In the face of a global increase in white supremacist terrorism like the twin massacres in two Christchurch, New Zealand mosques, fewer than a fifth of the FBI’s open terrorism investigations focus on people without connections to international extremist organizations. It’s a proxy figure that highlights what former counterterrorism officials consider an insufficient focus on far-right violence.
Out of about 5,000 open terrorism investigations, 900 probe domestic terrorism, according to FBI data reviewed by The Daily Beast. “Domestic terrorism” is an umbrella category that includes far more than just far-right terrorism, but functions as the most granular data available to indicate how federal law enforcement targets white supremacist violence.
Former FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials say that the New Zealand attacks, which left at least 49 people dead at two mosques, are a bloody reminder of the growing threat worldwide of white supremacist terrorism. (A suspect in custody declared “I am a racist” in an online manifesto packed with Islamophobic invective.)
The attacks also highlight the structural discrepancy that persists between how western intelligence and law enforcement treat terrorism committed by Muslims and terrorism committed by whites, those former officials say. At the White House, President Trump dismissed white nationalism as just “a small group of people” and not a growing threat.
In the U.S., white supremacist violence is the province of local and federal law enforcement handling specific cases, often after the fact. But a systematic response, nationally and internationally, is both badly needed and conspicuously absent, counterterrorism veterans say.
“While this specific incident is a horrific tragedy in New Zealand, it is also an illustration in the global rise in white nationalist violent extremism,” said John Cohen, the former deputy director of counterterrorism at DHS. “We have experienced a dramatic increase across the West in hateful rhetoric and targeted acts of violence by individuals who do so specifically in response to what they see as an attack on white society by immigrants, Jews, and Muslims and others.”
Ever since 9/11, western governments led by the U.S. have built a collective counterterror apparatus focused on extremist Islamist organizations. Central to it is a massive architecture of surveillance and intelligence sharing–such as the longstanding “Five Eyes” surveillance partnership that includes both the U.S. and New Zealand. By contrast, the counterterrorism veterans say, collective efforts to battle white supremacist terrorism look more like pre-9/11 efforts, when law enforcement agencies tackled terrorist incidents local case by local case.
“The U.S. government and the wider intelligence community are not recognizing white supremacy as a global, violent terrorist network that’s spreading in many western countries, including the United States,” said Ali Soufan, a retired FBI counterterrorism special agent. “We have to start working with partners overseas and share information to combat far-right terrorism in a way very similar to cooperation that exists fighting jihadi terrorism. If there’s information sharing on that level, it’s very little, even though it’s [confronting] an international network.”
One former senior FBI official said he fears Americans have grown accustomed to noxious, deranged violent messages–and, as a result, are less likely to alert law enforcement to potential threats. He pointed to the fact that Cesar Sayoc, a white supremacist who sent bombs to a number of journalists and Democratic politicians, drove around Florida in a van emblazoned with crazed messages. Floridians seemed unfazed by his crazy threats.
“Is this the new normal?” the former official said. “And does that mean we’re going to miss the next act of violence domestically? If you’re working domestic terrorism, it is really scary.”
“We’re ripe for an attack like this,” Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst, said soon after Christchurch.
More than anyone else affiliated with DHS, Johnson has been a Cassandra figure with regard to white-supremacist violence. Even as DHS was obsessed with terrorism committed by Muslims and with immigration, Johnson in 2009 wrote a seminal DHS paper warning of a rising tide of dangerous far-right extremism. It was the beginning of the end of his career. Fearing conservative criticism, the Obama administration opted to suppress Johnson instead of heeding what now seems to be an extraordinarily prescient counterterrorism warning.
“Not only can we trace this hatred of Muslims back to 9/11 and attribute it to white supremacists, but our own government leaders for a while fueled and fanned the flames of anger and hostility toward Muslims,” Johnson said. “Christchurch is just the latest example of a long history of right-wing extremist violence throughout the world and shows this is a worldwide movement that emerged.”
Recent DHS and FBI efforts at combating white supremacist violence display a local focus.
On Feb. 22, both entities sent out a Joint Intelligence Bulletin to state and local law enforcement officials saying that American faith communities face violent threats, The Daily Beast has learned. The bulletin listed a number of violent attacks on worshipers and said the threats to these communities persist.
Over the past several months, the FBI has held meetings and phone calls with faith-based leaders throughout the country in an effort to educate communities about domestic terrorist threats.
Last month, the D.C. police met with faith leaders from across Washington to address concerns that extremists are targeting houses of worship. Similar law-enforcement/community conferences have been held in states like New Jersey and New York.
“With cases like what we’ve seen in New Zealand, we always pay special attention. If it impacts religious institutions, we will step up our oversight in those regions and we’ll talk to community leaders,” said Chief Peter Newsham, head of the D.C. metro police. “We will tell those leaders what we know about the attack such as who was targeted or who carried it out. It’s important for them to have that information to then share with their communities.”
The efforts currently being carried locally built on an effort that began during the Obama administration to protect religious sites from attack, led by a DHS entity called the faith-based advisory group. “There was a considerable effort in which DHS and FBI worked closely to educate faith based communities about the threat and to help them enhance the physical security of those facilities,” Cohen said.
But within DHS, Cohen said, that effort has largely dissipated. And other DHS veterans point to declining institutional interest in taking measures to prevent domestic terrorism before the next assault. DHS statistics recently cited by NBC’s “Meet The Press” and before that in The Atlantic show that to counter violent extremism, the department in 2016 had 41 employees operating on a $21 million budget. By 2018, it had shrunk to 8 employees on less than a $3 million budget.
With warning signs like Christchurch, the Pittsburgh pogrom, and the Quebec mosque attack last year, the ex-analyst Johnson said DHS needs to conduct vulnerability assessments at mosques and other places of worship. But he wasn’t confident that will happen under the Trump administration and the current DHS leadership.
“They’ve shown repeatedly that they’re not interested in this topic, that they think it’s a political liability,” Johnson said.
At DHS, “there continues to be a deficit of staffing, resourcing, and funding for state and local and community entities to prevent radicalism and recruitment of all forms,” said George Selim, who until 2017 led DHS’ work to counter violent extremism.
“I am not aware of a designation of a lead domestic agency to drive policy and strategy and the prevention of radicalization domestically in this administration,” added Selim, now with the Anti-Defamation League.
Soufan, the ex-FBI agent, sees it as a problem of both scale and political will. “You have great work happening on the local level with agents in different task forces, but it’s not part of a larger national agenda, and that’s why you see the FBI alone on these cases,” he said.
But with a president who draws equivalences among the “very fine people on both sides” of racist violence and anti-racist resistance, as well as a generation of global counterterrorism infrastructure built to focus on Islamist organizations while neglecting far-right and white-identity terrorism, the obstacles to scaling up are as political as they are institutional. Johnson losing his career over his warnings of far-right terrorism is a stark example.
“This is a phenomenon in plain sight that has an ideology behind it fed by politicians. You had a member of Congress say, hey, why is ‘white supremacist’ a bad word? They’re being emboldened to take this narrative to a totally different level,” Soufan said. “We’ve seen that in the '80s, we’ve seen that with violent jihadis, and unfortunately, we’re seeing something like the nucleus of this happening in the U.S. and in western societies.”