The number of reports outlining the threat posed by white nationalists and other extremists has dropped significantly following the dissolution of a counterterrorism unit within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), The Daily Beast reported Tuesday.
The analysts in the unit were part of the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), which tracks domestic threats and shares intelligence with local law enforcement partners. It was re-organized in 2018 and the analysts were re-assigned, even as multiple other organizations began voicing concern about a resurgent domestic terror threat, particularly from far-right extremists.
“We’ve noticed I&A has significantly reduced their production on homegrown violent extremism and domestic terrorism while those remain among the most serious terrorism threats to the homeland,” one DHS official told the outlet.
A senior DHS official rejected the idea that the changes in staffing constituted any danger to the public. “We just restructured things to be more responsive to the I&A customers within DHS and in local communities while reducing overlap with what the FBI does. We actually believe we are far more effective now,” they claimed.
The timing is still concerning to outside experts familiar with the threat domestic extremism poses today.
A November 2018 report by the Anti-Defamation League warned that domestic attackers affiliated with the far-right were responsible for 49 out of the 50 extremist-related killings in the United States in 2018. Similarly, the Center for Strategic & International Studies has noted that far-right domestic terror attacks increased to 31 in 2017 from less than five per year between 2007 and 2011. A 2018 analysis by Quartz, using the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, found that two thirds of all terror attacks in the United States in 2017 were tied to far-right domestic extremism.
A slew of high-profile attacks and foiled plots has also focused attention on the far-right. Last October, a Florida man sent several pipe bombs to prominent liberal figures and CNN’s offices in New York City and Atlanta, citing his support for far-right causes and President Donald Trump. That same month, a 51-year-old white man shot three shoppers inside a supermarket in Kentucky, killing two of them. The alleged gunman cited the victims’ “race and color” as motivation for the crime, telling a white bystander he would spare him because “whites don’t kill whites.”
On October 27, a gunman inspired by far-right conspiracy theories also attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people. Witnesses said the man allegedly shouted anti-Semitic epithets during the shooting.
Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst on domestic terrorism at DHS, told ThinkProgress that the disbanding of the I&A unit was a dangerous mistake in efforts to combat domestic extremism, particularly in regards to white nationalism.
“Since 2009 there has not been a domestic terror unit focused solely on white nationalists but for a couple of (I&A) analysts,” Johnson said. “What little life existed in it has now been completely shut off.”
Johnson described the restructuring of I&A as a result of inter-factional squabbling between federal law enforcement agencies. “The FBI has a reputation of sucking up any information and giving little back in return,” he said. “This is about the FBI bullying a top agency, this about the FBI being top dog.”
What makes this significant is the fact that the FBI is a law enforcement agency, meaning it has to wait for evidence of a crime to occur in order to commit resources and investigate. It does not provide more generalized threat assessments to public or private partners, like warning electrical providers that domestic extremists might be trying to attack a power grid, for instance, or warning places of worship of an increase in online bigotry.
This in turn limits wider efforts to counter domestic extremism.
According to Johnson, DHS’ claims that it shuttered the program to reduce overlap also don’t square. “Redundancy is built into intelligence community for a purpose, to keep analysis rigorous and challenged,” he said. “In analysis, having redundancy is a good thing so you don’t get caught up in group think.”
This is not the first time that the Trump administration has shown an unwillingness to address the issue of domestic extremism. A few days after the Pittsburgh shooting, the administration closed down the Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program, which was designed to help local groups counter domestic extremism. Early on in the administration, former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, alongside his wife Katherine, also reportedly moved to de-prioritize domestic terrorism — in particular, far-right extremism.
Those things, coupled with an attack on two mosques in New Zealand last month — allegedly carried out by a far-right attacker — have prompted lawmakers in the United States to reconsider the emphasis on countering such extremism. The House Judiciary Committee is planning a hearing on the rise of white nationalism later this month. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also warned of the dangers of far-right domestic extremism in a speech at Auburn University in March.
“We, too, have seen the face of such evil with attacks in places such as Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Charleston,” she said. “I want to make one thing very clear: We will not permit such hate in the homeland.”
DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.