Privacy SOS

Are you a “domestic terror threat”?

“Americans attacking Americans based on U.S.-based extremist ideologies.”

That's the Department of Justice's shorthand definition of "domestic terrorism," says a new Congressional Research Service report.

While the FBI and DOJ do not possess lists of official "domestic terrorist" organizations, as the government does with foreign designated terrorist organizations, Justice does define a number of particular "threats."

Do they sound familiar?

[Threats] include individuals who commit crimes in the name of ideologies supporting animal rights, environmental rights, anarchism, white supremacy, anti-government ideals, black separatism, and anti-abortion beliefs.  
There will be more on this report and the issues it raises, but for now I'll just note a couple of things that jump out, the first of which is a great question that points to the ambiguity and fluidity of the "Terrorist" label:
 
Which ideologically motivated killers are terrorists, and which aren't?
The grey area between domestic terrorism and hate crime hints that in some instances, suspects with links to domestic terrorist movements or ideologies supporting domestic terrorism may be charged with hate crimes. It is unclear to what extent this influences how the government understands the threat posed by extremist movements that hold racist beliefs. If some individuals of this ilk commit crimes against police or judges, for example, is the government more apt to label this activity as terrorism while individuals sharing these same racist motivations but targeting ordinary citizens based on race, religion, disability, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation are charged with hate crimes?  
 
The FBI’s public description of the case of confessed would-be bomber Kevin Harpham exemplifies how difficult it may be to characterize acts as domestic terrorism. Initially the FBI viewed the case as domestic terrorism. In 2011, Harpham, allegedly motivated by white supremacist ideology, left a bomb—which never detonated—along the route of a parade in Spokane, WA, honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The FBI’s Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force led the investigation. In prepared public remarks framing the “current state of the terrorism threat” from April 2011, the FBI’s Assistant Director for the Counterterrorism Division noted that Harpham’s case was one of “several recent domestic terrorism incidents [that] demonstrate the scope of the threat.” Harpham eventually pled guilty to committing a federal  hate crime and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. Thereafter, the Bureau described the case as the successful prevention of a “horrific hate crime.

Second, the report describes Joint Terrorism Task Force cooperation (p. 4):
Aside from the FBI, other federal agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) play a role in enforcement efforts to counter domestic terrorism. These agencies—as well as state and local law enforcement representatives—typically cooperate within the framework of Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), multi-agency investigative units led by DOJ and the FBI across the country.
 
JTTFs are teams of police officers, federal agents, analysts, linguists, SWAT experts, and other specialists who investigate terrorism and terrorism-related crimes. Seventy-one of the more than 100 JTTFs currently operated by DOJ and the FBI were created since 9/11. Over 4,400 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers and agents—more than four times the pre-9/11 total—work in them. These officers and agents come from more than 600 state and local agencies and 50 federal agencies.
  
The FBI considers JTTFs “the nation’s front line on terrorism.” They “investigate acts of terrorism that affect the U.S., its interests, property and citizens, including those employed by the U.S. and military personnel overseas.” As this suggests, their operations are highly tactical and can involve developing human sources (informants) as well as gathering intelligence to thwart terrorist plots.
 
JTTFs also offer an important conduit for the sharing of intelligence developed from FBI-led counterterrorism investigations with outside agencies and state and local law enforcement.
 
Additionally, there is a National JTTF, which was established in July 2002 to serve as a coordinating mechanism with the FBI’s partners. Some 40 agencies are now represented in the National JTTF, which has become a focal point for information sharing and the management of large-scale projects that involve multiple partners.
Read about law enforcement characterization of dissent as terrorism.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.