In light of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 in tandem with the rise in hate crimes against Black, indigenous, and people of color, Professor Bruce Hoffman of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service joined GJIA on March 22, 2021 to discuss the rise of domestic terrorism and its ripple effects on foreign policy.
GJIA: How would you define terrorism, and what exactly falls under it?
BH: My definition of terrorism is slightly different from the US government’s. Their definition is that terrorism is the use of the threat of violence to coerce or intimidate the government or its citizens in pursuit of political or social aims. So based on that definition, I do not think there is much doubt that what happened on January 6 was an act of terrorism. In fact, President Biden described it as terrorism in his inaugural address, and the Minority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, also described it as terrorism. My definition is perhaps more academic and complex. I think violence, or the threat of violence, is enormously important, because that plays into the coercion and intimidation that is very much a part of the legal definition. It underscores that the repercussions of terrorism are not only against the victims, but that the target audience that these acts are designed to reach is much larger. That is what gives terrorism its unique characteristics as an act of political violence.
Could you outline some of the primary challenges for law enforcement and intelligence in handling domestic terrorism today?
International terrorism is straightforward compared to domestic terrorism because there are a number of legal remedies that the Secretary of State can invoke: he or she can designate a terrorist group, which means that no bank with any connections to the United States can conduct business with that terrorist group; individual terrorists can also be put on no fly lists or watchlists. Evidently, there are significant powers that foreign designation of terrorism has.
There is no such mechanism in the United States. In fact, there is no domestic terrorism law; there are only the standard criminal statutes and a hate crime law. That is very important because hate crimes—ordinary crimes like shootings, arson, bombings, and vandalism, for example—can be terrorism as well. What is significant about designating crimes as hate crimes is that it indicates society’s opprobrium that these acts are really so unacceptable that they have their own unique designation and in turn can carry additional penalties. For example, a person convicted for an act of assault could be tried because that is a criminal offense, but if that is also proven to be a hate crime, the perpetrator can receive a sentence up to four times longer than that of an ordinary assault, which is why it is so important to have this additional statute.
I think it would be very useful to have the domestic terrorism statute for a number of reasons. Firstly, it would require the federal government to gather data and statistical information on terrorist incidents in the United States, which do not currently exist because there is no domestic terrorism statute. As a result, we have to rely on the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or other non-governmental organizations to chart these trends.
But even more importantly, I think it would bring greater equity to set the scene for terrorism in the United States. For instance, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism has determined that people in the United States convicted of assisting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) get prison sentences that are, on average, 13.2 years. In contrast, thirteen months ago, an individual in Virginia was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for similarly stockpiling weapons and ammunition that he was selling to his friends. He was a member of the Atomwaffen Division, which was just designated by Canada as a terrorist group. The day before he was arrested, he had joined yet another white supremacist organization, but at his trial he claimed that it was all a mistake and that he was misunderstood. It does not make sense that he received a prison sentence of a year and a day whereas someone also providing support to another terrorist group like ISIS receives a prison sentence that is thirteen times longer.
Therefore, I think a domestic terrorism statute would bring greater equity to sentencing. Admittedly, in the past, the authorities in the United States have abused these types of provisions to spy on opponents or to target people espousing politically or socially unpopular causes. But I believe we can learn from the mistakes of the past and that there could be rigid oversight and annual reporting that would guard against those excesses. For these reasons, a domestic terrorism statute would strengthen our efforts in combating terrorism and educate the public that if one were to commit such crimes, they would get a longer prison sentence, because these crimes are unacceptable in a democracy.
Do you see the imposition of a domestic terrorism statute as likely to happen in the foreseeable future?
There is actually a longer story behind the lack of a domestic terrorism statute. In January 1995, the Clinton administration sent representatives from the Department of State and the Department of Justice to Capitol Hill to discuss enacting terrorism legislation that would have given the Secretary of State the power to designate foreign terrorist groups and the Attorney General and the Department of Justice the power to designate domestic terrorist groups. There were many concerns, particularly among Republican members of Congress, that this infringed on First Amendment rights. In the end, nothing really happened. Only after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April later that year was terrorism legislation enacted, and even then, the domestic element was dropped.
I do not know if a domestic terrorism statute is likely, and I say that because the United States is much more divided and polarized than it was in 1995. It is not a clear-cut issue. That does not mean that it is unneeded or inappropriate. I think the Biden administration is waiting for the results of an internal investigation that it is conducting that is actually led by a former faculty member of the Georgetown University Law Center, Joshua Geltzer. These results may determine that we need a domestic terrorism statute, but I do not think its passage is any more certain today than it was in 1995.
A huge trend of the 21st century is that radicalization and recruitment often takes place through social media, and you have mentioned that in this regard, the law has not kept pace with technology. How has social media changed the game, and do you have specific policy recommendations for how terrorism can be contained in the cyberspace?
My main recommendation would be to see what our closest allies are doing, and then assess how applicable their handling of this problem is to the situation in the United States. For example, New Zealand, Australia, France, and Britain have all discussed legislation that would close this gap between the advancement of technology and potentially anachronistic laws that date back a quarter of a century or more.
The laws in the United States—specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—gave free rein to the internet at a time when everyone was getting their news from traditional media, whether it was newspapers, television, or radio, but most people today get their news from social media. Within that, many get their news from Facebook, which is in no way as accountable as CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, CNN, and so on. That is why I underscore that I do not think the laws have kept pace with technology as Section 230 evidences.
Furthermore, ideas that may have been so extreme, that would have been confined to the fringes of discourse that most people would never have been exposed to, much less be bludgeoned with these falsehoods that are repeated so often as to create an echo chamber, achieve a veracity divorced from reality that did not exist a quarter of a century ago. Take the QAnon phenomenon, the group that believes that there is a group of pedophile Democrats worshipping Satan-eating babies. There is a large number of people in the hundreds of thousands to the millions that has spread outside the United States to Britain and Germany and elsewhere who believe this, which is astonishing and demonstrates the power of social media to perpetuate falsehoods with a frequency that are taken as fact.
It is foolish to put our heads in the sand and think that social media is not having this corrosive effect on society. In this respect, Britain has been very forthright in the aftermath of the Christchurch New Zealand attacks. In March 2019, their government produced an “Online Harms” white paper which sought to do three things: firstly, define government responsibilities in the cyber sphere; secondly, hold technology companies and their executives responsible for the contents and negative effects they have; and thirdly, define government responsibilities in protecting its citizens. It was not only about terrorism and radicalization but also about cyberbullying, violent crimes against children, and so on. The white paper was supposed to be introduced in the House of Parliament in the fall of 2019, but a combination of their national elections, Brexit, and the COVID-19 pandemic derailed it. I would still argue that Britain is far ahead of the United States and we should be looking at our own version of an online harms white paper.
You have also brought up that fighting terrorism cannot be solely a military endeavor, but must entail political, social, economic, ideological, and informational activities.
Terrorism does not occur in a vacuum. It reflects the divisions and polarization of society. When we are talking about ideas, thinking, prejudices, and biases, we have to address them more effectively and efficiently than they have been in the past as ways to counteract the radicalization process that leads to terrorism. To use a cliche that we have heard for the past twenty years, the war on terror is really a war of ideas. It is not just about killing and capturing foreign terrorists or arresting and prosecuting domestic terrorists; it is about breaking the cycle of recruitment and radicalization that sustains these movements. There has to be attention to education, public diplomacy, and community activities that seek to counter the hatred and intolerance that is pervasive across the internet. These messages of radicalization drown out those for peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, and we have to be better at countering the wellspring of thinking that gives rise to the violence that convulses our society.
Are there any foreign policy implications of domestic terrorism?
Yes. The twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks will come in September, and I think everyone is tired of this war on terror. It is the longest war in American history, it has had a very uneven record of success, and decisive victory has proven elusive. Whether one is Republican or Democrat nowadays, this is one of the few issues in the last presidential election that both sides agreed on: ending these “stupid, endless wars,” as President Trump had said that on numerous occasions. President Biden, in his article in Foreign Affairs exactly a year ago, has basically said the same. President Obama, to an extent, campaigned on this issue.
I am reminded of what former Secretary of Defense Mattis said in 2013, that “the enemy also gets a vote: we may think it is over and we may want it to be over, but it is not over until the enemy says it is over.” ISIS and Al-Qaeda are weaker than they have been in the past, but neither of these movements have laid down their arms and declared that they are finished with the struggle. They have voted incontrovertibly to continue these wars. Certainly, invading and occupying countries with hundreds of thousands of troops as we did twenty years ago did not work and was not sustainable, but I would say by the same token that declaring the war over and doing nothing is not sustainable either, because as we saw in the attack fifteen months ago on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Al-Qaeda is still desirous of attacking Americans in the United States. We cannot just wish away the terrorism problem. I think it would be much more beneficial and sustainable for the United States to have a more consistent policy and strategy for countering terrorism than what is in the current policy, which veers from one extreme to the other.
Our inconsistent approach to countering terrorism also undermines the confidence of our allies and creates opportunities for our enemies: whether it is opportunities for the terrorists themselves to regroup and reorganize—because we decide that we are too tired and hence prematurely declare victory—or opportunities for some of our state enemies, such as Russia, to intervene in these conflicts and gain an advantage from them, as we have seen in various places like Syria and Libya.
International and domestic terrorism are both undeniable challenges to the United States, but what would you say is the most pressing terrorist threat to the United States right now, and why?
Of course, it is domestic terrorism. The events of January 6 were a wake-up call that showed how fragile democracy is even in the United States. I think the fact that we came so close to disaster that day underscores that this is the challenge we have to pay the most attention to.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Bruce Hoffman is the George H. Gilmore Senior Fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. He is also the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and director of the university’s Center for Jewish Civilization. Follow him on Twitter @hoffman_bruce.
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