Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos
Quietly and with little fanfare, the Biden administration has been taking all the right steps early in its tenure in confronting the threat of right-wing extremist violence and its spread—a mandate handed to Biden by the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Rather than take a high-profile approach that might backfire, Biden's Justice Department and FBI, and to a lesser extent the Department of Homeland Security, have wisely taken a low-key route that emphasizes competence and effectiveness, as a New York Times piece explored last weekend.
But make no mistake, the Biden administration is taking the problem seriously. Indictments from the insurrection now number more than 300, prosecutors are establishing evidence of a clear chain of conspiracy leading to the attack focusing on Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, and arrests for criminal behavior by far-right extremists unrelated to the attack are occurring as well. It's a welcome change from the malign neglect of the matter by Donald Trump and his administration.
As we have argued consistently since the insurrection, an effective approach to right-wing domestic terrorism necessarily will eschew the trappings of the post-9/11 "war on terror"—that is, instead of creating new laws and giving law enforcement unneeded new powers, the phenomenon can most effectively be attacked by smartly deploying law enforcement to enforce the many laws already on the books.
According to Shaun Courtney at Bloomberg, that is in fact how the Biden administration has tackled the issue so far. It also appears to be the thinking of key lawmakers in Congress.
"There's no shortage of laws on the books to deal with violent extremist groups and the actions that they take. My sense is right now it's primarily resource allocation and prioritization," said Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"The whole idea of having more robust oversight of the Department of Homeland Security and their intelligence operations, I think is a critical first step," Peters said.
Claiming that law enforcement lacks the legal authority necessary to counter domestic terrorism "gives cover to the idea that somehow, 'Oh if you only had the tools, we would have actually been targeting this threat,' " Becky Monroe, a policy director in the Justice Department's civil rights division under President Barack Obama, told Courtney.
The Times story noted that several concrete steps have already taken place. DHS has opened up a review of how it handles domestic extremism—needed, in no small part, because of the department's well-documented evisceration of its intelligence-gathering capacity for domestic right-wing terrorism. For the first time in its history, DHS has designated domestic extremism as a "national priority area," which requires that 7.5 percent of the billions in grant funds be devoted to combating it.
Biden also has bolstered a National Security Council team devoted to domestic extremism, one that had been depleted under Trump. Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, has said the Justice Department would also make domestic extremism a priority.
A mid-March intelligence assessment commissioned by Biden concluded that far-right extremists—particularly those animated by racial and ethnic grievances—pose the most lethal domestic-terrorism threat to Americans for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, militia-like organizations pose an ongoing threat primarily to government and law-enforcement personnel.
The report noted that the militia-extremist-group threat increased last year and is expected to continue to heighten throughout 2021. That's due to "sociopolitical factors" motivating such groups, "such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence."
Former DHS counterterrorism chief Elizabeth Neumann told NPR's Terry Gross that such groups "basically declared war on the government and stated that their aim was to overthrow the U.S. government, to establish a white nation."
This, she said, is why the Capitol insurrection has actually had the effect of inflaming and encouraging longtime far-right radicals, many of whom had grown discouraged over the years at the prospect of effectively attacking the American government to overthrow it successfully. All of them have, after all, long clung to the fantasy of having a "race war" or "civil war" to overthrow the government. January 6 had the look of their fantasy becoming reality.
As Neumann explained:
So it's not like they destroyed the Capitol. It's not like they disrupted the transition of power. But it was seen as kind of almost the starting point, perhaps, of the civil war that they have believed in their mythology was going to come at some point, a race war. And so you see on online chat rooms that you have groups using this as a recruitment tactic, that it's finally happening, if—you know, there's going to be this race war, that we're finally going to be able to achieve our aim of ridding the country of all of these people we don't think should be here, establishing our own country. And any time you have, for an extremist group or a terrorist group, something that symbolic, it affects and helps them with their recruitment, with their morale. So these—certainly, on the white supremacist side, we see an emboldening effect for those groups.
More than emboldening extremists, the post-January 6 environment has become ripe for shifting boundaries among them and the formations of new alliances and configurations. The resulting reconfiguration will affect the nature of the far-right insurgency that declared war on American democracy on January 6.
"There is a concern then on the other side of January 6, you have groups interconnected in a way that they weren't before," Neumann told Gross. "We heard in the news on Wednesday that prosecutors have found interconnections between Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and Three Percenters. I think we're going to see more of this to come as the investigation unfurls. But the knowledge that they had been coordinating in the weeks up to January 6 is rather significant. These are not groups that necessarily share the same ideology."