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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Domestic Terrorist Threat: Background and Issues for Congress



Jerome P. Bjelopera
Specialist in Organized Crime and Terrorism

The emphasis of counterterrorism policy in the United States since Al Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) has been on jihadist terrorism. However, in the last decade, domestic terrorists—people who commit crimes within the homeland and draw inspiration from U.S.-based extremist ideologies and movements—have killed American citizens and damaged property across the country. Not all of these criminals have been prosecuted under terrorism statutes. This latter point is not meant to imply that domestic terrorists should be taken any less seriously than other terrorists.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) do not officially list domestic terrorist organizations, but they have openly delineated domestic terrorist “threats.” These include individuals who commit crimes in the name of ideologies supporting animal rights, environmental rights, anarchism, white supremacy, anti-government ideals, black separatism, and anti-abortion beliefs.

The boundary between constitutionally protected legitimate protest and domestic terrorist activity has received public attention. This boundary is especially highlighted by a number of criminal cases involving supporters of animal rights—one area in which specific legislation related to domestic terrorism has been crafted. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (P.L. 109-374) expands the federal government’s legal authority to combat animal rights extremists who engage in criminal activity. Signed into law in November 2006, it amended the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act (P.L. 102-346).

Five discussion topics in this report may help explain domestic terrorism’s significance for policymakers:


  • Level of Activity. Domestic terrorists have been responsible for orchestrating more than two-dozen incidents since 9/11, and there appears to be growth in antigovernment extremist activity as measured by watchdog groups in the last several years. 
  • Use of Nontraditional Tactics. A large number of domestic terrorists do not necessarily use tactics such as suicide bombings or airplane hijackings. They have been known to engage in activities such as vandalism, trespassing, and tax fraud, for example. 
  • Exploitation of the Internet. Domestic terrorists—much like their jihadist analogues—are often Internet savvy and use the medium as a resource for their operations. 
  • Decentralized Nature of the Threat. Many domestic terrorists rely on the concept of leaderless resistance. This involves two levels of activity. On an operational level, militant, underground, ideologically motivated cells or individuals engage in illegal activity without any participation in or direction from an organization that maintains traditional leadership positions and membership rosters. On another level, the above-ground public face (the “political wing”) of a domestic terrorist movement may focus on propaganda and the dissemination of ideology—engaging in protected speech.
  • Prison Radicalization. Prison has been highlighted as an arena in which terrorist radicalization can occur. Some prison gangs delve into radical or extremist ideologies that motivate domestic terrorists, and in a number of instances, these ideologies are integral to fashioning cohesive group identities within prison walls. It must be reiterated, however, that even for gangs that exhibit these ideological dimensions, criminal enterprises such as drug trafficking—not radical beliefs—largely drive their activities. 

Congress may choose to consider issues in three areas regarding the federal role in combating domestic terrorism. First is the issue of definitions. It is difficult to assess the scope of domestic terrorism because federal agencies use varying terms to describe it. Even more basically, there is no clear sense of how many domestic terrorist attacks have occurred or how many plots the government has foiled in recent years. Second, Congress may review the adequacy of domestic terrorism intelligence collection efforts. For intelligence gathering and program prioritization purposes, there is no standard set of intelligence collection priorities across federal agencies that can be applied to domestic terrorism cases. Also, there likely is no established standard for the collection of intelligence from state and local investigators—aside from suspicious activity reporting. Finally, it may be of value to explore how domestic terrorism fits into the Obama Administration’s community outreach-driven strategy to quell terrorism-related radicalization in the United States. Congress may query the Administration on which brand of domestic terrorists it plans to focus on under the strategy and which local community groups it intends to engage regarding domestic terrorism issues.

Date of Report: January 17, 2013
Number of Pages: 69
Order Number: R42536
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