The First U.S. National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism

On June 15, 2021, the Biden administration released the United States’ first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which culminated the 100-day review of U.S. government efforts to respond to domestic extremism that President Biden ordered in January. Though galvanized by the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, this strategy seeks to understand and respond to a long history of domestic terrorist activity in the United States.

Q1: What is the significance of the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism?

A1: The release of the new national strategy, as well as the broader attention and resources being directed toward countering domestic threats, is a major turning point in U.S. counterterrorism policy.

Most notably, the document codifies in national strategy that domestic violent extremists—specifically those who identify with white supremacist and anti-government militia ideology—pose the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the United States. This reflects the findings of the March 2021 joint comprehensive threat assessment on domestic violent extremism (DVE) by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This assessment is consistent with CSIS analysis, which found that extremists aligned with these ideologies perpetrated 66 percent of terrorist attacks and plots in 2020.

Previous CSIS research also found that the number of terrorist attacks and plots in the United States has grown in recent years. In 2020, that figure reached its highest level in at least a quarter century, with 94 percent of incidents committed by individuals with a domestic-focused grievance (as compared to 5 percent inspired by a Salafi-jihadist ideology). Yet, U.S. counterterrorism policy has maintained its post-9/11 focus on countering foreign Salafi-jihadist threats and homegrown terrorists inspired by groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Q2: How will this document change U.S. counterterrorism efforts?

A2: While the strategy reemphasizes a range of techniques that have been hallmarks of U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 9/11—such as increasing information sharing with state, local, and foreign partners—the document also advocates for a new, broader approach to combat the root causes of violence in local communities and online. The strategy’s focus on confronting “long-term contributors to domestic terrorism” is the most innovative—and likely controversial—aspect of the strategy. While counterterrorism strategies issued during the Trump administration also emphasized efforts such as community outreach, resiliency, and social media literacy, this is the first document to directly tie U.S. counterterrorism efforts to broader social issues such as systemic racism, police reform, and gun control.

The document also marks a substantial shift in the way the U.S. government will design and implement violence prevention programs, previously known as countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts. Moving away from traditional CVE models focused on confronting Salafi-jihadist ideology within communities—which were heavily criticized by Arab and Muslim communities during the Obama administration—the new strategy advocates a public-health-based approach to violence prevention. This will expand the role of state and local partners, nongovernmental organizations, and nontraditional U.S. government agency partners such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Veterans Affairs in broader efforts to confront the root causes of politically motivated violence; increase individual and community resilience to extremist ideology; and build radicalization offramps.

Q3: How does the strategy define terrorism? What types of terrorist ideologies will it primarily target?

A3: The strategy does not advance or advocate for any changes in the existing definition of domestic terrorism, which has been codified in law since 2001 and is ideologically agnostic.

Under the strategy, the United States will disrupt or deter any individuals or networks who plan or perpetrate activities meeting the definition of domestic terrorism, regardless of their motivating ideology. The document provides notable examples of domestic terrorist attacks in recent years that span the ideological spectrum, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 2016 ambush in Dallas that killed five police officers and injured nine others, the 2017 shooting at a congressional baseball practice, and the 2021 attack at the U.S. Capitol.

Q4: What are the major components of the strategy?

A4: The National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism seeks to promote cross-agency coordination and collaboration at the policy level while maintaining the independent prerogatives of law enforcement agencies at all levels of government to investigate and disrupt terrorist activity.

The strategy is built around four pillars of action.

The first pillar—understanding and sharing domestic-terrorism-related information—aims to improve research and analysis on domestic terrorism trends; improve information sharing both within the government and externally, including dissemination of information to Congress and the public; and better understand and respond to domestic terrorists’ transnational connections.

The second pillar—preventing domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization to violence—seeks to improve community and individual resilience to violence and disinformation, including through digital and information literacy; support programs that aim to disrupt radicalization pathways and terrorist recruitment efforts, including those specifically targeting veterans; improve public awareness of and access to violence reduction resources; and counter online recruitment and mobilization efforts, including through information sharing with the technology sector.

The third pillar—disrupting and deterring domestic terrorist activity—includes increased funding and personnel flexibility for the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to support investigation and prosecution of terrorist activity; improved training, resources, and interagency cooperation and information sharing, including with agencies at the state, local, tribal, and territorial levels; consideration of additional legislative reforms; and improved screening and vetting processes for government employees.

The final pillar—confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism—calls upon the federal government and civil society to tackle long-term factors that shape the environment in which domestic terrorism may be perpetuated—such as racism and bigotry, gun violence, disinformation, and political polarization—or prevented—such as civic education, civic engagement, economic recovery and development, and faith in democratic institutions.

Q5: Does the strategy include the creation of any new legal authorities to designate or prosecute domestic terrorists?

A5: The strategy does not explicitly recommend any new legislation or legal authorities, but these are under consideration. Strategic Goal 3.2—assess potential legislative reforms—notes that the strategy outlines a path forward to combat domestic terrorism under existing authorities. Although the DOJ is examining options for the creation of new authorities, there are a wide range of existing statutes under which domestic terrorist attacks and plots can be prosecuted. Over the years, accused domestic terrorists have been charged under federal hate crime, explosives, and terrorism laws.

The strategy also notes that the federal government is evaluating whether certain global groups or movements that operate in part in the United States should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) or whether to expand efforts to include individuals and groups connected to both international and domestic terrorist activity on the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) list. These efforts are important in light of the transnational nature of violent ideologies, particularly those associated with white identity extremism. As the strategy highlights, there are significant transnational dimensions within the broader movements that give rise to domestic terrorism, and there are tools and authorities that the United States could leverage—such as sanctions, designations, and other methods that have been effective in the fight against international terrorism—when appropriate.

Q6: Who’s in charge?

A6: No one, or everyone, depending on how you read the document. It is clear that law enforcement efforts should be conducted independently of policy efforts. The policy implementation is, as noted, diverse. It will rely on multiple federal agencies seeking to empower state, local, and nongovernmental partners to implement key components of the strategy, as well as buy-in and long-term commitment from those partners.

Q7: What are the biggest challenges to implementing the strategy?

A7: The formulation of a national, government-wide strategy to counter domestic terrorism is a strong step forward to counter this significant and growing threat. However, as this effort continues, it is likely to face both short- and long-term challenges.

The strategy repeatedly emphasizes that it will be implemented in a manner that protects privacy and free speech; however, it provides little substance to articulate how this will be accomplished. This is an exceptionally challenging space for federal, state, and local law enforcement. Although the strategy rightly highlights that there is a distinction between expressing controversial or even abhorrent opinions (which are first-amendment protected) and inciting or threatening violence (which is not), the lines between protected and unprotected speech are not always clear. This challenge of “discerning credible threats from online bravado and constitutionally protected speech” was highlighted as a significant challenge for DHS in a recent bipartisan Senate report regarding the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Articulating the administration’s plans for reconciling this tension, and—more importantly—winning broad public support for the approach may be one of the most challenging aspects of implementation. This will particularly be the case if new legal authorities such as domestic terrorist designations are introduced, which carry the risk of infringing upon free speech and unjustly targeting political dissidents and minority groups.

In these areas, the strategy will likely face opposition, particularly in advancing legislative recommendations or securing funding for various programs. Recent bipartisan legislation to establish an independent commission on the events of January 6, 2021, failed in the Senate after GOP opposition. A bipartisan bill to enhance civic education nationwide has been bogged down by a misperception that it would require teaching of critical race theory. In the current climate, it is unlikely that any effort to pass broader legislation on domestic terrorism would succeed.

The strategy also relies heavily on external partners such as tech companies. To successfully build and leverage these partnerships, the federal government must mobilize and incentivize the private sector. This will be particularly difficult when it comes to social media companies, which are also likely to face challenges and criticism regarding privacy and censorship. Moreover, some terrorism disruption efforts—such as mitigating the effects of social media algorithms on radicalization pathways—may run counter to broader business strategies.

Finally, the effort to address the root causes of domestic terrorism is a noble but lofty goal. There will be many challenges—both political and logistical—to developing concrete policies to implement this strategy and developing metrics by which to measure success. Still, the articulation of these core challenges in a national strategy document is a significant step forward in the long-term process of grappling with the deeply ingrained factors that enable extremist ideology and violence to persist in U.S. society.

Catrina Doxsee is a program manager and research associate with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jake Harrington is intelligence fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Catrina Doxsee
Associate Director and Associate Fellow, Transnational Threats Project