June 29, 2021

IntelBrief: The Role of Local Police in the New U.S Strategy on Countering Domestic Terrorism

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Biden administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism lays out a multi-tiered approach to a difficult challenge and growing threat.
  • The White House strategy rests, in part, on increased federal-local cooperation, which remains difficult to achieve in practice. 
  • The Strategy presumes local police departments have more insight into local permutations of violent extremism; federal agencies should have the capabilities to counter it.
  • However, differing priorities and capabilities between local police departments will remain a significant challenge for federal agencies as they attempt to counter domestic terrorism.

The United States has long been plagued by domestic terrorism, primarily in the form of violent white supremacy and anti-government violent extremism, as recognized by the recent report of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. With no domestic laws in the United States designating organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as domestic terrorists, the lion’s share of counterterrorism efforts has been focused on designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). For the past two decades, counterterrorism resources have been allocated almost exclusively to deal with groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State, as well as their various regional affiliates, offshoots, and supporters. Within the U.S., this threat had been characterized by homegrown violent extremists, whose violence has been motivated by Salafi-jihadism ideology, and in several cases, had been instigated by direct communication with the centralized leadership of international terrorist groups. The proliferation of violent racist extremism and armed anti-government threats and violence within the U.S., which to an extent has been downplayed by high-ranking political figures reluctant to acknowledge or challenge the rhetoric close to home base, has only recently managed to shift the focus onto this long-standing domestic threat. This is in large part due to the growing numbers of attacks that culminated in the violent insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. As a priority, countering domestic terrorism is finally getting the attention and resources it deserves.

As part of that shift in focus, the White House released its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the first strategy of its kind to prioritize America’s “homegrown” terrorism. In this strategy, the Biden administration focuses on “the two most lethal elements of today’s domestic terrorism threat: racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists who advocate for the superiority of the white race; and anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, such as militia violent extremists.” The strategy will need to address two major challenges from the onset if it is to have a meaningful positive impact on the domestic terrorist threat.

The first challenge, as with all government strategies focused on violent extremism, is how to safeguard civil rights while simultaneously protecting civil safety. In far too many cases, the U.S. government has failed to strike the proper balance. It is no easy task to protect free speech, including hate speech, right up to the moment that such speech becomes a legally provable imminent threat, but it remains a paramount duty. This issue has and will continue to receive enormous attention and requires a commitment to ensuring complete transparency. There are potential lessons to be learned from other democratic states that have sought to develop robust counterterrorism measures with careful oversight, inputs, and considerations from human rights actors and civil society groups that are in line with international human rights obligations.

Far less attention will be paid to the critical challenge of how to implement a comprehensive strategy for a national problem that requires countless tailored local approaches. After all, local tactics and partnerships will be the ultimate determinant of whether this counterterrorism strategy succeeds or fails. The Biden administration’s strategy has four pillars, all of which require sustained cooperation between the federal government and state, local, and territorial police departments. The first pillar centers on information sharing, a perennial challenge for all parties involved. Larger police departments are used to working with federal law enforcement agencies on a permanent basis, but most police departments in the U.S. are small in size, and less familiar with such inter-agency procedures. All departments will welcome federal dollars, but what they do on a daily basis with those funding streams will vary widely. The strategy rests on the presumption that local police departments should have much more granular and accurate information regarding the scope and scale of domestic terrorism in their areas. Moreover, there is an expectation that additional capabilities and resources provided to local police departments from the federal government will result in meaningful change. Again, this is no fait accompli, and progress (or lack thereof) could be difficult to measure.

Further compounding this challenge is the reality that there exists within American policing the same domestic threat that this new national strategy seeks to address: armed white supremacists misusing patriotic trappings, and groups such as the Three Percenters or the Oath Keepers. Discussing this issue openly and honestly remains arduous. Making matters more difficult, local police departments are always struggling with staffing issues to manage the staggering level of 911 emergency calls for services (most of which are not crime-related, but that still require a police response). Some departments will argue that the strategy is simply adding another priority to an overloaded list. However, it can be argued that the more positive progress is made on the non-law enforcement side of the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, the less need there will be for law enforcement action. Until such progress is made, a significant need for local law enforcement involvement remains; many of the threat groups and actors are well-armed and present a real security threat. Moreover, building strong relationships with communities based on trust will be a critical component in ensuring that local law enforcement is well positioned to work closely with communities, local business, and federal partners. There is nothing easy or simple about countering this domestic threat; the task is as complicated as it is urgent.