Last month we observed the solemn 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We have made significant strides since then in securing our nation against large-scale terrorist attacks from foreign groups like al-Qaida. We have established a Department of Homeland Security, strengthened aviation and infrastructure protections, constructed an integrated intelligence apparatus and struck strong blows against terrorist enclaves overseas.
This work must continue as the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other extreme violent Islamist organizations seek to regroup. But we must recognize that in the past two decades, the threats of terrorism and mass violence have metastasized. We have seen the emergence of new strains of ideologically motivated terrorism and targeted mass violence, much of which is launched by domestic actors.
Carnage in Pittsburgh, El Paso
Dramatic expansion of internet and social media platforms has magnified the risk of online radicalization, leading to violent extremism. New technologies amplify the ability of violent extremists to carry out deadly attacks, and to publicize and glorify the carnage. In recent years, domestic extreme ideologues have carried out more deadly attacks than violent jihadists.
That is why the new DHS Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence is timely and important. It marks explicit recognition of the evolving terrorist threat of homegrown violent extremism. Notably, DHS does not elide the fact that these terrorists are generally not foreigners but Americans. The department also does not flinch from asserting that “white supremacist violent extremism … is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism.”
Tragically, we have seen this over and over in locations like the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where 22 were killed in August, and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 were killed one year ago Sunday.
Communities can detect terrorists
Equally significant is the comprehensive and sensible approach the strategy adopts in addressing this increasing terrorist challenge. Targeting domestic terrorism inevitably raises questions about how to reconcile First Amendment protections of free but noxious speech and how to investigate without violating constitutional privacy norms. Additionally, large-scale intelligence collection, which works well against transnational terrorist groups, might not be easily adapted to the detection of lone extremists.
That is why three key principles of the framework must be applauded:
DHS recognizes that detecting incipient domestic terrorist attacks requires international, state and local and public-private cooperation. We have seen that white supremacist extremists in one country sometimes cite terror attacks carried out by like-minded terrorists across the globe. At the same time, early warning that someone is veering into violence is often only detectable at the local community level or in the workplace.
The strategy emphasizes the need to foster locally based solutions. Waiting to intervene until an extremist crosses the line into criminal operational activity is risky. Much more constructive is training and working with communities on early detection of pre-criminal radicalization, with a view to “off-ramping” susceptible individuals before they graduate to operational activity.
Recognizing homegrown danger
The new strategy properly notes that because of the sensitivity of domestic intelligence gathering, the government must explicitly commit to operate within the boundaries of civil rights and civil liberties and with respect for free speech and privacy.
The new DHS framework represents a welcome and candid recognition of the emerging dangers of domestic terrorism posed by white supremacists and other extreme ideological groups. Now comes the hard part: implementing this critical effort.
While Homeland Security officials in the department are key to success, we cannot depend on their efforts alone. We must have buy-in from Congress as well as state and local stakeholders. Ultimately, carrying out this strategy will depend on other members of society bringing forward innovative ideas on warning, counter-messaging, off-ramping and other critical early interventions.
Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, is chairman of Freedom House and of the Chertoff Group.