For years following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the conversation about US national security was dominated by the war on terror. But 20 years later, current and former officials say, the war’s come home. Now, the biggest threat facing the US doesn’t come from foreign actors, but those within the country’s own borders.
When it comes to extremism, the focus within US law enforcement and intelligence agencies has shifted to white supremacist and far-right groups. Those concerns were amplified by events like the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, as well as the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Matt Chandler, the former deputy chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, told Insider that the threat environment post-9/11 “continues to be dynamic, with both foreign and domestic terrorism threats, each of which have metastasized in concerning ways.”
“What makes the domestic terrorism threat so insidious is the foundational motivation to undermine our democracy, either by hate-driven ideologies or misinformation online,” Chandler said. “The general chaos in our society related to the pandemic, the state of our politics, and other factors unfortunately creates fertile ground for these false narratives to take hold.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray in March warned senators that domestic extremism was “metastasizing across the country.”
“The number of arrests, for example, of racially motivated violent extremists, who are what you would categorize as white supremacists, last year was almost triple the number it was in my first year as director,” Wray said.
In June, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told senators that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” were the greatest domestic terror threat to the US. “Specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race,” Garland told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
An annual intelligence report released in April also acknowledged that while groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda continue to pose a danger to US interests overseas, the greater domestic threat to Americans comes from “US-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations,” including white supremacist actors.
According to research published by the New America think tank, jihadists have killed 107 people in the US since 9/11, while far right extremists have killed 114.
The threat of homegrown extremism also differs along ideological lines. Since 2015, right-wing extremists have been linked to at least 267 plots or attacks and 91 fatalities, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Comparatively, 66 attacks or plots and 19 fatalities were attributed to far-left views.
Now, Chandler said, “the challenge for the intelligence and law enforcement communities is to mitigate both foreign and domestic terrorism threats simultaneously to prevent something like either September 11 or January 6 from ever happening again.”
But in the months since top law enforcement officials began sounding the alarm about the threat of homegrown extremism, the US government continues to grapple with how best to combat it, even when it comes from within its ranks.
For instance, an Insider investigation in May found that while President Joe Biden pledged to fight white supremacy, his administration is struggling to root out extremists from the federal law enforcement apparatus.
Insider’s Camila DeChalus examined 63 federal agencies that employ uniformed law-enforcement officers and personnel and found that applicant vetting processes varied greatly from agency to agency and even sometimes contradicted each other. Moreover, just 10 of the agencies said they conduct recurring background checks or actively monitor officers’ social-media accounts for red flags.
How the war on terror fueled far-right extremism
Though extremism is now predominately a homegrown problem, the US continues to closely monitor and carry out operations against foreign jihadist groups. To that end, foreign policy hawks have raised concerns in recent weeks about whether the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan will once again make the country a safe haven for terrorist organizations.
Though experts warn that extremism may likely flourish in Afghanistan with the Taliban at the helm, the level of threat this could pose to the US is debatable, they say.
The Taliban’s seizure of the Afghan government “greatly increased the risk that militant groups will use Afghanistan to reconsolidate their bases and strength,” Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, told Insider in August.
The Biden administration has signaled that it will continue to target terror groups in Afghanistan that could present a threat to the US, but officials say the capabilities of jihadist groups have eroded significantly in the decades since 9/11.
“Al Qaeda’s capacity to do what it did on 9/11, to attack us, to attack our partners or allies from Afghanistan is vastly, vastly diminished,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month.
In many ways, experts say, the most lasting effects of the war on terror relate to how it fueled far-right extremism in the US itself. Far-right extremist groups have worked to recruit disillusioned veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into their ranks, and generally tried to tap into the sub-cultures surrounding military-style weapons and training. Since the Capitol insurrection, the Pentagon has also taken steps to address rising concerns about extremism among active-duty troops.
In a March report to the House and Senate Armed Services committees, the department acknowledged that it faces a “threat from domestic extremists … particularly those who espouse white supremacy or white nationalist ideologies.”
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University, addressed the resurgence of far-right extremism in a recent Foreign Affairs op-ed.
“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism,” she wrote.
“The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, al Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” she added.
John Haltiwanger and Sonam Sheth | Insider