- The FBI has been accused of failing to confront and tackle rising white supremacist violence in the wake of Saturday’s mass shooting Saturday targeting El Paso’s Hispanic community.
- Following 9/11, resources were piled into tackling the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, but critics allege growing white nationalist radicalization went ignored as a result.
- In 2009, analyst Daryl Johnson was forced from the Department of Homeland Security following a conservative backlash, for warning in a report that white supremacists were seeking to recruit military veterans.
- Experts have called for a law enabling prosecution for supporting domestic terror groups.
- President Trump has been criticized for refusing to unequivocally condemn white nationalism in the wake of atrocities.
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As America reels from Saturday’s mass shooting targeting Hispanic immigrants in El Paso, Texas, focus is turning to America’s law enforcement agencies who critics allege have failed to tackle the growing threat posed by white nationalist terrorism.
The FBI is preparing to charge suspected shooter Patrick Crusius with hate crime offences, and believe he drove for more than ten hours to specifically target Hispanics in the border town in what the agency is treating as a domestic terror attack.
In testimony to the Senate in June, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the agency was responding effectively to the growing threat posed by what termed “domestic extremism,” in which he included those motivated by white nationalist ideology.
Wray said the agency has arrested around 100 individuals linked to domestic extremism in the past year.
- Win McNamee/Getty Images
But critics, including experts from the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, allege that US law enforcement has been so focused on the threat posed by Islamic extremists from organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS, and so wary of the political criticism directed at them for investigating far-right extremists, that the threat from white nationalism has been allowed to grow.
September 11 changed the US’ approach to combating terrorism
It was after the September 11 attacks by Al Qaeda extremists that US law enforcement and intelligence focused its anti-terrorism operations strongly on combatting Islamic extremism.
Before 9/11, the deadliest terror attack on American soil was committed by a domestic, anti-government extremist, Timothy McVeigh.
In April 1995, McVeigh, a military veteran, detonated a truck packed with explosives outside a federal government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, and injuring over 680 others.
McVeigh had been inspired by the far-right, anti-government militia movement, and The Turner Diaries – a novel envisaging a race war sparked by terror attacks.
In response US law enforcement agencies piled resources into tackling the threat posed by Americans radicalized to possibly attack their own government.
Only six years later America experienced its deadliest attack to date, September 11, when Al Qaeda extremists weaponized passengers jets to launch attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania.
After September 11, the focus of America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies shifted rapidly to combatting the threat posed by the brand of violent radical Islam that had emerged in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, according to analysts, white nationalists and far-right extremists remained determined to strike.
In a 2009 report, Department of Homeland Security analyst Daryl Johnson warned that white nationalists were increasingly radicalized by the presidency of Barack Obama, the first black man to hold the office.
Johnson found that extremists were actively seeking to recruit military veterans returning from the post-9/11 wars waged by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report sparked a furious backlash, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration’s Justice Department of a bid to smear veterans and conservatives. After the backlash, the head of the DHS ultimately issued an apology, and the team of agents and experts who compiled the report was quietly disbanded.
Johnson told the Guardian in an interview this week that wary of similar backlashes, US law enforcement agencies had allowed the problem of domestic extremism to continue to grow.
“If the message I sent out had been heeded, and people took it seriously, we would have had more resources. That could have tempered the growth of what we have seen over the past ten years,” he told the newspaper.
“There would be fewer extremists, and fewer attacks, because by now, 10 years removed from the warning, we would have mature programs,” he said.
Trump accused of fostering anti-immigrant feeling
Tackling the problem during the Trump administration has posed its own unprecedented challenges, with the president himself accused by experts of helping to foster the violent anti-immigrant rhetoric displayed in the online manifesto investigators believe the alleged El Paso attacker penned.
The administration has also stripped taken away resources law enforcement agencies of resources to tackle white nationalist violence, and the president has consistently refused to label white nationalist atrocities such as the shootings in El Paso and Dayton last weekend as terror attacks.
CNN reported Wednesday that the Trump administration had rebuffed attempts by DHS officials to make combatting domestic terror – such as that inspired by white nationalist ideology – a higher priority.
Though condemning racist violence, Trump has continued to draw false equivalences between violent racist groups and left-wing groups that have emerged to combat them.
One former FBI special agent, Dave Gomez, told the Washington Post that FBI is wary of investigating white nationalists because it doesn’t want to target Trump’s own base, and risk a backlash from the president.
Experts say that a problem hampering US law enforcement is the absence of a domestic terrorism law, allowing people to be prosecuted for backing violent racist groups in the same way that they can be prosecuted for supporting overseas terror groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS.
“There’s no domestic terrorism law – we just treat it as either a hate crime or some other sort of criminal charge,” Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told NBC News.
He remarked that white supremacists “are following an ideology the same way that other violent extremists that the U.S. designates as terrorists follow ideologies.”
But experts point to unique legislative challenges in tackling far right extremists who have not been radicalized by any specific group, but by an amorphous online movement of racist provocateurs, trolls and ideologues clustering around messaging boards 4Chan and 8Chan, or social media sites like Gab.
Internet radicalization is faster paced, with people deciding to take violent action in some cases only months after being exposed to extremist ideology online, John Farmer, a former US attorney general told the BBC.
Increasing radicalization speeds make it more difficult for law enforcement to monitor and trace, he added.
“Frequently, these individuals act without a clear group affiliation or guidance, making them challenging to identify, investigate and disrupt,” Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s top counterterrorism official, recently told lawmakers.
- REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
For one former senior Trump administration official, if law enforcement officers are to win their battle against white nationalist ideology, they must be led from the top.
Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in an interview Sunday remarked that the president “can deter it by making clear that he does not approve, just as he does for Islamic terrorist ideologies.
“The lesson of 9/11 is that the government should focus on deterring future attacks and not just condemning past killers.”