The number of domestic terrorist attacks and plots in the United States reached its highest level last year since 1994, although the number of fatalities was at its lowest level since 2013, an international security expert told the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
The lower number of fatalities might be explained by the effective work by law enforcement in preventing attacks.
Center for Strategic and International Studies senior vice president Seth G. Jones said his organization catalogued 110 domestic terrorist attacks and plots in 2020—an increase of 45 incidents since 2019 and 40 more incidents than in 2017, the year that previously had the most terrorist attacks and plots since its tallies began.
He said the fact that there were no mass casualty attacks in 2020 doesn’t explain the reduction in deaths, and hypothesized that “the restraint shown in those attacks may point to perpetrators prioritizing sending a message through fear rather than fatalities.
“Though there has been substantial rhetoric about bringing about a second civil war—such as from the Boogaloo Bois and some white supremacists—many extremists may wait for their ideological adversaries to act first, whether through violent action or policy change that is perceived as an existential threat,” so as not to cede the moral high ground, said Jones.
Leadership Conference on Civil And Human Rights interim President and CEO Wade Henderson told the committee the storming at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “horrified us all,” but didn’t surprise “those of us who are a part of and work alongside Black, Brown, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, disabled, and LGBTQ communities.”
Paul Goldenberg, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security adviser who currently serves as a senior fellow at Rutgers University, said that “white supremacists” in the United States and foreign groups like ISIS all recruit disaffected young people and radicalize them online through “very savvy social media marketing campaigns.”
He said violent extremist groups “now share manifestos, conspiracy theories, hate literature, and are connecting daily with like-minded persons online,” through conventional social media platforms, and lesser-known encrypted channels.
“Their tactic is to exploit the openness of the instrumentalities of freedom – in this case social media and the internet – to destroy freedom itself – in this case the foundational freedom of religious conscience,” said Goldenberg. “The primary inspiration behind many of these targeted violent attacks is to force us to not merely question our fundamental safety and security, as well as our ability to protect our nation, neighborhoods, and families, but to change our behaviors. Success, in the eyes of domestic violent extremists and international terrorists, comes when we depart from our daily routines, ways of living and even spiritual and political beliefs. Violent extremists understand the power of fear.”
Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Eric Fingerhut, a former Democratic U.S. Congress member from Northeast Ohio, urged Congress to provide more money for a federal grant program that helps religious organizations and other nonprofits improve security. He also backed establishment of a federal clearinghouse where faith-based groups and other nonprofits can access safety and security information.
“The ability and confidence of our community to participate fully in Jewish religious and cultural life depends on feeling safe – safe to attend synagogue, safe to drop our children off at the Jewish Community Center for pre-school or day camp, safe to walk down the street wearing visibly Jewish head coverings and clothing,” said Fingerhut. He listed a string of anti-Semitic crimes including mass shootings at synagogues, a deadly machete attack at a 2019 Chanukah celebration in Mosey, New York, and numerous physical attacks on the streets of Brooklyn and other communities that appear related to the clothing and appearance of the Jewish victims.
“The United States of America has been the most welcoming nation in history with respect to the protection and safety of the Jewish people,” Fingerhut continued. “Nevertheless, we Americans are not immune to the viruses of hate that remain in the world, and that are plainly on the rise at this very moment at home and abroad.”
When Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley asked Fingerhut about anti-Semitism being couched as attacks on Israel, Fingerhut said anti-Semitic attacks increase in the United States every time there is a conflict between Israel and its neighbors.
Fingerhut said that the Biden administration spoke forcefully against the increased anti-Semitism after the most recent conflict, and said Congress should provide more funds for a program that provides security grants to nonprofit agencies. He also said states and the Federal Emergency Management Agency need to work more with faith-based institutions of all kinds to help them harden their facilities.
The committee’s top Republican, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, expressed concern that “violent extremists from all segments of the ideological spectrum are increasingly targeting the military, law enforcement and government personnel.”
“As Americans, we value our First Amendment rights of course, including the right to express our beliefs, but nothing gives someone a right to carry out acts of violence,” said Portman.
Jones told Portman a surge of attacks against law enforcement is “primarily a recent phenomenon,” although government officials, the military and police have been targeted in the United States at various points in the nation’s history, such as when domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City’s federal building and killed 168 people.
“We’re seeing the perpetrators from all sides of the political spectrum, anarchists, anti-fascists and others as well,” said Jones.
Portman faulted the hearing for not recognizing a wider range of communities that have been affected by domestic terrorism and violent extremism. He said that President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management, Tracy Stone-Manning, was “involved in eco-terrorism” because of her role with a group that was investigated for putting metal spikes into trees to injure loggers.
“We need to get serious about taking on these needless threats and the violence that stems from them,” said the committee’s chairman, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters. “In my view, we must change the way the federal government approaches domestic terrorism. That requires not only improving the way government tracks the threat, but also better understanding how these hateful ideologies spread across social media platforms, and how that online transmission can lead to real world violence.”
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