The Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could do more to address threats from homegrown terrorism.
The OIG comments come as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray says travel and technology have blurred the lines between foreign and domestic threats, and the rise of lone actors means that there is little information about the planned attacks. More and more attacks, he told a joint meeting with MI5 in London last week, are being carried out with little planning or training.
In September, Wray said domestic terrorism cases being investigated by the FBI had more than doubled to about 2,700 investigations.
“We fight lonely domestic violent extremists radicalized by personalized grievances ranging from racial and ethnic prejudice to anti-government, anti-authority sentiment, to conspiracy theories,” the FBI Director said.
The DHS and the FBI work together to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States. DHS is responsible for providing intelligence and information to federal, state, local, and tribal governments, as well as the private sector. The FBI is responsible for leading law enforcement and national intelligence efforts to defeat terrorist attacks. They both also work together and with state and local law enforcement partners on issues related to domestic terrorism, including information sharing and training.
Last month, DHS warned that domestic extremists online were calling for an attack on the school in Uvalde, Texas, which has also become a center for misinformation and conspiracy theories. In his Bulletin of the National Advisory System on TerrorismDHS said “people in online forums that routinely promulgate domestic violent extremism and conspiratorial content praised the May 2022 elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and encouraged copycat attacks “.
The bulletin, which was released June 7 and expires November 30, follows several recent violent attacks by lone offenders on minority communities, schools, places of worship and public transportation. He also uses the example of the attack on a grocery store in Buffalo, New York in May 2022, in which the suspect claimed he was motivated by racist, anti-black and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Also in May, an attack in Laguna Woods, California targeted worshipers at a church that serves the Taiwanese community.
The OIG report comes at a good time, although given the prevalence of such attacks already this year and the increase in chatter from individuals and groups online, the findings are concerning. Following its audit, the DHS watchdog found that the Department has taken steps to help the United States fight terrorism, but those efforts have not always been consistent with domestic terrorism.
The DHS Lexicon defines domestic terrorism as “any act of unlawful violence dangerous to human life or potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources committed by a group or person based and operating wholly in the United States or its territories, without direction or inspiration”. of a foreign terrorist group. This act is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States, or any state or other subdivision of the United States, and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce any civilian population, to influence government policy by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of the government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping”.
A DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) memo published in March 2021 noted that the terms “domestic terrorism” and “domestic violent extremism” are interchangeable.
In 2019, DHS established a strategic framework with counterterrorism goals and an implementation plan with actions designed to achieve those goals. However, DHS data showed that more than 70% of the implementation plan’s milestone actions were not completed as planned. The OIG said these failures occurred because DHS failed to establish a governance body with staff dedicated to the long-term oversight and coordination of its efforts to combat domestic terrorism.
The data of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows that white supremacists and other like-minded attackers have used more deadly weapons, such as guns. Anarchists, anti-fascists and other like-minded attackers mostly used less lethal methods, including melee attacks.
CSIS adds that of the 38 terrorist attacks and plots by white supremacists and other like-minded people in 2021, 16 used firearms, 9 involved explosives and arsonists, 4 were melee attacks using weapons such as knives or blunt weapons, and 2 were power car attacks.
Of the 31 anarchist, anti-fascist and like-minded terrorist attacks and plots in 2021, 19 were melee attacks using weapons such as knives or blunt objects, 3 primarily used explosives or incendiaries, 2 used firearms and 1 was a car attack.
Growing domestic terrorism concerns, intelligence, and possible attacks—such as the March 2021 shootings at three Metro Atlanta spas—spurred the White House to create the National Domestic Terrorism Strategy, which it released in June 2021. The strategy outlines four “strategic pillars” to guide the U.S. government’s response to the threat posed by domestic terrorism: understanding and sharing information related to domestic terrorism, preventing the recruitment and mobilization of domestic terrorism to violence, disrupting and deterring domestic terrorist activity and addressing long-term contributors to domestic terrorism.
While this strategy is a year old, the OIG noted some improvements, but says DHS needs to improve how it identifies domestic terrorism threats, tracks trends for future risk-based planning, and notifies partners and the public about domestic terrorism.
I&A has developed a tool to track domestic terrorist attacks and disrupted conspiracies since January 2010, but the OIG discovered that it had not used the information to develop aggregate statistics on domestic terrorism that DHS partners and I&A could use to make informed decisions. In January 2022, I&A completed its latest quarterly Domestic Terrorism Incident Tracking Update adding additional requirements, such as the weapons and tactics used and the ideology motivating the attack or plot, which improved the process. According to an I&A official, the first time I&A used the spreadsheet to develop DHS statistics on domestic terrorism incidents and brief federal, state, and local partners was in March 2022.
The OIG found that the Department had limited access to the sources of information it needed to identify domestic terrorism threats.
I&A officials told the OIG that they cannot access certain types of information that are not publicly available, such as private social media groups and encrypted messaging apps, and that a decree (12333) of 1981 and revised in 2008 limits their ability to collect this information. OIG’s review of nine homegrown terrorism intelligence products completed by I&A from July 1, 2020 to August 3, 2021 showed that six of the products contained information that its partners could easily find on their own. The executive order limits I&A to collecting information openly or through publicly available sources. In addition, the Privacy Act of 1974 limits DHS’s ability to independently collect, maintain, use, or distribute First Amendment-protected records. An I&A official told the OIG that the I&A could better understand information that is not publicly available, such as FBI records, state and local information on arrests and charges, and social media platforms.
The OIG also determined that DHS may not always issue its public notices in a timely manner to help stakeholders take steps to protect against threats and help detect or prevent an attack. For example, the bulletin issued on January 27, 2021 warned of an increased threat environment in the United States following the presidential inauguration. DHS issued this bulletin weeks after the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.
Given the current concern over domestic terrorism and the country’s continued vulnerability to acts of violence and destruction of critical infrastructure, the OIG made six recommendations to DHS:
- Conduct a needs assessment to identify the staffing and budget required to oversee the mission across the Department of Homeland Terrorism.
- Use the results of the needs assessment to establish a long-term governing body to oversee and coordinate the Department’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism by creating: a charter with operational rules and roles and responsibilities for long-term action term ; a formalized documented process to monitor and track the completion of action items; and a formalized and documented feedback process to review, update, and measure the impact of priority actions taken in response to changes in the domestic terrorist threat environment.
- Work with the Attorney General and appropriate congressional committees to ensure each department collects and shares direct access to domestic terrorism information.
- Partner with agencies or components of DHS to gain access to appropriate information that can inform the development of national statistics on terrorism and targeted violence.
- Use information collected in tracking domestic terrorism incidents to create national statistics on domestic terrorism; and share statistics with other DHS components.
- Use the results of the needs assessment to ensure a dedicated level of staff support and resources to carry out the functions of the national counter-terrorism advisory system.
DHS has agreed with each recommendation and aims to complete work to address them by June 30, 2023, with some actions to be completed by the end of 2022.
Read the full report on OIG