Homeland security and counterterrorism experts told lawmakers Thursday that the threat of domestic terrorism in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is comparable to that posed by foreign terrorists following the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and requires a similar response.
“Our best chance for success is to be straight with the American people — that the threats we now face are arguably as dangerous as they were in the immediate post-9/11 environment, and these threats are not going away,” Chris Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Rodriguez, who previously served as a counterterrorism analyst at the CIA, said that the January attack “was an act of domestic terrorism” which “exposed, in the starkest terms, the threat we face from domestic terrorists generally, but also from right-wing extremism specifically.”
For nearly four hours on Thursday, Rodriguez and other officials provided members of the House Homeland Security Committee with their analysis of the underlying factors that led to the violent siege last month at the Capitol that left five people dead; they also offered suggestions as to what the federal government should do to prevent future acts of violence.
“Sadly, I do believe we will be fighting domestic terrorism that has its roots and inspiration points in Jan. 6 for the next 10 to 20 years,” said Elizabeth Neumann, former Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention in the Department of Homeland Security.
Although Neumann said that this fight will require significant time and resources, she and the other panelists argued that one of the most crucial steps toward curbing radicalization and preventing violence is to stem the flow of disinformation and conspiracy theories from mainstream sources.
“It is really important for those in a position of authority, particularly those who are considered a credible voice, which is often a pastor or a media personality or an elected member of Congress … [to] talk about what truth is and what is not truth,” said Neumann.
“Recruitment is easier for extremist groups than ever before,” she added, suggesting that one way to reduce radicalization of vulnerable people by groups like the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys, is for “credible sources” to “clarify that the election was not stolen.”
“The people who showed up at the national mall, the vast majority were people who were brainwashed to believe the election was stolen,” said Jonathan Greenberg, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Greenberg said the assault on the Capitol was “a watershed moment for the white supremacist movement,” and also evidence that “more and more, ordinary people are being organized and spurred to acts of terror.”
Next week, the Senate will begin its second impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump, who was charged by the House of Representatives last month with “incitement of insurrection” for his role in fomenting the rage that Democrats and 10 Republicans in the House say fueled mobs of his supporters to storm the Capitol. After months of repeatedly claiming, without proof, that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, Trump encouraged his supporters from around the country to descend on Washington on Jan. 6, when members of Congress would be voting to certify the election results and to let their displeasure with lawmakers be known.
What followed was a violent melee carried out by Trump’s supporters, some of whom belonged to white supremacist and far-right militia groups.
“There’s nothing political in pushing back on prejudice,” Greenberg said. “When leaders don’t do that, it creates the space the extremists can exploit and move from the margins into the mainstream.”
“It isn’t just about the president of the United States,” he continued. “It could be president of the local PTA, but people in positions of authority need to clearly and consistently call out disinformation, extremism and hate.”
Part of the ADL’s proposal to fight domestic terrorism includes preventing “elected officials who have endorsed, given credence to, or intentionally promoted QAnon or other dangerous conspiracy theories” from holding positions of authority.
“If you believe that our democracy is being taken over by pedophiles, if you subscribe to these crazy theories about Jewish space lasers, you don’t belong at the table. Period, end of story,” Greenblatt said in an apparent reference to newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who the House voted Thursday to remove from her committee assignments over her embrace of various of conspiracy theories — from QAnon-inspired claims of a “deep state” to 9/11 trutherism — and her violent rhetoric toward Democrats.
Greenberg and the other panelists expressed support for legislation that would hold social media platforms accountable for their role in spreading disinformation and extremist ideologies into the mainstream. But while Greenberg, Neumann and Rodriguez all called for the passage of a domestic terrorist statute, Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, cautioned against such action.
Although Jenkins said he believes “shutting down domestic extremists may prove far more difficult” than combating homegrown jihadists, he insisted that “we have adequate criminal statutes to deal with this as a criminal problem.”
“I’m very wary of additional legislation or additional criminal statutes” that will require the designation of domestic terrorist groups,” he said, suggesting that the inevitable debate over such designations “could distract us from [the] problem and end badly.”
“In our zeal to go after that violent component, we have to not accidentally brand as enemies of the state a broader section of our population,” said Jenkins, pointing to a recent analysis by researchers at the University of Chicago who found that 89 percent of the people arrested for participating in the Capitol riot had no connection with known far-right militias, white nationalist groups or other violent extremist organizations.
“Part of the counterterrorism strategy has to be that we will isolate the violent extremists from the full constituency,” Jenkins said. “Within that broader community there are people who feel marginalized, who have lost faith in our political systems.”
All of the panelists urged Congress to form a bipartisan commission like the one established in the aftermath of 9/11 to study the circumstances that led to the Jan. 6 attack and to chart a strategy to combat domestic extremism in the months and years ahead.
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