Domestic terrorism: The evolving door of threats

By Hunter McCoy
Staff Writer

TUSCALOOSA – Terrorism researchers say the threat of domestic terrorism has increased over the years due to the current political division in the country. 

Despite the growing threat and mounting fear among the American public, creating a law that covers all acts of domestic terrorism and putting a target on certain groups is nearly, if not completely, impossible.

On January 6, 2021, everyday Americans and right-wing extremists violently made their way into the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in the process of certifying the 2020 Presidential Election Results. Rioters damaged property, stole property, and documented the crimes through pictures and videos. Members of Congress were sent into hiding around the building for hours until the area was secure. The riot sparked conversations across media platforms that the threat of domestic terrorism is growing and action needs to be taken to stop it. 

Dr. Erin Kearns, a terrorism researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama, says the threat has existed for years. The domestic threat is just not as talked about because people are so fixated on the international threats – such as Salafi-jihadists.

“Data has clearly shown for at least a decade that the threats – particularly from far-right wing extremists– in the United States have been growing over the last 10 to 15 years,” Kearns said. “People, like me, who study this topic are not surprised by this. However, law enforcement, media and the general public have been more hesitant to pay attention to the threat that these groups impose.”

Not too long after the Capitol riot, rumors started swirling around that the rioters who were involved were from Antifa –a movement comprised of individuals who are against racial and economic injustice, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – posing as Trump supporters. However, that rumor was shut down by a facial recognition technology firm, XRVision, according to Reuters.

The group that was confirmed to be there were the Proud Boys – a white nationalist group that was started by a Canadian far-right political commentator. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the group as “anti-Muslim” with a “misogynistic rhetoric.”

The origin of the threat has changed over the last few years, but Kearns says the current threat lies in the hands of far-right extremist groups, like the Proud Boys.

“Data shows that far-right extremism is growing a larger threat currently in the United States than extremism from the far-left, or even from Salafi-jihadi groups,” she said. 

However, it is difficult to target these groups because most members do not have a membership to be a part of it.

“These groups don’t have, for the most part, card carrying members in the same way that you are a member of your sorority,” Kearns said.

Due to the increasing threat that extremist groups impose and the fear among Americans, a strong desire for a law aimed directly at domestic terrorism has started growing. However, creating such law is a hard task to place on legislators, experts said.

Dr. Allen Linken, an assistant professor in political science at The University of Alabama, says the desire for a domestic terrorism law is understandable. However, using our current laws is sufficient enough for now.

“I certainly understand the reaction and the desire to have a law that amplifies it,” he said. “However, we have lots of laws that amplify conduct. For example, murder is a crime but it’s a different crime, or a different amplification, to murder a police officer. Therefore, there are already crimes on the books that cover terrorist acts.”

One problem with creating a domestic terrorism law is the complexity of the definition of “domestic terrorism” and how difficult it would be to cover all aspects of it. 

The FBI describes domestic terrorism as, “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

However, other definitions for “domestic terrorism” include the words “coerce” and “intimidation,” just to name a few. 

Kearns said the cons of implementing a domestic terrorism law far outweighs the pros of creating one because of the breadth of terrorism as a topic.

“I’m not sure there is utility of a domestic terrorism law,” she says. “I can see many ways of it being misapplied and fewer benefits to its use.”

Some believe that creating a law that covers every possible aspect of domestic terrorism could result in more problems and division.

Michelle Andrews, a graduate student at Florida Coastal School of Law, said because of the broadness of the topic, creating such a law would be difficult for the government to do considering the rights we are granted by the Bill of Rights. 

“So much of domestic terrorism is started and continued by people meeting up and sharing their opinion, on private social media pages, and joint viewpoints,” she said. “It’s really difficult to regulate those kinds of things. It begs for a First Amendment violation to free speech and right to assemble, which puts the government in a really tough place.”

Trying to come up with an idea of how the government will respond to the growing threat in the country is fairly difficult. However, experts have high hopes that the response and efforts of the government are different than their response to 9/11.

Congress responded with the USA PATRIOT Act after 9/11 and Kearns believes that expanding the act would harm the relationships between the public, law enforcement and the government.

“Expanding the USA PATRIOT Act would be counterproductive,” she said. “We need to respect civil liberties in counterterrorism.”

Overall, Kearns hopes to see a governmental response that unites the country – rather than further dividing it.

“My hope is that we don’t respond in the ways that we did in the aftermath of 9/11 and actually focus much more on relationship building and resilience,” she said. “Instead of further and further erosion of civil liberties.”