By George Selim | ADL Senior Vice President of Programs; Former Director of the Office for Community Partnerships and Interagency Countering Violent Extremism Task Force at the Department of Homeland Security
Six months after a gunman shouting “all Jews must die” killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, another gunman in another synagogue killed one worshiper and wounded three — this time in Poway, California.
Violent extremism and homegrown terrorism have not abated since neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia; in fact, they are demonstrably on the rise. Yet the Trump administration has been chipping away at our nation’s ability to address these serious threats to national security.
The Department of Homeland Security, charged with reporting on such threats to local law enforcement, last year eliminated a unit of intelligence analysts tasked with tracking and combating domestic terrorism, according to a Daily Beast report citing anonymous current and former officials.
The administration’s "National Strategy for Counterterrorism," issued last October just before the Tree of Life shooting, addresses the imperative of countering domestic terrorism. Yet the administration is reducing rather than increasing the resources our security apparatus needs to do so.
Meanwhile, DHS, now in even more turmoil without a Senate-confirmed secretary, has been distracted over the past several years by bigoted and xenophobic policies such as the Muslim travel ban and separating families at the border — while virtually ignoring the crisis of extremist violence brewing in our own communities.
The federal government’s unwillingness to soberly evaluate this type of terrorism and work to defeat it in a consistent and holistic way is painful to watch, and it is costing lives.
When I worked at DHS and the National Security Council, I ran a number of programs to confront these growing dangers. My office had a budget of more than $21 million and 16 full-time employees. But in the past three years, the office has been gutted, the name changed twice in this administration, the budget reduced to $3 million, and the staffing reduced by at least half. During the same period, the horror of white supremacist-inspired violence has unfolded again and again in places such as Poway, Pittsburgh and Charlottesville as well as Christchurch, New Zealand.
Government can play a key role in preventing violent extremism. But we need resources and coordination to undermine extremism. During my time at DHS, I led an interagency task force that included members from I the FBI, DHS, the National Counterterrorism Center and others. We had difficult conversations about how threats were evolving and how we could maintain security in our communities.
From 2013 to 2016, as we were watching the threat from the Islamic State terrorist group metastasize, we held dozens of interagency meetings, increased and shared intelligence, restructured programming, reached out to social media companies and took scores of other steps. In stark contrast, today DHS is not only failing to increase resources to deal with new threats, it is also eliminating both staffing and millions of dollars in grants and programmatic support.
White supremacist terrorism costs lives
The numbers don’t lie. At the Anti-Defamation League, our experts have been tracking these trends for decades. In 2018, we found that of the 50 murders committed by extremists, 49 of those came at the hands of right-wing extremists, with white supremacists alone accounting for 39 of those murders.
And from 2009 to 2018, right-wing extremists have been responsible for 73% of the extremist murders in the United States; an additional 23% were at the hands of Islamist extremists. If ISIS had killed 49 Americans on our soil last year, you can bet Congress, the administration and the American public would all be up in arms to determine the best policies to address the threat. And rightfully so.
For both DHS and the FBI, resources to deal with the domestic terrorist threat are dwarfed by resources for other security concerns, such as the manufactured national security crisis at our southern border. As the former head of the interagency Countering Violent Extremism Task Force, I find our lack of preparedness on this evolving threat simply inconceivable.
The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019, a welcome first step from Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Brad Schneider, would require DHS, the FBI and the Justice Department to address right-wing violent extremism and require training and reporting on countering domestic terrorists. Additionally, local governments and other groups should be encouraged to create programs to reduce the likelihood that individuals would be radicalized to violence.
The Trump administration's decision to cut funding for efforts to prevent all forms of domestic extremism, and its continued use of harsh and discriminatory policies, illustrate that we cannot rely on the federal government’s leadership. We need to focus on holistic approaches and partnerships to develop better approaches to preventing violent extremism.
Our leaders must lead, and they must act now to secure our communities. If they do not, white supremacist terrorism will assuredly claim more innocent American lives.