The True Threat of Terrorism in the United States Is Domestic

A memorial outside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue following a mass shooting that took the lives of 11 congregation members in October 2018 ( Image )

A memorial outside Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue following a mass shooting that took the lives of 11 congregation members in October 2018 (Image)


Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American intelligence community has considered countering international terrorists a top priority. The strategies devised in the aftermath have worked for the most part, since no foreign terrorist group has staged a successful large-scale attack on American soil since 9/11. But international terrorists aren’t the main threat here — it’s the domestic, American terrorists, radicalized by American ideologies and movements, that are currently threatening the public the most. Yet the American government is not giving the problem of domestic terrorism the attention it deserves.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines domestic terrorism as terrorism “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” These movements can be based on a variety of different non-foreign ideologies, like anti-government, anarchism, environmental, white supremacist, and abortion-related beliefs. Under this definition, the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in October of last year, where eleven congregation members were shot and killed by a man motivated by anti-Semitic and white nationalist views, is an example of domestic terrorism. The line between what the government classifies as a “hate crime” and “domestic terrorism” is a bit blurred, but as one FBI representative clarified, hate crimes are directed at intentionally-selected individuals, and perpetrators of hate crimes lack the broader ideological motivations behind terrorists. Despite an overall decrease in terror attacks since the 1970s, there has been a rise in lethal incidents involving right-wing extremists in the past few years. According to the Anti-Defamation League, an international, Jewish NGO fighting anti-Semitism, 78 percent of the 50 domestic, extremist-related deaths in 2018 were committed by white supremacists. Almost all of these deaths were committed by right-wing extremists — only 2 percent were committed by domestic Islamic extremists.

Despite the overwhelming majority of Americans being killed by domestic, white terrorists rather than foreign ones, there is a significant lack of funding, research, and government attention on domestic terrorism. Still, some lawmakers have decisively supported devoting more resources towards preventing domestic terrorist attacks. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) recently introduced the Domestic Terrorism Act of 2019, an updated version of a similar 2017 bill which never made it to the floor of either the House or the Senate. The bill would authorize the creation of domestic terrorism offices in the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI to “analyze and monitor domestic terrorist activity and require the Federal Government to take steps to prevent domestic terrorism.” This bill, introduced to the Senate on March 27, is a starting point. However, it is doubtful that the bill will get far in the Republican-dominated Senate with no Republican co-signers.

It isn’t just Congress that isn’t paying enough attention: the American intelligence community also refuses to acknowledge the threat of domestic terrorists. The 2019 World Wide Threat Assessment, a public document detailing what the U.S. Intelligence Community perceives as the most pressing threats to American national security for that year, only outlines terrorist threats from what the report calls “global jihadists.” There is no mention of domestic terrorists. The closest thing they mention is homegrown violent extremists (Americans radicalized and inspired by a foreign terrorist group) who are not considered domestic terrorists because of their foreign ideologies. ISIS and al-Qaida are certainly still threats to American security, as are HVEs. However, with the rise in domestic terrorist attacks, especially from right-wing groups, U.S. intelligence cannot only focus on radical Islamic terrorists. If they are to keep the country safe, they must turn attention to the overwhelming evidence that terrorism in America has a new face. It is homegrown, with ideologies fostered right here in America, and it now presents a threat to national security far greater than foreign terrorists.