Editor’s Note: Jon Lewis is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, where he studies domestic violent extremism. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
On Tuesday, US District Judge Timothy Kelly sentenced Proud Boys former chairman Enrique Tarrio to 22 years in prison, after last week handing down terms of 17 years, 15 years and 18 years, respectively, to Proud Boys leaders Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Ethan Nordean.
The convictions of four of the group’s senior members on seditious conspiracy charges are a victory for democracy and the rule of law. These sentences, some of the longest in the cases against those behind the Capitol breach, hold accountable the leaders of a neo-fascist street gang that served as the tip of the spear on the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
However, as we creep closer to another presidential election, it is difficult to argue that the domestic terrorism threat is any less significant — or that the federal government is any better positioned to respond to it — than it was on January 5, 2021.
The massive intelligence failures that led to the attack on the Capitol are a worrying microcosm of a long-stagnant government response to an increasingly decentralized, online and mainstreamed domestic terrorism threat. The inability to recognize the warning signs of an insurrection planned in plain sight should have led to a sea change in the federal approach to countering domestic terrorism.
Yet beyond the Justice Department and FBI’s disruption and prosecution of groups like the Proud Boys, the government’s response has been largely anemic. Post-January 6 Senate reports, House investigations and Government Accountability Office reviews laid bare how fundamentally ill-suited the current domestic counterterrorism apparatus is to effectively understand and respond to right-wing extremism.
Furthermore, the executive branch’s failure to provide legally required domestic terrorism data and the nebulous and ineffective approach to the collection of information on extremist groups from publicly available sources show how many of the most basic steps aren’t being taken.
The efforts of the House January 6 committee, for example, provided a useful summary of the attack through its public hearings and final report. However, the 814-page document devoted less than three pages to making recommendations, and in those, perplexingly failed to offer a meaningful set related to domestic terrorism.
Instead, it provided a lone paragraph on the topic, issuing a vague call to “move forward with a whole-of-government strategy to combat the threat of violent activity posed by all extremist groups.” Once the committee’s work was concluded, the collective shrug that followed made clear that there was no desire from Congress to impose any meaningful measures to prevent another violent assault on their place of employment.
This response is hardly sufficient. There is little question that right-wing extremism, particularly white supremacist extremism, is currently the deadliest and most pervasive domestic terrorism threat facing the United States. Data produced by the Anti-Defamation League paints a clear and damning picture of the realities of the threat: From 2013 to 2022, right-wing extremists committed 75% of the extremist-related murders in the United States, compared to 20% for Islamist extremists and 4% for left-wing extremists. Nearly 1 in 4 of these right-wing extremist killings were committed in the name of white supremacist terrorism – a staggering 251 total deaths.
In this period of resurgence, white supremacists and anti-government actors have embraced a decentralized model driven by narratives, not group membership – limiting the effectiveness of individual prosecutions. White supremacist subcultures and communities online serve as incubators of hate and have motivated some of the deadliest domestic terror attacks in recent history, from Poway and El Paso to Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
From a spike in threats against public officials to an embrace of anti-LGBTQ hostility, right-wing political violence has increasingly been adopted by individuals unaffiliated with organized groups and instead inspired by hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric.
The federal government, however, long clung to antiquated War on Terror-era threat assessments and counterterrorism frameworks saying that terrorism was only conducted by the foreign “other,” creating a system in which terrorism was something intrinsically un-American, driven by “their” hatred of us and of our Americanness.
Plagued by the same thinking that sought to frame domestic supporters of jihadist ideologies as “homegrown violent extremists,” government agencies continue to retreat behind convoluted, ideologically neutral definitions to avoid calling out white supremacism for what it really is.
In re-imagining “White supremacist terrorism” as “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism,” the domestic intelligence apparatus has divorced the root causes of the threat – namely the narratives and grievances that drive offline violence and function as mobilizing concepts for coalitions of white supremacists – from the violent end product.
These contortions to avoid reckoning with the uncomfortable realities of the domestic terrorism problem have contributed to paralysis across the federal government. The Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism issued in June 2021 is effectively toothless, replete with platitudes such as “addressing the role of the Internet in influencing individuals to commit acts of domestic terrorism” and “prioritizing domestic terrorism-related investigations.”
The tone of the strategy itself exhibits a continued failure to engage with the realities of domestic terrorism, instead regurgitating years-old boilerplate policy recommendations and issuing self-congratulatory updates for belatedly implementing minimal changes to existing processes.
Even the small steps the administration has attempted have been abandoned at the first sign of resistance. Limited, narrow amendments aimed at countering endemic right-wing extremist infiltration in the military were expunged from the most recent National Defense Authorization Act. Meanwhile, a Department of Homeland Security Disinformation Governance Board launched in 2022 to address disinformation as a growing driver of violent extremism was shut down in the face of a right-wing pressure campaign.
These shortcomings demonstrate a lack of political will by the executive branch to make hard choices and expend political capital to combat domestic terrorism. It is increasingly evident that a far more expansive investigation by an impartial blue-ribbon commission is required. Such a commission must undertake a root-and-stem reassessment of the entirety of the domestic counterterrorism apparatus.
We stand at a crossroads in the fight against domestic terrorism. The wave of violence in recent years has left no doubt of what the future holds if indecision and passive approaches to this threat continue. To avoid another violent insurrection in January 2024, it is essential to move beyond antiquated, War on Terror-era approaches and acknowledge the new realities of the domestic terrorism threat.