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Countering Domestic Terrorism Draws Support from Lawmakers

August 3, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
SUVs outside the Senate side of the Capitol on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Congress is trying to figure out how to confront the evolving threat of domestic terrorism that increasingly uses the internet to recruit sympathizers.

The government doesn’t want to squelch free speech but it does want to halt disinformation that fuels hate crimes, according to lawmakers and witnesses at a Senate hearing Tuesday.

They mentioned as examples the violence against Asian Americans since the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks on churches and synagogues and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol building.

“We need to get serious about taking on these heinous threats and the violence associated with them,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Numerous federal laws can be used to prosecute hate crimes but preventing them is a separate challenge, Peters said.

“The federal government has failed to track rising domestic terrorism threats,” he said.

The motives behind the hearing were consistent with the Biden administration’s policy reversal on domestic terrorism.

President Donald Trump refused to address the issue. President Joe Biden is trying a proactive approach.

Shortly after taking office in January, Biden ordered the National Security Council to develop a strategy for managing domestic terrorism threats. The team’s report released in June called White supremacists and other ethnically-motivated extremists “the most persistent and lethal threats” facing the United States.

The Homeland Security Department, with support of Congress, organized its Center for Prevention Programs and Partnership in May to centralize efforts of its agencies against domestic terrorism. Much of its $77 billion in grant funding is being used by the FBI to identify potential threats, such as through closer monitoring of social media.

Some witnesses at the Senate hearing made suggestions on how the federal government should deal with the threats.

Paul Goldenberg, president of Cardinal Point Strategies, a public policy consulting firm, warned against a rising tide of targeted, violent attacks against vulnerable communities traditionally disliked by hate groups.

“What was once unthinkable has become almost anticipated,” Goldenberg said.

Domestic terrorists are adopting recruiting and organizing strategies similar to international terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, much of it focusing on use of social media, he said.

“They know this is our Achilles heel,” Goldenberg said.

The COVID-19 pandemic that compelled more people to remain at home and surf the internet has made the groups’ disinformation and recruiting campaigns more effective, he said.

Last month, a group of senators introduced a bill intended to protect religious groups that sometimes suffer the wrath of hate groups.

The Pray Safe Act would establish a federal clearinghouse to offer religious groups information on safety and security, access to grants and training opportunities. 

An example of why the legislation is needed that was mentioned during the hearing was the Oct. 27, 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven members of the congregation were killed and six injured by a lone gunman known for anti-Semitic sentiments.

“This is a threat to communities all across our country,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who introduced the Pray Safe Act, said about domestic terrorism.

John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said he was concerned about intensified hate crimes directed at East Asians since the start of the pandemic, which is blamed on the Chinese. One of them he discussed was the March 16, 2021, shooting spree at three Atlanta-area spas that killed eight people, six of them Asian women.

“Some difficult themes have emerged,” Yang said.

He added that anti-Asian antagonism did not begin and end with the pandemic.

“Asian Americans are seen as the perpetual foreigner,” Yang said.

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