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There’s an app for that: Biden plans to bring tips on domestic terror to police phones

Person using smartphone photo app. (PxHere/Released)

The Biden administration with “a sense of urgency” is developing new tools such as a mobile app and handheld booklets to help local law enforcement combat violent domestic extremists, a senior White House official said.

After intelligence agencies concluded earlier this year that domestic terrorism posed an elevated threat to the country, the National Counterterrorism Center is moving quickly to build a new mobile app that will provide police with unclassified, yet sensitive federal intelligence information on potential threats, two White House officials said.

Once the app is ready, “you can, if you’re a cop on the beat, get those sorts of FOUO (For Official Use Only) products from your federal partners on your phone,” said the senior White House official, who spoke with McClatchy on condition of anonymity. “Frankly, that’s where it should be — it should be at the fingertips of those on the front lines of this.”

The National Counterterrorism Center is also working with the FBI to revise a handbook — known as the “red book” among law enforcement for its red cover — within the next few months to include for the first time warning signs and indicators of mobilization by domestic terrorists.

The developments are part of the administration’s national strategy to combat domestic extremism. The strategy focuses on boosting cooperation with local communities, where signs of domestic extremist threats first emerge.

Biden administration officials are tracking threats of domestic terrorism across the country, and say the threat level has not abated since protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, disrupting certification of the 2020 presidential election.

More than 500 individuals have been charged with federal crimes related to the event. Those involved with planting pipe bombs at the Republican and Democratic national committee offices have not been identified.

“Returning to government on January 20 was a very surreal experience,” the White House official said. “Coming through a city that two weeks to the day after the events of January 6 was on such strict lockdown, I think the sense that we need to do wise and considered things, but once we’ve considered them to do them expeditiously, I think that was palpable for all of us working on it.”

Federal training programs on domestic extremism for local police have been in place for years. Over 200 joint terrorism task forces are already operating across the country, helping federal and local law enforcement coordinate on domestic and foreign terrorist threats.

The new training programs and information-sharing tools are meant to increase the use of those resources on the growing threat of domestic extremism, which the White House has described as “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today.”

“Some of those channels are already being reenergized, rejuvenated, to push information to state and local partners specifically with respect to this threat,” the official said.

The Department of Homeland Security has designated domestic violent extremism as a national priority area within its grant program for the first time, allocating more than $77 million to state and local governments, tribes and territories for prevention and preparedness programs.

Attorney General Merrick Garland plans to regularly convene the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, an interagency panel that was formed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to make sure agencies were sharing intelligence with one another. The committee faded away after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Those at the local level, those at the community level, are often going to be best placed to be the first to identify the threats of violence that may emerge from new movements, new groupings, new rallying cries,” the White House official said. “We’ve gotten a lot better at that with respect to international terrorist threats since 9/11, and now we’re doing the work we need to do to get better at that on domestic terrorism.”

The administration has sought to move quickly on prevention measures and began implementing some of its new strategy before it was even completed, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Homeland Security adviser and deputy national security adviser to President Joe Biden, said at a virtual event hosted by the University of Virginia on Wednesday.

Sherwood-Randall briefs Biden daily on domestic threats.

“State, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement will have access to increased intelligence sharing and training on domestic terrorism and associated threats,” she said. “That includes, for example, enhanced training on domestic terrorism iconography, symbology and phraseology, as well as augmented information on how to recognize potential indicators of mobilization.”

Threats of domestic extremist violence are mainly coming from individuals or small groups, said John Cohen, coordinator for counterterrorism and assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention at the Department of Homeland Security, at an event with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Wednesday.

Their ideologies are often a hybrid of various conspiracy theories, making their motives and intent difficult to pin down for investigators who are trying to anticipate violent actions ahead of time, he said.

Intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement say that anti-government militants and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists pose the most persistent and lethal threats.

“The problem is that this specific threat does not fit necessarily into neat definitional categories,” Cohen said. “And from an investigative perspective, that’s what makes things very complicated — because it makes it very difficult to discern what is precisely the motive behind an individual traveling down the path toward violence.”

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