The U.S. government is acknowledging for the first time that right-wing extremists were responsible for the majority of fatal domestic terrorist attacks last year, according to an internal report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security last week and obtained by Yahoo News.
A review of last year’s domestic terrorist incidents by a DHS fusion center — which shares threat-related information between federal, state and local partners — found that although civil unrest and antigovernment violence were associated with “non-affiliated, right-wing and left-wing actors, right-wing [domestic violent extremists] were responsible for the majority of fatal attacks in the Homeland in 2020.”
The report, produced by the Joint Regional Intelligence Center, a DHS-funded fusion center, was sent out to police and law enforcement agencies nationwide as part of an intelligence-sharing system created after the 9/11 attacks.
While independent think tanks and outside groups have been pointing to the rise in ring-wing violence for some time, this appears to be the first known instance of an official government or law enforcement agency clearly acknowledging the trend, though senior officials have noted the rise in white supremacist attacks. The report also comes not long after the end of the Trump administration, which was criticized for downplaying right-wing violence.
Former President Donald Trump, in particular, frequently referred to the threat from antifa, a loose movement of left-wing activists.
“The government has not said this publicly, law enforcement has not said this publicly,” said Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “This is new.”
The findings about right-wing extremism are “consistent with every single assessment of data I’ve seen, not just in 2020 but in 2019,” Jones said after reviewing the fusion center report.
In October of last year, CSIS published its own analysis of domestic terrorist activity in the U.S. for the first eight months of 2020. Its data showed that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists conducted two-thirds of the terrorist plots and attacks in the nation during that period.
The CSIS report notes that the FBI and DHS have in the past identified “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists,” and specifically white supremacists, as the biggest threat to the U.S. But the government has released no data on historical activity or the current threat landscape, prompting a number of data projects from think tanks and other groups tracking domestic extremist threats.
“What is a little unusual is that they’ve used terms like ‘right- and left-wing’ in a government document, because the government has generally used other terms,” said Jones.
“The government in 2020 did try to stay away from ‘right-wing’ terms because they were easily politicized,” he added.
During the Trump administration, government reports and officials typically avoided describing groups as left- or right-wing, instead referring to attackers under broad terms such as “racially motivated” or “antigovernment.”
Mike German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the current terminology dates back to 2019, when Congress asked the bureau to provide detailed data on domestic terrorism investigations and the bureau changed its categories.
“The FBI reconfigured its categories to combine much more violent far-right militias with less violent anarchists, and the more violent white supremacists with ‘Black identity extremists,’ which really is a fabricated movement,” he said. “It makes no sense to put these groups together, as white supremacists and Black identity extremists don’t often overlap or work together. Likewise for far-right militants and anarchists.”
It’s unclear what prompted the fusion center to use the new language, or if there has been an official change in policy. The fusion center did not respond to a request for comment, and DHS declined to comment.
In its report, the fusion center cites its own data collection, as well as that of the US Crisis Monitor, a joint project between Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks political violence and demonstrations around the world.
Last month, the Biden administration ordered a review of domestic extremism led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and coordinated with the FBI and DHS.
“The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and the tragic deaths and destruction that occurred underscored what we have long known: The rise of domestic violent extremism is a serious and growing national security threat,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Jan. 22 in announcing the review.
One aspect of the review is figuring out how to develop community engagement programs that target people most at risk of radicalization, according to three people involved in the review. The Biden administration is looking at how to use domestic data on demonstrations and political violence across the U.S. to focus those efforts.
The terminology, however, is likely to be subject to continuing debate, given the question over how domestic terrorism attacks should be classified.
“There is a lot of overlap between white supremacists and far-right militias, and they often work together during the commission of violent acts,” German said, “like at the attack on the Capitol.”
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