Pierre Atlas: Post 9/11, the main terrorist threat is domestic

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I was teaching Politics of the Middle East at Butler University when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place. At my next class, on Sept. 12, we were all in a daze. I told the students to read the articles I had assigned for the end of the semester about Osama bin Laden. This would give them some sense of who had just attacked us.

Following that day’s class, I drove to the former Hudson Institute to participate in a press conference with local academics and security experts. I remember a reporter asking if we anticipated additional attacks. All of us said, “Yes.” With Ground Zero smoldering, it seemed highly plausible, even likely, that bin Laden had more terrorism in store for the United States.

We later learned that Al-Qaeda had expended most of its resources on the 9/11 plot. Meanwhile, the United States went on the offensive in Afghanistan, reshuffled federal agencies into the new Department of Homeland Security, and upped its game on counterterrorism at home and abroad. The U.S. has not experienced a major jihadist terrorist attack on its soil since 9/11. Although weakened, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (which came into existence after our invasion of Iraq) remain active, but their threats are mainly directed elsewhere.

Two decades after 9/11, the primary terrorist threat to the homeland comes not from radical Islamists but from domestic violent extremists (DVEs), most of whom are on the far right. The data and expert analysis bear this out:

◗ The Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 2020: “Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years.”

◗ President Trump’s FBI director, Christopher Wray, September 2020: “More deaths were caused by DVEs than international terrorists in recent years. In fact, 2019 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.”

◗ Trump’s acting secretary of homeland security, Chad Wolf, October 2020: “I am concerned about any form of violent extremism. … However, I am particularly concerned about white supremacist violent extremists who have been exceptionally lethal in their abhorrent, targeted attacks in recent years.”

Domestic terrorism has only increased since the 2020 elections, as indicated by the Jan. 6 Proud Boys and Oath Keepers convictions, the racially motivated mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Jacksonville, Florida, and recent reports:

◗ The Government Accountability Office (The Rising Threat of Domestic Terrorism in the US and Federal Efforts to Combat It, March 2023): “The number of FBI domestic terrorism investigations has more than doubled since 2020.”

◗ The Anti-Defamation League (Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2022, published in February 2023): “Every year, extremists in the U.S. are involved in terrorist plots and acts, armed standoffs, shootouts with police, [and] hate crimes. … White supremacists commit the greatest number of domestic extremist-related murders in most years, but in 2022 the percentage was unusually high: 21 of the 25 murders were linked to white supremacists.”

Unlike with international terrorism, there is no federal statute against domestic terrorism.

Thus, while the maximum penalty for providing material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization is 20 years in prison, there is no penalty for providing material assistance to America’s oldest domestic terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan.

The primary terrorist threats we face today are not the same ones we faced 22 years ago. We need to recognize this new reality and join together to combat it.•

__________

Atlas, a political scientist, is a senior lecturer at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI, where he teaches a class on Terrorism and Public Policy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Indiana University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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One thought on “Pierre Atlas: Post 9/11, the main terrorist threat is domestic

  1. Once again, this columnist carries water for the national security state. Here he advances their argument that the unlimited surveillance regime unleashed in the wake of 9-11 should now be directed inward, toward our own population. I can’t think of a more evil position to take. Does the IBJ ever run columns by thinkers who instead are in favor of liberty?

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