Only days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Department of Homeland Security used its federal alert system for the first time in a year to warn of potential domestic terrorist threats in the coming weeks.
The Acting Secretary of Homeland Security issued a National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin on Jan. 27, 2020 due to “a heightened threat environment across the United States, which DHS believes will persist in the weeks following the successful Presidential Inauguration.”
The bulletin suggests ideologically-motivated violent extremists could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence. These extremists object to the presidential transition as well as “other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives.”
Over the past year, domestic violent extremists have been motivated by a range of issues, including anger over COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 elections, and police use of force. The DHS is concerned that these same drivers to violence will remain through early 2021.
“Some [domestic violent extremists] may be emboldened by the January 6, 2021 breach of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to target elected officials and government facilities,” the DHS writes.
While domestic extremists might be energized by the storming of the U.S. Capitol, domestic terrorism and hate is nothing new. Federal prosecutions for domestic terrorism hit a record high in 2020 according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. This is the highest number since the government started tracking them 25 years ago.
“Hate didn’t start with President Trump,” but “like an antenna, he amplified the signal dramatically” and “created a climate in which conspiracies became [commonplace],” ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt told ABC News.
Indeed, starting from the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, records show a sharp rise in domestic terrorism prosecutions.
Trump’s regular advertising of false narratives and conspiracies, anger outbursts on his social media and failure to condemn Proud Boys and other far-right extremist groups can be considered fuel poured onto the fire of political division already existing in the U.S. That rise in anger reached a climax on Jan. 6, 2020, when Trump supporters breached the U.S. Capitol.
That breach was eye-opening, as those who protected the U.S. from foreign terrorism in the past were among the crowd. Nearly one in five defendants, or nearly 20%, in the Capitol riot cases, served in the military, NPR reported. In comparison, only about 7% of all American adults are military veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Dozens of police officers from across the country also allegedly attended the Jan. 6 rally, with some storming the Capitol, according to NPR.
Jan. 6 demonstrated not only the threat against the U.S. government living in its own backyard, but also the strength and ability of protesters to organize rapidly and efficiently across the nation.
So was the Capitol breach an example of domestic terrorism?
This is where it gets tricky. President Biden made his position clear and denounced the assault on the Capitol, adding the past four years led to this assault on democracy.
“What we witnessed yesterday was not dissent, it was not disorder, it was not protest. It was chaos. They weren’t protesters, don’t dare call them protesters,” President Biden said on Jan. 7. “They were a rioters’ mob, insurrectionists, domestic terrorists. It’s that basic, it’s that simple.”
While Biden denounced the mob as domestic terrorists, what exactly can be defined as domestic terrorism isn’t as clear. According to Politico, the U.S. has no domestic terrorism statute. Federal law enforcement agencies use other legal tools, such as hate crime, to go after domestic extremists. There is “no violation called domestic terrorism,” Greg Ehrie, former section chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorism operations, told Politico.
“We’re very concerned if foreign nationals come here and commit terror, but we’re not concerned if it happens by an American citizen.”
While the definition is unclear, what is clear is that there is an existing threat in the U.S. backyard, and President Biden will have to tackle it early on. It seems President Biden’s team has already prioritized the issue and met with senior members of the Anti-Defamation League, a group that studies and tracks hate crimes, to hear recommendations for fighting domestic terrorism, ABC news reported. “What it says is that this issue is a priority for the incoming administration,” ADL senior adviser George Selim told ABC news. Social media platforms also took action to slow down the spread of conspiracy theories igniting violence as well as prevent organizing of further violent riots.
In the days following the riots at the Capitol, Apple and Google removed Parler, the social media application popular with U.S. right-wing users, from their stores, making it unavailable to download on both platforms. Parler was shown to be at the center of the organization behind the Jan. 6 riots. Amazon, too, suspended the app from its web hosting service, making the site officially homeless.
Should the American public be worried about domestic terrorism?
The DHS encourages the public to stay informed and be vigilant. But more importantly, to “choose non-violent ways to make your voice heard and support friends and family in doing the same.”
“Communities are strongest when they are not divided,” the DHS writes. “Strengthen your community by standing together against violence.” Regarding what to expect in the upcoming weeks, it will be a waiting game. What we know is that Trump leaving office removes the fuel that was being poured onto the fire of political unrest. Biden vowed to make unity the main theme of his presidency – and unity will be needed to face attacks coming from within the U.S. or from foreign threats.