raises the specter of violence.”
But, he added, “what we are observing most frequently is the loose affiliation of individuals, not the hierarchical, organized structure that perhaps is attributable to other organizations that we have addressed. That’s what makes this so difficult. It’s the loose affiliation.”
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