The administration’s plans to focus on countering only one sort of extremism could imperil the broader fight against terrorism.
- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe., Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian., Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
The Trump administration’s focus on fighting “radical Islamic terrorism” could not only hamper counterterrorism efforts, but it could even embolden right-wing and anti-government extremists, experts and former government officials say.
Donald Trump’s transition team made clear to officials at the Department of Homeland Security after the election that it wants to reorient programs meant to counter violent extremism so that they focus almost exclusively on the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism rather than other forms of extremism.
The inference was unmistakable, says a former U.S. counterterrorism official who worked on programs to counter extremism and who is familiar with those transition meetings. “We’re seen as too politically correct and that we are not taking the threat head on by ‘calling it what is,’” the official said. A focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism also underpinned the administration’s now frozen travel ban for individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
So far, in the administration’s chaotic early days, no big changes have been made to the DHS program. A DHS official told Foreign Policy that no decision had been reached as to whether this change in focus would actually be put in place. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has not commented on the matter.
But the proposal is meeting plenty of pushback, both because it could undermine government efforts to counter radicalization within the Muslim community and because it ignores a big and growing threat from far-right and anti-government groups. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) warned in a Feb. 13 letter to Kelly that such a shift could “continue to give rise to the false narrative that Western Civilization is at war with Islam.”
Focusing solely on Islamic extremism “would be a huge mistake,” said David Schanzer, the director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He said programs meant to counter extremism “were a hard sell for the Muslim community even before” the election and that Muslim communities see them “as a form of surveillance.” Four schools have turned down federal CVE funding citing such concerns. In all, 20 percent of a total of $10 million in DHS funds for countering extremism have been rejected.
Such a shift would also downplay the threat from other forms of terrorism. Far-right and anti-government groups plan and carry out domestic attacks at a greater frequency than foreign terrorist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on advocacy and civil rights. On Wednesday, SPLC released its latest “Hate Map,” which shows that there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States, such as the Crusaders, which counts among its membership three men in Kansas who plotted in October 2016 to bomb an apartment complex where Somalis live. The SPLC noted an increase in hate crimes in the month following Trump’s election.
And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, anti-government groups have racked up a death toll on par with that of Islamist extremists, according to New America, a think tank, which keeps a database on terrorist incidents. Until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, in which a New York man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people, far-right extremism caused more deaths in the United States than did jihad.
“The trend lines look very similar,” David Sterman, a terrorism analyst with New America, told FP.
According to a 2015 survey of nearly 400 law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local levels, authorities considered anti-government violent extremists, rather than radicalized Muslims, to be “the most severe threat of political violence that they face.”
And that threat may be growing. The former U.S. counterterrorism official said recent intelligence briefings showed an uptick in domestic threats associated with white nationalists and anti-government groups. Police officers are being threatened by these groups as well, the official said — and are even being infiltrated by them, according to a classified FBI counterterrorism policy guide from April 2015.
“There’s a more regular occurrence of this kind of reporting obviously than with ISIS-inspired threats,” the official said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.
In many respects, the Trump administration is merely trying to further a yearslong effort by conservatives to narrow U.S. counterterrorism strategy to focus on the threat from Islamist radicals. In 2009, DHS reportedly disowned a paper on “right-wing extremism” under political pressure from conservatives. During former President Barack Obama’s administration, DHS had already cut analysts and funding and lessened intelligence sharing with state and local authorities dedicated to the issue, according to another former senior counterterrorism official.
That official told FP that the day-to-day focus on right-wing extremism functionally disappeared years ago. “Since then, law enforcement and intelligence work by the department has not looked at right-wing extremism in any substantive way,” the official said.
And while the debate over extremism plays out in Washington, refugees continue to bear the cost. The official said the Trump team is using language around the refugee vetting process that was once reserved for terrorism and extremism.
“[The] refugee vetting process is as close to a security scrub as getting a higher-degree, secret-level clearance in the U.S. government,” the official said. White House charges that there’s not enough scrutiny for refugees, including mothers and young children, is a “bit more than insane — that’s a little unhinged.”
Update, Feb. 15 2017, 4:22 pm ET: This piece was updated to include the latest Hate Map from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Photo credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images