Biden vowed to defeat domestic terrorism. The how is the hard part.

Laura Barrón-López and Natasha Bertrand
·10 min read

In his inaugural address Wednesday, President Joe Biden declared the “rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism” a looming threat the country “must confront” and “defeat.”

The moment comes more than a year after Biden launched his campaign for the presidency with a video decrying a 2017 neo-Nazi and white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. “In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime, Biden said at the time.

As president, he’ll have to figure out how to address it with deeds and not just words — a difficult task, as the Biden team is now learning. Congress may have a hard time delineating just who qualifies as a domestic terrorist, too — and what new legal tools, if any, to authorize, interviews with influential lawmakers make clear.

People close to the transition say the Capitol insurrection drove home the acuteness of the threat for the new administration, which has already decided to elevate the issue by making it a top priority for the National Security Council.

New personnel with expertise in domestic extremism will be brought on to support the counterterrorism directorate and homeland security advisers, the sources said, likely within the next few weeks.

The increased emphasis reflects President Biden and his team’s alarm at what the Jan. 6 assault on Congress revealed about the country they are now tasked with leading. “Don’t you dare call them protesters. They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists,” as Biden put it in remarks the next day.

The shift is unlikely to be drastic, or even instant. The new NSC and Justice Department teams won’t be able to reorient toward countering domestic terrorism until they are fully settled in and briefed on the latest intelligence.

“This transition did not totally provide the intel we needed on this,” a person close to the transition said. “But the new leadership does need to address the urgency of this threat, and the new team is open to exploring innovative responses.”

“The most important element is to stop inciting, encouraging, polarizing, and dividing,” this person added, in an implicit nod to the outgoing president. “That will stop on Jan 20.”

National security experts say Biden could confront the threat three ways: Direct the Justice Department, FBI and National Security Council to execute a top-down approach prioritizing domestic terrorism; pass new domestic terrorism legislation; or do a bit of both as Democrats propose a crack down on social media giants like Facebook for algorithms that promote conspiracy laden posts.

Some Democrats told POLITICO they’d like Biden to warn explicitly of a more organized white supremacist threat in some public forum soon after taking office.

“It's the elephant in the room that violent extremism is a great threat in this country, that it is based in large part on white supremacists, and that [Biden] needs to call it out and make clear that we will not tolerate it,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said in an interview.

On Wednesday, Biden did just that.

“Here we stand just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground,” Biden said Wednesday on the steps of the West front of the Capitol, a building still marked by damage from the uprising 14 days earlier.

Pro-Trump rioters who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 included members of the alt-right, self-described “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys and far-right militia groups Oath Keepers and Three percenters. All three have increasingly provided security or worked alongside neo-Nazi and white supremacist factions, according to national security experts.

Current and former officials agree that there needs to be some kind of NSC-driven process to address the rising threat. That process was largely absent during the Trump era and left agencies trying to determine their respective roles, said one former senior counterterrorism official. But there are key differences of opinion over how much to separate the issues of domestic and international terrorism when considering a holistic approach to the problem.

Some former national security officials argue that the Biden NSC needs to emphasize the issue further, with a distinct office focused solely on domestic terrorism. “The new administration should strongly consider elevating the [domestic terrorism] issue, as it rightly has with cybersecurity,” said Brian Harrell, a former senior DHS official who worked on domestic terrorism issues. He recommended standing up a Policy Coordination Committee at the NSC focused on the issue, and assigning members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council to develop explicit recommendations for combating domestic extremism.

Another former national security official echoed that sentiment, recalling that efforts within the Trump NSC to understand and respond to a domestic terrorism incident—specifically, the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton in 2019—were not as robust as they should have been because the counterterrorism officials were stretched thin and tended to prioritize global terror threats.

Not everyone agrees. One person familiar with the transition’s thinking on the issue argued that handling domestic terrorism within the context of transnational movements like white supremacy would be “familiar” territory for the NSC’s counterterrorism officials, and would avoid encroaching on law enforcement’s turf — a concern for the incoming Biden White House, which is wary of being seen as meddling at DOJ and the FBI on the heels of Trump’s politicization of those agencies.

“Terrorism is terrorism,” said one former senior national security official familiar with the incoming administration’s plans. “Separating international from domestic terrorism, especially within the context of the NSC, doesnt make a lot of sense to me. The radicalization process looks a lot the same.”

Another approach would be to consider designating “radical right-wing” transnational extremist groups as foreign terrorist organizations, making it easier to collect information about such groups' affiliates in the United States, said Jason Blazakis, a senior fellow at Soufan Center and former director of counterterrorism finance for the State Department. The Trump State Department designated a white supremacist group — the Russian Imperial Movement — as a terrorist organization for the first time in April 2020. But they classified the group as a "specially designated global terrorist," which is more limited than the "foreign terrorist organization" designation and doesn't allow for the prosecution of current and former members.

The United States has no domestic terrorism statute, so federal law enforcement agencies use other legal tools — such as hate crime and organized crime statutes — to go after violent domestic extremists. Some in Congress, mostly but not exclusively Democrats, have pushed for new legislation that would require more accounting of domestic terrorism incidents and cases from key agencies.

Others say that Congress needs to create additional domestic terrorism-specific charges to adequately prosecute homegrown terrorists, because the current offenses on the books apply only to limited actions.

There’s “no violation called domestic terrorism” said Greg Ehrie, former section chief of the FBI’s domestic terrorism operations. “We're very concerned if foreign nationals come here and commit terror, but we're not concerned if it happens by an American citizen.”

But Biden hasn’t outlined where he stands on the idea, and transition officials declined to make his position clear.

Those critical of passing a domestic terrorism law argue that there are already dozens of federal terrorism crimes, hate crime and organized crime statutes that can be applied to domestic terror acts — it simply comes down to an administration that gives precedence to homeland threats. And more than 130 civil and human rights groups warned that creating a domestic terrorism charge could be used as a vehicle to racially profile and target marginalized communities.

A source close to the White House said the need for urgency will dictate Biden’s early decisions. “This is a day one problem, so in responding to this, the new administration will use the tools it inherits on day one,” the person said. “Whether more can be done with more tools like domestic terrorism legislation is an urgent question and that will be considered.”

On the Hill, Democrats in the Senate and House are looking for a complete 180 in how the country handles homeland terrorists. Speier, who serves on the Intelligence and Oversight Committees, is preparing a letter to Biden and his Defense secretary nominee, Gen. Lloyd Austin, urging them to examine social media of recruits before they receive security clearances – a move that she thinks can be done through a regulation or executive order.

“The Department of Defense does not examine social media of all recruits before accession,” said Speier. “Social media has overtaken our lives. It is the basis on many of these organizations being able to grow as they have. And yet we are flat-footed as a government in terms of reviewing this and it's done routinely by private companies.”

Speier, along with 29 other members, is also calling for the creation of an independent commission to investigate the government’s response to domestic terrorism and extremism.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers re-introduced a domestic terrorism prevention bill that creates “a separate category of terrorism, domestic terrorism,” as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill’s co-sponsor, described it. It would not create a new charge for domestic terrorism, but it would require the Homeland Security, Justice Department and the FBI to issue a joint biannual report on domestic terrorism and require select offices within each department focus their resources on monitoring, investigating and prosecuting domestic terrorism.

Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he wants to use his position to examine domestic terrorism and “links to extremist right wing groups in other countries.”

“Some of the biggest right-wing social media activity” comes out of Germany, said Warner. “This is not an American-only phenomenon, and how these groups are linked, how they share tactics, how they utilize social media, is a huge concern.”

Warner said he wants to work closely with his Republican colleagues to crack down on extremists, particularly far-right and white supremacist groups, but also pointing out the behavior by Antifa where warranted.

“But the goal has to be to call these groups, these anti-Democratic, anti-American, pluralistic society groups out without painting this brush and having it breakdown on a partisan line,” said Warner, adding that he hasn’t decided if Congress needs to pass a domestic terrorism bill or not. “Do we need new tools and powers or is it just a stronger moral compass?”

As Democratic lawmakers push for concrete action against domestic terrorism, they also want the country to name exactly what is fueling the pro-Trump, conspiracy addled groups that subscribe to the ideology of white power.

“We have normalized, not honestly talking about race in this country, on the theory that it is somehow impolite or divisive when in actuality if we were to name white nationalism and white supremacy we could have identified the people leading that movement by now,” Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) said in an interview.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a Biden confidant, said the threat of white supremacist terror isn’t new but it may now be finally recognized in full.

“Those of us who grew up in the Black community, especially in the South, we've always recognized the KuKluxKlan and the White Citizens Councils, and all these other groups as domestic terrorists. How do you call it anything else?” Clyburn said in an interview. “You can't solve a problem till you acknowledge that it's there and the country has never acknowledged domestic terrorism as being a problem.”

Reflecting on the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Clyburn paraphrased a line from King’s letter from Birmingham City Jail in 1963. In it, King said, “people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.”

“People are always saying, 'Yeah, I know things are bad, but the time is not right to do anything about it,’” said Clyburn. “King's response to that was time is neutral. Time is never right and time is never wrong. It's always what we make it.”

“It’s time,” Clyburn added. “And Joe Biden knows it’s time.”