The DHS Has Recognized the Threat of White Nationalism, But it's Long Overdue

Last week, the Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary announced the agency’s counter-terrorism units have finally designated white nationalism a “major terror threat” within the borders of the United States, contradicting previous statements and actions from the department who quietly “disbanded” investigations into fascist groups for unspecified reasons.

“Today, the United States faces an evolving threat environment, and a threat of terrorism and targeted violence within our borders that is more diverse than at any time since the 9/11 attacks,” argued Secretary Kevin McAleenan during the agency’s panel on anti-terror strategy for the Brookings Institute. “While the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda persists, we are acutely aware of the growing threat from enemies, both foreign and domestic, who seek to incite violence in our Nation’s youth, disenfranchised, and disaffected, in order to attack their fellow citizens and fray at the seams of our diverse social fabric.” 

“This awareness,” McAleenan continues, “coupled with the history of recent tragedies, has galvanized the Department of Homeland Security to expand its counterterrorism mission focus beyond terrorists operating abroad, to include those radicalized to violence within our borders by violent extremists of any ideology.” Shortly after this speech, the DHS publicly unveiled its latest Strategic Framework for Combating Terrorism and Targeted Violence which formally explains new methods the government will employ and consider in their response to rising white supremacist terror.

The report, to steal a phrase from Fox Atlanta’s Colleen Killingsworth, “pulls no punches” in describing domestic terror threat as “domestic terrorists racially—and ethnically—motivated by violent extremism, anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism, and other violent extremist ideologies [which] represent a growing share of the threat to the Homeland”. The DHS state their intent is to “prevent terrorists and other hostile actors from entering the United States… deny them the opportunity to exploit the nation’s trade, immigration, and domestic and international travel systems… prevent terrorism and targeted violence…” and “enhance U.S. infrastructure protections and community preparedness”.

Even when placed in the proper context, these standards should be expected of any department built for the singular purpose of securing the nation. Founded after the September 11th bombings, a time of simplified enemies abroad, the landscape for counter-terrorism has forced DHS to truly adapt methods to threats they should have already considered top priority. To steal a joke from Janet Napolitano, a former homeland security secretary under President Barack Obama: “You would think D.H.S. is really just the department of the southwest border. The responsibilities are so much broader than that, and they include both foreign terrorism and also now domestic terrorism.”

For DHS to declare they’re ready to “halt the spread of information operations intended to promote radicalization to violent extremism or mobilization to violence through online communities, especially social media spaces,” is to at least take the first step in addressing the white nationalist problem — which is admitting there actually is one, even if they don’t fully understand it or care. In May, our publication covered 8Chan, the toxic online community frequently used by white nationalist radicals, which left representatives of the FBI, DOJ, and DHS flustered over an important website they’ve never heard about. 

“Do you have any recommendations about what can be done to address the violent hate speech and incitement of violence found on fringe sites like 8chan and Gab,” asked Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Al), the leading member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, during congressional hearing recounted by Vice News. Surprisingly the room was met with silence. “Y’all don’t have any suggestions for us?” Rogers continued. “That’s scary. We can’t make good policy without good advisement.” Since this public embarrassment, the DHS has at least found white nationalists and their violent extremists to “have adopted an increasingly transnational outlook in recent years” due to their online presence, specifically naming the known sites used for their coalitions.

“Similar to how ISIS [both] inspired and connected with potential radical Islamist terrorists,” the report reads, “white supremacist violent extremists connect with like-minded individuals online 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 as the majority ethnicity in various Western countries are prominent in their online circles.” This, at least, takes the second step towards solving the problem — identifying the proponents and their enablers, albeit in a general sense.

“People will be thinking now about Charlottesville and about the altercation of torch-bearing neo-Nazis, and Klan, and other self-proclaimed alt-right activists with counter-protesters in Virginia, [but] that’s actually not really an unusual event,” argues Kathleen Belew, a historian on anti-terror for the University of Chicago, citing events like the 1979 Greensboro Massacre and 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. “This movement has been holding mass rallies for decades…. Much of this is about events that were reported in mainstream press… There was footage of the paramilitary camps on shows like the morning news magazine shows. So it’s not that we didn’t have this before. The problem is more that we have not sort of solidified a popular narrative of what it is that allows us to have a history to slot it into. So it’s more that we don’t remember that there have been historical cognates for Charlottesville.”

This deep-rooted, cultural knowledge of white hate movements is darker when considering their fatal impact over the years continues to this day. According to an ADL report, white supremacists and other far-right extremists have been responsible for almost three times as many attacks on U.S. soil as Islamic terrorists, making up 73% of all domestic extremist-related fatalities, while only 20% of the FBI’s counter-terrorism field agents are focused on domestic probes — an unacceptable reflection of how skewed law enforcement remains within these departments.

From taking a look at the Trump’s administration’s record, from the recent DHS disbanding of a unit investigating white nationalism to false “re-categorization” of resources against non-hate groups like Black Lives Matter, the government has made a self-fulfilling prophecy of counter-terror incompetence. Whether intentionally or not, the government has made it impossible to know the extent the agency is using their funds to persecute anti-racist activism, civil rights struggles, online memes by agent provocateurs or actual members of the alt-right. 

“The re-categorization is a significant tell,” argues Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FBI agent, according to his email from The Intercept. “Rather than be upfront about their methods and their use of the significant resources allocated to them by Congress, they chose to obscure this information.” This follows a recent bill from Sen. Dick Durbin demanding reforms to the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act which specifically forces agencies to divulge more transparent and accountable details regarding cases of white supremacist extremism. The plan doesn’t address how it will increase public transparency on the issue — if at all.

“Even if there was a crackdown right now, it’s going to take years for the momentum of these groups to fade,” concludes Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) famous for his 2009 report on right-wing extremism. “I’m afraid we’ve reached a tipping point where we’re in for this kind of violence for a long time.”

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