WASHINGTON – On a Saturday morning in August 2019, a 21-year-old White man with ear protectors, safety glasses and an AK-47-style rifle walked into a crowded Walmart in El Paso, Texas, his pockets bulging with ammunition. He had driven hundreds of miles across the state, prosecutors say, because he wanted to kill Latinos.
Kevin McAleenan, the acting homeland security secretary, was at a Coast Guard picnic in Virginia that day, and soon the urgent messages began arriving. A sinking feeling of horror set in as the magnitude of the attack became clear. “It was devastating,” he said.
Twenty-three people were killed in the deadliest attack targeting Hispanic people in modern U.S. history.
About 5,000 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees live in El Paso, and six lost family members that day. “To have an individual attack us, at one of the home bases of our agency and specifically going after Hispanic Americans who make up a majority of our employees in that area, was very personal for us, and it galvanized an effort that was already underway,” McAleenan said.
For years leading to the El Paso attack, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – created to prevent another attack like the ones on Sept. 11, 2001 – had been under growing pressure to do more to address domestic extremism. Within seven weeks of the El Paso massacre, McAleenan released a plan for “countering terrorism and targeted violence” in the department’s pivot from foreign threats to homegrown ones. It was the first time the DHS had identified the extent of the danger posed by domestic violent extremists and white supremacists.
The plan got little attention or support from the White House, and although the DHS was more direct about domestic threats, the effort made little difference on Jan. 6, when the department was one of several federal agencies caught flat-footed. Since the attack on the Capitol, calls have intensified for the DHS to turn its attention inward and do more to protect Americans from other Americans.
The Jan. 6 attack has left many lawmakers, and especially Democrats, insisting that domestic terrorism has eclipsed the threat from foreign actors such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida. The DHS and its agencies are responsible for securing the country’s borders, ports, transportation and cybersystems, generally leaving the monitoring of extremist groups and terrorism investigations to the FBI. But the DHS and its agencies have nearly eight times as many employees as the FBI, and calls for the department to play a more muscular role in combating domestic extremism have policymakers looking at new ways to use its resources.
The proposals have revived some of the civil liberties concerns that arose after the creation of the department as a large, internal security bureaucracy with a broad mandate. And the possibility of the department scrutinizing Americans has added to the unease, because providing homeland security is less controversial when the threats are foreign.
The DHS used its National Terrorism Advisory System to warn the public about attacks by domestic groups for the first time last month, citing “a heightened threat environment across the United States” in a bulletin issued a week after President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“Ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence,” the warning stated.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, has long insisted that the DHS should protect Americans from the gravest dangers they face; domestic extremists and white supremacists, he said, present the most urgent, lethal threat.
“A lot of them mask themselves under some guise of being patriots or some form of citizen, but the question is, what do they advocate? It’s violence. It’s overthrowing legitimately elected officials,” Thompson said in an interview.
“So in my mind, those types of individuals who want to exercise violence to bring change, they are domestic terrorists, and we have the obligation to identify who they are and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”
During a hearing Thompson held this month, lawmakers of both parties spoke favorably of new legislation to address domestic terrorism. Experts warned that the Jan. 6 attack was viewed as a “victory” for extremists and a “watershed moment for the white supremacist movement.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the committee’s former chairman, joined lawmakers calling for specific federal sanctions for domestic terrorism, potentially applying the same penalties as exist for terrorism that originates overseas. Such legislation could include penalties for providing material support to domestic groups, as well as laws holding technology companies responsible for violent and extremist content on their platforms.
“It sends a strong message about where Congress is that we’re going to treat domestic terrorism on an equal plane as international terrorism,” McCaul said.
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Contrary to some television portrayals, the DHS does not have a standing contingent of armed homeland security agents with a specific mandate to stop domestic terrorism. But it has agencies and programs that could expand to devote more attention and resources to risks posed by homegrown extremists.
The DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis collects information from the FBI, private contractors and state and local law enforcement agencies to organize and disseminate threat reports. Its employees and contractors generally lack the training and experience of FBI investigators, and they rely heavily on open-source material.
The office did not generate a specific warning about the possibility of right-wing groups storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to keep President Donald Trump in power.
Homeland Security Investigations, a branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has about 6,000 agents nationwide who investigate drug smuggling, human trafficking and illicit goods or currency. The branch has not focused on countering domestic extremism, but it’s an armed component of the DHS that, in theory, could have a more hands-on role stopping homegrown terrorists and white supremacists.
The DHS’s most tangible institutional response is the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, founded in 2019 to address “a growing threat from domestic actors – such as racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, including white supremacist violent extremists, anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists, and others.”
Its work is primarily preventive, not investigative, providing grants to state and local law enforcement programs and issuing threat briefings and assessments. The office remains relatively small, with a staff of about 30, but it’s expected to grow in the coming years with more congressional funding.
“In the post-9/11 world, the threat was foreign terrorism,” said Tom Ridge, the first DHS secretary. “The CIA and the military were the tip of the spear, and we filled the defensive gap. But now there’s another adjective in front of terrorism: domestic terrorism.”
The well-known failure of law enforcement and security agencies to properly share information ahead of the 9/11 attack was a justification for the creation of the DHS, Ridge noted. So an immediate challenge for the department will be coordination among federal agencies that collect and share information on domestic groups, he said.
Much of it arrives through state and local law enforcement agencies, and the DHS’s biggest asset, Ridge said, “is its relationships with state and local authorities.”
Yet Ridge cautioned against the DHS turning its attention away from foreign threats and other priorities. “What people don’t understand – and people need to understand – is that DHS has so many other tasks embedded in its mission,” he said. “It’s a multitask organization, and DHS has to be careful moving in that direction because I still don’t think it’s their primary job.”
Another risk is partisanship, and the perception that the DHS will be used to stigmatize or harass groups that do not support the party in power.
In September, the former head of the DHS’s Intelligence and Analysis Office, Brian Murphy, filed a whistleblower complaint that included allegations that senior DHS officials sought to minimize warnings of the threat posed by white supremacists while giving more prominence to left-wing antifascists and anarchists. Murphy told his supervisors that it would constitute “censorship of analysis and the improper administration of an intelligence program,” according to his account.
His claims remain under investigation with the DHS’s inspector general. Other former DHS officials, including some who are critical of Trump, insist that the department did not play down the threats of right-wing and white supremacist groups. They point to new DHS programs and strong language in recent reports clearly identifying the threat posed by domestic extremists.
McAleenan, the former acting DHS secretary, also noted a major increase in FBI investigations of domestic extremists and white supremacists in recent years.
“What was missing was a whole-of-government approach and an emphasis from the White House that it was a priority,” McAleenan said.
McAleenan had taken over the DHS after Trump soured on Kirstjen Nielsen and removed her in April 2019. Nielsen directed staffers to develop plans for countering targeted violence and domestic hate groups, particularly after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas and the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Then came El Paso.
“We’d been tracking domestic terrorist threats and increased threats from white supremacists, but El Paso brought it home in a visceral way,” McAleenan said.
The gunman posted a missive before the rampage at Walmart espousing racist theories of demographic replacement that echoed Trump’s statements about an immigrant “invasion.”
“El Paso made it clear we needed a reorientation of DHS towards the current threat, both with respect to white supremacy but also domestic extremism more broadly,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism consultant who worked with McAleenan to come up with the plan for the DHS’s expanded role countering targeted violence and terrorism.
An effort by a DHS analyst in 2009 to identify white supremacists and other extremists groups as a growing threat had fallen apart amid a backlash from Republicans who viewed it in partisan terms. The chilling effect lingered for years and discouraged analysts from devoting time and resources to domestic threats that lacked a link to foreign groups.
The Strategic Framework after the El Paso attack was a “green light” from DHS leadership, Gartenstein-Ross said, signaling that hateful, racist and violent Americans were an urgent threat, and a priority for the department.
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In October, the DHS identified violent extremism in the United States as the leading domestic terrorism danger, noting that white supremacists were responsible for more killings in 2018 and 2019 than any other type of attacker.
“The primary terrorist threat inside the United States will stem from lone offenders and small cells of individuals,” said the department’s first Homeland Threat Assessment. “Some U.S.-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020, which will drive an elevated threat environment at least through early 2021.”
The coronavirus pandemic was making matters worse, the report noted, by creating an environment that could “accelerate some individuals’ mobilization to targeted violence or radicalization to terrorism.”
It was a description, in general terms, of the anger and fury that fueled the Capitol attack.
Chad Wolf, the former acting DHS secretary who published the threat assessment, said the DHS had a contingent of border officers and agents on standby on the day of the Capitol riot, but they were not called on by Capitol Police. “We don’t have jurisdiction for the protection of the U.S. Capitol,” he said.
During last summer’s street protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Wolf was criticized by Democrats and former homeland security leaders for sending DHS agents and officers to quell civil unrest and use force against sometimes-violent protests targeting a federal courthouse in downtown Portland, Ore.
Trump was campaigning on a “law-and-order” message, echoed by DHS leaders, that fueled the politicization of the department’s domestic role. And the scenes of CBP and ICE tactical officers in military fatigues stuffing suspects into rental vehicles in Portland quickly became a symbol of heavy-handed federal law enforcement.
Wolf said he welcomed the bipartisan calls after Jan. 6 for a greater DHS focus on domestic extremism. “On the same token, I get frustrated because when we were in the thick of it last summer in Portland, there were no huge calls, except for vocal Republicans, saying we have to call out violence. I think there’s a fine line – and we dealt with it – between protected First Amendment speech and what is considered hate and criminal activity,” he said.
In a House hearing this month about new domestic terrorism legislation, former DHS adviser Elizabeth Neumann warned committee members that the threat probably would persist for “10 to 20 years.”
Neumann, who was a DHS counterterrorism adviser in the Trump administration, helped oversee the creation of a new contingent of DHS “regional coordinators” who work with state and local officials to prevent radicalization and recruitment by hate groups.
The approach places a greater emphasis on the social and psychological factors that lead to extremist violence. The DHS has a dozen regional coordinators across the country, and Neumann said the goal is to expand their presence to every state.
“What we have been seeing the last five to six years is individuals with unmet needs who quickly radicalize according to whatever ideology they stumble upon,” Neumann said in an interview.
“We’re dealing with a phenomenon in this country of vulnerable, disaffected individuals who are being preyed upon, or seeking it out themselves. And when it comes to prevention, what we’ve learned is that law enforcement agencies aren’t necessarily the best to do interventions,” she said.
“If someone has planned an attack, that is law enforcement territory. That person is too far gone. But when a person is on that journey to radicalization, their family members and loved ones notice changes in their behavior.”
Neumann predicted that it will take five to 10 years to build out a more robust effort at the DHS to prevent radicalization and extremism. What’s challenging about the current moment, Neumann added, is the speed with which radicalization occurs, as individuals can quickly go from embracing an ideology to planning an attack.
“We have so many people talking online and using war metaphors,” she said. “Are they using those terms to actually mean war? It’s very hard to discern when you have so many people participating in angry rhetoric.”