More than two decades after 9/11, the federal government is struggling to address the most significant terrorist threat currently facing the nation.
That is the crux of a new report released Wednesday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Democratic majority. The 128-page report is the culmination of a three-year investigation into the rise in domestic terrorism and the federal government’s response.
Relying on a mix of public testimony and private interviews with federal law enforcement officials and executives from four major social media companies — Meta (formerly Facebook), Twitter, YouTube and TikTok — as well as more than 2,000 “key documents,” the report offers a critical look at the role of social media in accelerating the spread of extremist content, and the federal government’s failure to adapt to the evolving threat landscape.
Since 2019, both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have repeatedly identified domestic terrorism, specifically white supremacist violence, as “the most persistent and lethal terrorist threat to the homeland.” Directors of both agencies have echoed this assessment in numerous public statements and appearances before Congress, and the Biden administration has promised to make combating domestic terrorism a priority.
However, despite all this, the Senate committee’s investigation found that federal resources are still disproportionately allocated to prioritize fighting international terrorism over domestic threats.
At the same time, the report accuses federal law enforcement agencies of failing to systematically track and report data on domestic terrorism, despite a requirement to do so under federal law. A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 requires the FBI and DHS to provide Congress with annual strategic intelligence assessment reports containing, among other information, data on domestic terrorism and details about each agency’s activities to address this particular threat.
According to the Senate report, the domestic terrorism assessments that DHS and the FBI have submitted to Congress since the provision was enacted have been overdue and incomplete, missing key pieces of data on things like staffing and resource allocation, as well as arrests and charges related to domestic terrorism.
“They’re simply not complying with the law that is in place,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told reporters Wednesday.
“Certainly, I’m concerned that their inability to provide this information basically indicates that the FBI and DHS have not been effectively tracking incidents as a result,” Peters said. “If they’re not tracking it, they’re not prioritizing our counterterrorism resources to effectively tackle this threat.”
The report suggests that the federal government’s ability to effectively measure and respond to the threat of domestic terrorism may, in part, be hampered by the fact that the FBI and DHS have different definitions of “domestic terrorism.” It also argues that the categorizations used by the FBI for different types of terrorists — specifically, the agency’s combination of all Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism into a single category including Black nationalist sentiment and white supremacist violence — obscure the far more substantial threat posed by white supremacists.
The FBI’s press office addressed a number of the report’s findings in an emailed statement to Yahoo News, noting that the agency “has made changes through the years in how we categorize domestic terrorism threats.”
While the FBI acknowledged that the term “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism” “captures a range of violent incidents,” it noted that the agency “has said repeatedly that violent extremists driven by a belief in the superiority of the white race have been responsible for a majority of the deaths from domestic terrorism attacks in recent years.”
The FBI also said that it has provided Congress with “the most comprehensive data we have available on domestic terrorism and will continue to do so,” and explained that “the FBI prioritizes threats based on an analysis of available intelligence and allocates resources accordingly.”
“This allows us to be agile and adjust resources commensurate with current threats,” the FBI statement reads. “The FBI assesses that our top domestic terrorism threats are Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism and Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremism. They are among the FBI’s top threat priorities and on the same level as homegrown violent extremism and ISIS.”
A DHS spokesperson said in a statement to Yahoo News that “addressing domestic violent extremism is a top priority” for the agency.
“DHS engages in a community-based approach to prevent terrorism and targeted violence, and does so in ways that protect privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties, and that adhere to all applicable laws,” the statement continues. “To that end, DHS regularly shares information regarding the heightened threat environment with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial officials to ensure the safety and security of all communities across the country. Since 2021, DHS has issued more than 110 unclassified intelligence products related to domestic violent extremism, as well as six National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletins that contextualize the evolving threat environment for the public and provide resources for how to stay safe.”
Overall, the Senate report shows how the federal agencies that were restructured, or created, to focus on fighting international terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11 have been slow to shift gears, even as the danger presented by domestic terrorism has steadily grown to eclipse that of foreign threats.
It also points out how the federal government’s priorities with regard to counterterrorism have been greatly influenced by the administration in power.
Under the Trump administration, for example, DHS focused its efforts primarily on international terrorism, while decreasing budget and staffing allocations for efforts to counter the kind of violent domestic terrorism by white supremacists and antigovernment extremists that was on the rise during that time.
But even under President Biden, who ordered a 100-day review of the federal government’s efforts to address domestic terrorism upon entering the White House and, in June 2021, released the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, federal agencies still have not managed to reallocate resources accordingly.
While the report calls the Biden administration’s strategy “a step in the right direction,” it concludes that “DHS has not provided the committee with data or information, such as documents that would enable the committee to assess how DHS is implementing Biden’s strategy and whether it has been effective in a measurable way in addressing domestic terrorism.”
The Senate committee’s investigation also examined the role of social media — specifically, Meta, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube — in accelerating the threat of domestic terrorism and concluded that “terrorist and extremist content permeates social media platforms in part because these platforms’ business models are designed to maximize user engagement, which has the effect of promoting increasingly extreme content.”
According to the report, “Major social media companies that the Committee examined are aware of this problem, but absent incentives or regulations requiring that they do otherwise, these companies have continued to prioritize growth and engagement and have not taken sufficient action to address this threat.”
The report includes a variety of recommendations for social media companies to more effectively prevent the spread of extremist content on their platforms, while also encouraging federal law enforcement authorities to step up efforts to monitor terrorist activity taking place on those sites.
“FBI and DHS must do a better job of monitoring domestic extremism on social media, while respecting civil liberties and constitutional rights,” Peters told reporters. He said social media’s ability to both bring people together and “stoke potential violence” makes it “even more imperative that both DHS and FBI are able to be as nimble and dynamic as they need to be in this highly dynamic environment.”
“The old ways of doing things are no longer going to work,” he said.