The Department of Homeland Security on Friday called violent white supremacism “one of the most potent forces” driving a surge in mass shootings in the US, and acknowledged the role of online conspiracy theories, social media and extremist websites in fomenting domestic terror.
“Similar to how ISIS inspired and connected with potential radical Islamist terrorists, white supremacist violent extremists connect with like-minded individuals online,” reads part of DHS’s 37-page counter-terrorism strategy released Friday. “In addition to mainstream social media platforms, white supremacist violent extremists use lesser-known sites like Gab, 8chan, and EndChan, as well as encrypted channels. Celebration of violence and conspiracy theories about the ‘ethnic replacement’ of whites… are prominent in their online circles.”
Acting Homeland Security Director Kevin McAleenan released the new strategy document in an address at the Brookings Institute. He acknowledged that the First Amendment limits the government’s ability to counter online communities like 8chan that “provide individuals who might be disaffected or angry with validation,” and called for the private sector to refuse service to such sites.
The candid assessment of the domestic terror threat is a new look for DHS. The department has been turning away from right-wing extremism since 2009, when an internal DHS analysis on the topic leaked in conservative media and set off a political firestorm with Republican lawmakers. In recent years, escalating right-wing violence became harder to ignore, but the Trump White House kept up pressure on DHS to stay focused on border security and radical Islam, according to a CNN report last month. Those issues dovetail with the themes of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. But as DHS acknowledged Friday, lone domestic terrorists “have caused more deaths in the United States in recent years” than foreign groups. The department finally mobilized on Aug. 3, when the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas claimed 22 lives.
“In an age of online radicalization to violent extremism and disparate threats, we must not only counter foreign enemies trying to strike us from abroad, but also those enemies, foreign and domestic, that seek to spur to violence our youth and our disaffected—encouraging them to strike in the heart of our Nation, and attack the unity of our vibrant, diverse American society,” the DHS report reads, emphasizing the “and” in “foreign and domestic” with italics.
The new strategy “provides a substantive framework for how the department and the nation can organize itself to combat this threat,” said John Cohen, the former deputy under secretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS. Cohen notes that foreign terrorist groups are targeting the same reserve of angry, disaffected men. But he worries that the new strategy will be a dead letter under Donald Trump.
“There's a serious question whether the department will receive the support or funding necessary to implement this strategy,” Cohen told the Daily Beast. “It would divert from Trump administration priorities, which have focused singularly on immigration and border enforcement.”