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Countering Domestic Terrorism: Evaluating Biden’s Policy

Countering Domestic Terrorism: Evaluating Biden's Policy

The prevalence of violent extremism in the United States poses an increasing threat on national security. Historically, policymakers have focused counterterrorism efforts on external Islamic terror threats. A shift in focus is necessary to address the alarming rise of far-right ideology within the United States following the presidency of Donald Trump. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, racially motivated extremism and anti-government extremism pose two of the biggest domestic threats to U.S. national security. In 2020, white supremacists conducted 67% of all terror plots in the United States.[1] Anti-authority extremists carried out an additional 20%. Popular culture often views Islamic terrorists as the main threat, but Salafi-jihadist groups carried out a meager 7% of attacks in 2020.[2]

White supremacy and anti-government dialogue made its way into mainstream platforms alongside the populist rise of Donald Trump. His 2016 campaign, and subsequent presidency, capitalized on undercurrents of racial resentment. Trump’s focus on “political incorrectness” allowed fringe ideologies to rise to the surface.[3] However, this far-right extremism is not a new phenomenon. Racial hatred has remained a pervasive and damaging issue in America for hundreds of years. With each new decade, this hatred takes on a different shape. Today, far-right extremists fear tactics focused on xenophobia and racism to recruit new members from vulnerable populations.

            In June of 2021, President Biden released the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Extremism. The 32-page report defines domestic extremism as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of criminal laws in the US” and are intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population [or] influence … a government.”[4] It identifies racially-motivated extremism and anti-authority extremism as the two main domestic terror threats. The report details the extent of the problem, identifies a strategy organized around four main pillars, and then expands on those pillars through a series of strategic goals.

            The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Extremism takes a broad yet multi-faceted approach to counter-extremism policy. It calls for improved research, increased resources dedicated to preventing recruitment, and a more legislative dimension to addressing domestic terrorism. It’s strengths lie with its multi-level approach to information sharing within government institutions, its focus on the vulnerability of veterans to recruitment, and its recognition of the need to address the shifting landscape of domestic threats. However, it faces four major challenges. First, the entire strategy lacks specificity. Throughout an evaluation of the strategy, a lack of specificity plagues nearly every pillar. The first pillar fails to account for the contextual differences between communities. The second pillar needs to better explain how prevention measures will be balanced with respect for civil liberties. The third pillar focuses on legislative reforms that would require a more precise definition of domestic terrorism, which the U.S. government currently lacks. This lack of specificity will not only make the strategy difficult to implement, but it will also make it less consumable for the general public.

The second major challenge for the strategy is that it does not focus heavily enough on addressing the drivers for far-right extremism. Biden’s administration has a firm grasp on the ideology behind the movement, but it fails to tackle the conditions that leave people vulnerable to these ideologies. It addresses the proliferation of social media, which is a major contributor, but lacks programs to tackle systemic issues like poverty, low access to quality education, and xenophobia.

            The third major challenge facing this strategy is its failure to address the gendered dynamics of violent extremism. The approach to countering these ideologies requires a holistic understanding of how far-right extremism impacts men and women differently. Far-right groups appeal to women in unique ways, and understanding all recruitment narratives is crucial for employing CVE policy. Women play a key role in the recruitment of new members, the spread of propaganda, and the organization of far-right groups. They made up 14% of arrests from the capital riots of January 6, 2021.[5] The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Extremism makes no mention of the gendered dynamics of far-right extremism. Biden’s strategy needs an additional pillar solely focused on addressing the recruitment of women.

            The fourth major challenge is the strategy’s failure to address the youth dynamics of violent extremism. Approximately 32% of the U.S. population is below the age of 25. This age group is a sprawling base from which far-right groups attempt to recruit. Young people’s “real or perceived disengagement and marginalization” make them highly vulnerable to recruitment narratives. With expanding access to social media platforms, marginalized youths on the internet are easy targets for far-right. Biden’s plan addresses the prominent role of social media in recruitment, but it needs a tighter focus on the vulnerability of young people.

[1] Jones, Seth. 2020. “The War Comes Home: The Evolution of Domestic Terrorism in the United States.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. October 22, 2020.

[2] Jones, Seth. 2020. “The War Comes Home.” Center for Strategic and International Studies.

[3]“Watch How Trump’s War on ‘Political Correctness’ Turned into Hate Speech.” Vanity Fair. August 9, 2016.

[4] “The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.” WhiteHouse.Gov. June2021: pg. 8.

[5] Rubin, Olivia, and Will Steakin. 2021. “‘We Did Our Part’: The Overlooked Role Women Played in the Capitol Riot.” ABC News. April 8, 2021.