Rise of far-right violence leads some to call for realignment of post-9/11 national security priorities

The United States continues to employ a staggering arsenal of armed forces, unmanned drones, intelligence agencies and sweeping domestic authorities to contain a threat — Islamist terrorism — that has claimed about 100 lives on American soil since the nation mobilized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

No remotely comparable array of national power has been directed against the threat now emerging from the far right, a loose but lethal collection of ideologies whose adherents have killed roughly the same number of people in the United States, post-9/11, as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State combined.

The disparity is a source of growing alarm for officials and experts, some of whom now say the United States is overdue for a realignment of national security priorities as violence on the far right escalates. 

In the aftermath of a pair of attacks that left dozens dead or wounded in Texas and Ohio over the weekend, a roster of former high-ranking counterterrorism officials issued a statement Sunday saying that domestic terrorism should be treated “as high a priority as countering international terrorism has become since 9/11.”

Many experts say that the mobilization in the wake of the attacks on New York and Washington was effective and that the number of Americans killed by Islamist militants would be considerably higher were it not for the far-reaching measures adopted after 9/11 — a catastrophic al-Qaeda strike that killed nearly 3,000 people and whose impact still dwarfs any single episode of violence that has followed in the United States.

Still, the 22 people killed in El Paso on Saturday — after authorities allege the shooter posted a racist screed online — extended a series of at least five fatal attacks over the past year directed at targets selected for racial or religious reasons, including shootings at synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh. And 9/11 was preceded by a series of smaller al-Qaeda attacks and unaddressed alarms about the group that analysts say should caution current officials about the dangers of inaction.

The prospects for a change in course, however, appear limited — complicated by legal constraints, toxic American political currents and the amorphous nature of an adversary that has no discernible structure or Osama bin Laden-like leader and has burrowed into corners of the Internet the way al-Qaeda once hid in the mountain redoubts of Afghanistan.

The grim statistics associated with these two strains of extremism have begun to converge.

The numbers of people killed in attacks linked to Islamist radicals or the far right in the United States since 2002 are virtually equivalent — 104 versus 109, respectively, according to data compiled by the think tank New America .

Protecting the public from the most pressing terrorist threat “has been our governing principle for many years now,” said Lisa Monaco, who served as the top counter-terrorism adviser to President Barack Obama. Given the surge in attacks linked to the far right, she said, “we need to prioritize our resources and focus on this threat.”

In some ways, the opposite has occurred under President Trump.

Last year, the administration downgraded the position that Monaco previously held, meaning that the top counter-terrorism adviser in the White House no longer reports directly to the president.

The administration has also curtailed or disbanded a Department of Homeland Security program that had been created to counter violent extremism by working with regional authorities and organizations to identify those vulnerable to radicalization, whether by Islamist groups or the far right.

The main obstacle to mobilizing against the white supremacist threat, officials said, may be political. Trump on Monday denounced the alleged white nationalist sentiments of the suspected killer in El Paso. But his presidency has come to be defined by policies that are aligned with aspects of the white nationalist agenda and his penchant for fanning racial animus.

“This both makes the mobilization more necessary and interferes with that mobilization,” said Dan Byman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University and a former staff member of the 9/11 Commission. Trump’s words and actions, he said, amplify the danger by emboldening those with radical, racist views, while his signals of tolerance toward such groups — including his comments after violence in Charlottesville — undermine his subordinates’ ability to agree upon and organize around the threat.

Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in U.S. politics has also contributed to the far right’s rise, experts said. Since at least 2015, Moscow’s destabilization efforts have included sweeping online operations aimed at sowing racial division in the United States by promoting the positions of white nationalists. 

A social media study by researcher J.M. Berger concluded that far-right networks online are dominated by intersecting themes: “support for U.S. President Donald Trump, support for white nationalism, opposition to immigration (often framed in ­anti-Muslim terms).”

The latter is an area in which the response to 9/11 — with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and multi-billion-dollar investments in border security aimed at blocking entry to radicalized Muslims — may have fostered xenophobic attitudes that contributed to the rise of the far right.

There are indications that U.S. national security agencies are beginning to shift toward the far-right threat. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray recently testified that the bureau had made about 100 domestic terrorism arrests in the past nine months and that “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”

But others said the almost singular reliance on the bureau to disrupt far-right networks — with little or no involvement of other agencies — underscores the extent to which the government has failed to adapt.

Nicholas Rasmussen, who served three years as director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, said that attacks linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State — including the Boston bombings and the night club shooting in Orlando — were invariably followed by “all-hands” meetings at the White House. Among those assembled were often the heads of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Treasury and State departments. 

“But I suspect that didn’t happen this weekend at the White House,” Rasmussen said. “If it had happened in the Obama or Bush White Houses, I’m not sure it would have either. Because as soon as you hear ‘domestic,’ everybody reverts to ‘Well, the FBI has the ball.’ ” He added: “The FBI is hands down the best investigative law enforcement agency in the world, but asking them to take on this problem on their own makes no sense.”

A National Security Council spokesman declined to say whether any Cabinet-level meetings had taken place at the White House in the wake of the latest shootings, citing policy against such disclosures.

Even as the FBI has turned greater attention to domestic threats, federal investigators lack some of the legal tools they have to combat Islamist terrorism.

In cases involving al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, federal prosecutors can turn to a statute that makes it illegal to provide any “material support,” such as money or training, to a designated foreign terrorist group.

There is no comparable statute for domestic groups such as far-right extremists.

Source: Washington Post


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