The Department of Homeland Security has for the first time begun to take seriously the terrorism threat posed by white supremacists, but Jewish leaders and politicians are imploring the department to channel more resources to fighting the problem, citing the Trump administration’s decision not to renew funding for programs to fight domestic terror.
DHS’ acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, said late last month that the spate of recent mass shooting have “galvanized [the department] to expand its counterterrorism focus beyond terrorists operating abroad.”
But just how the Department of Homeland Security plans to tackle the problem is unclear. Agency officials have been quoted as saying they expect to release an implementation report in the near future.
“I’m glad to see that the Department of Homeland Security is finally starting to take the threat of white supremacist terrorism seriously but it’s long overdue,” said Rep. Max Rose (D-S.I.). “I won’t stop fighting because lives are on the line. I will continue to work to ensure that DHS devotes more resources to fighting white supremacist terrorism before it claims more lives at synagogues and other houses of worship.”
He was referring to the white supremacist mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh last Oct. 27 and Poway, Calif., six months later that claimed 12 lives. The Pittsburgh shooter even cited HIAS’ work at the southern border aiding asylum seekers as motivation for his attack. A white supremacist is also said to be responsible for the murder last March of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. And a white nationalist has been indicted for the deadly shooting in August that killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
The pace of white nationalist terror attacks is also rapidly increasing. In the four weeks after the El Paso shooting that killed 22 people, 40 individuals were arrested for plotting mass shootings, a dozen of which were definitively linked to white supremacist ideology. Even before El Paso, domestic terrorism incidents were outpacing numbers from previous years. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in July 2019 that his agency had made about 100 arrests related to domestic terrorism in the first three-quarters of the 2019 fiscal year, noting that a majority of those arrests were related to white supremacy.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, Calif., spoke of the problem in his Rosh HaShanah sermon and in an article for The J, The Jewish News of Northern California.
Jewish leaders and civil rights groups have complained that the Trump administration has devoted its domestic anti-terrorism resources to fighting Islamist extremism, while devoting too little attention to white supremacist hate.
In recent Congressional testimony, FBI officials noted that 80 percent of their counterterrorism field agents focus on international terrorism cases and 20 percent focus on domestic terrorism. The imbalance in resources is consequential. While the FBI was able to stop 70 percent of terrorist activities from Islamist groups or individuals in 2018, over 71 percent of white supremacist extremists have been able to carry out their plans for violent attacks during the same period.
“There has been an ugly, insidious and demonstrable rise in white nationalism here and around the world, with its associated and inevitable rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — from the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh last October to the massacre in a New Zealand mosque in March and the shooting in a Chabad shul in Poway in April,” he wrote.
Rabbi Goldstein told The Jewish Week that there “has been a bit of a disconnect between [DHS] acknowledging the problem and doing something to address it in a serious way.”
He said one of the things his 210-household congregation has done to protect itself was to have local police come in with an active shooter presentation.
“It was to help us know what to do in the event someone gets into our shul and starts shooting,” Rabbi Goldstein explained. “You need to prepare for worst case scenarios …. We are a soft target.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s senior vice president of programs, George Selim, told The Jewish Week in a statement that DHS’ decision to address the threat of white supremacist terrorism is an “encouraging development.” But he said it “needs to be followed up with a robust, comprehensive executive branch plan of action that devotes federal resources and an overarching federal strategy to address this threat from multiple angles.
“There is also an important role for Congress, including the passage of the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would require federal law enforcement agencies to regularly assess threats. We can only fight this threat of violent hatred by devoting comprehensive federal resources to address the problem head on.”
Although President Donald Trump has vowed to provide federal law enforcement “whatever they need” to grapple with the terrorist threat at home, resources for dealing with the threat appear to be declining. According to the Congressional testimony of Brette Steele, a former DHS regional director, two years ago the department’s office handling domestic terrorism “managed $10 million in grant funding, 16 full-time employees, 25 contractors, and a total budget of approximately $21 million.” But today, she said, “there are no contractors and no way to support existing programs beyond a team of eight dedicated, full-time employees and an operating budget of $2.6 million.”
The ADL issued a report last month, “Hate Beyond Borders: The Internationalization of White Supremacy,” that spelled out how white supremacists worldwide are meeting each other online and at conferences. It noted that several of those arrested for carrying out terrorist attacks have said they were inspired by other white supremacists here and in other countries.
“We are witnessing the internationalization of the white supremacist movement,” it said. “Exposing and understanding the connections among white supremacists and the paths by which they spread their hate are the first steps toward countering them. … Continued vigilance and urgent action are necessary. Political leaders, law enforcement, social media companies, and educators have important roles to play and responsibilities to uphold.”
Sharon Nazarian, the ADL’s senior vice president for International Affairs, offered a prescription on how to address the problem when she testified Sept. 18 before a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the House Committee on Homeland Security. Among other things she proposed:
♦ The president and members of his administration and Congress must “call out bigotry at every opportunity”;
♦ The administration must ensure that the FBI and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division enforce relevant federal laws and vigorously investigate and prosecute hate crimes;
♦ Require every social media and online game platform to bar hateful content and harassing behavior, and allow regularly scheduled external, independent audits to allow the public to assess a company’s efforts;
♦ The Department of Justice should incentivize and encourage state and local law enforcement agencies to more comprehensively collect and report hate crimes data to the FBI. Grants should be created to establish state hate crime reporting hotlines to direct individuals to local law enforcement and support services;
♦ Congress should enact legislation that would provide training and resources to assist non-federal law enforcement in addressing these threats. It should also enact legislation to bar those convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime from obtaining a firearm. And it should create a way to prosecute a white supremacist terrorist as a terrorist, making it less likely they would be charged with lesser crimes and subsequently receive lesser sentences.
One bill awaiting Congressional action would require the government to produce an annual public report detailing domestic and international terrorist incidents and what actions authorities are taking to address them. Its sponsor, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said it would require DHS to research how domestic terrorists are linked with transnational terrorist movements, including white supremacist movements.
“It is imperative that we have counterterrorism policies and strategies that address the totality of terrorist threats, from those motivated by Jihadism to those motivated by white nationalism and other ideologies,” he told last month’s hearing.
During that same hearing, Rose, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, said the ADL has “uncovered that white nationalist terrorists have killed more people in recent years than any other type of domestic extremist.” And he said that “78 percent of extremist-related murders in the U.S. last year were attributed to a white nationalist ideology.” He also cited another study that found that since 2011, “approximately one-third of white extremist killers were inspired by similar attacks.”
The ADL found also that there had been a 182 percent increase in white supremacist propaganda incidents from 2017 to 2018. And the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that attacks by far-right assailants more than quadrupled between 2016 and 2017.