Posted on March 8, 2021

Inside the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism

Vera Bergengruen and W.J. Hennigan, Time, March 4, 2021

Just days after President Joe Biden was sworn in to office, his national-security team urgently reached out to the Anti-Defamation League for help.

The new Commander in Chief was launching a government-wide effort to combat far-right extremism and wanted to hear from the nonprofit, which for 108 years has tracked anti-Semitism, hate speech and domestic radicalism. “We expected to be contacted,” says Ryan Greer, a former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who studies extremism at the ADL. “We just didn’t expect it that quickly. The change in tone and urgency could not be more stark from prior years.”

In normal times, the top security aides in a new Administration would be focusing on dire foreign threats like transnational terrorism, Chinese cyberespionage or North Korean nuclear proliferation. This time, the gravest danger is closer to home. Spurred by the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, Biden has asked senior advisers to do something no previous Administration has attempted: refocus the network of U.S. security agencies to help combat domestic extremism.

Biden’s director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, is working with the FBI and DHS to assess the threat. A new four-person office at the National Security Council (NSC) has launched a 100-day push to better understand and tackle the problem. The office is seeking crime data and information on recruitment strategies, and convening weekly video meetings with former federal officials, scholars and advocacy groups. There’s talk of expanding FBI field offices and boosting funding for programs that rehabilitate former violent white supremacists and neo-Nazis.


By January, nearly 4 in 10 Republicans said violence may be necessary “if elected leaders will not protect America,” according to a survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Threats against politicians and local officials have grown commonplace. And analysts who have spent decades studying the far-right fringe warn its ranks are set to swell further under the Biden Administration.

It’s a daunting task for Biden’s team: confront one of the greatest domestic threats since the Civil War without provoking a political crisis or infringing on Americans’ civil liberties. Officials are armed with little data, less money, few programs to build on and no proven solutions. Federal law enforcement is limited by freedom-of-speech protections for U.S. citizens. Local police departments are often ill-equipped or unwilling to determine whether perpetrators are part of a larger far-right organization. But Biden’s 100-day scramble to understand the scope of the problem suggests how far it has spread.

Perhaps most challenging of all is that fighting these extremist groups may strengthen them. Any crackdown on the far right risks reinforcing their narrative that the government is persecuting or silencing them for political reasons, which experts warn will further boost their numbers. Hours after Biden promised at his Inauguration to tackle “political extremism, white supremacy [and] domestic terrorism,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson warned his audience, “We are now in a new war on terror, but it’s a domestic war focused inward on the people of this country.” Pro-Trump forums lit up with furious messages. “If they start using bullsh-t legislation to target their political opposition,” one user wrote, “it should get violent.”

In this context, it’s no surprise that Biden picked an Attorney General, Merrick Garland, who led the Justice Department’s prosecution of the perpetrators of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism in U.S. history. Garland vowed to make the prosecution of the Capitol mob his “first priority.” FBI agents and prosecutors have tracked down and charged some 300 of the rioters. “Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on March 2. He noted that the FBI is currently working on about 2,000 domestic-terrorism cases, twice as many as it was in September.


Law enforcement has plenty of tools to investigate and prosecute violent domestic extremism. Yet it often chooses not to use them, former national-security officials say. When someone spray-paints a swastika on a synagogue, local cops are more likely to classify the crime as vandalism than to probe whether the perpetrator has ties to hate groups. Only 14% of nearly 15,600 state and local police agencies involved in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program even report hate crimes. Most of them report zero. Without accurate data cataloging the threat, it’s impossible to allocate resources to fight it. {snip}


Faced with this dilemma, many in Congress have renewed calls for new legislation to formally criminalize domestic terrorism, a move Biden supported during his campaign. But civil-liberties advocates reject the idea, fearing that more power for a broken system would only make matters worse. In a Jan. 19 letter to Congress, the American Civil Liberties Union and 150 other groups warned a domestic-counterterrorism law could undermine Americans’ First Amendment rights and be used to target people of color and other marginalized communities.

At DHS, officials are expanding programs that focus on keeping those who flirt with extremist views from joining militant groups or committing violent acts. Biden’s newly confirmed Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the task will be to “identify where the line between hateful rhetoric and hateful action takes place, to be well ahead of the action before it occurs and to stop it.” The agency announced it will provide at least $77 million in federal grants to state and local governments to combat domestic violent extremism, including training beat officers to spot the signs of far-right violence early on.

Mayorkas has acknowledged that these programs will have to focus on fighting extremists’ recruitment on social media platforms. But any efforts to change hearts and minds will be controversial. Hate speech is in most cases protected speech, and the U.S. government is legally barred from countering homegrown extremism the way it does foreign terrorist propaganda. Already the prosecutions of the Capitol rioters are raising questions about the rights to free speech, assembly and privacy for American citizens. Leaders in law enforcement and the U.S. military are split on how to deal with extremists in their own ranks. Underlying all these efforts is a question that became harder to answer during the Trump era: Who is a potentially violent domestic extremist, and who only speaks like one?

Still, some on the left are calling for immediate action. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, has urged Biden to issue an Executive Order that would identify white supremacy and domestic violent extremism as a threat to national security and screen service members’ social media accounts for ties to radical movements. Others point to Canada’s recent designation of the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization and argue for stronger measures at home. “Our best chance for success is to be straight with the American people–that the threats we now face are arguably as dangerous as they were in the immediate post-9/11 environment, and these threats are not going away,” Christopher Rodriguez, director of Washington’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, told Congress on Feb. 4.

The makeup of the mob that stormed the Capitol may be the biggest problem. Though Congress has focused on militias and white-supremacist groups, those factions represented few of the participants. A George Washington University study identified 257 people involved in the riot, of whom just a small fraction were found to be part of a militant network. The vast majority were ordinary Americans–members of church groups, families who traveled together, and what the report calls “inspired believers”–which shows how far-right beliefs have seeped into the mainstream.

Experts recommend the White House begin implementing community-based initiatives, like those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, to work with neighborhood organizations to combat disinformation and radicalism. Republican and Democratic lawmakers have introduced bills to establish a bipartisan commission to study the Capitol attack. Similar blue-ribbon probes of 9/11, the causes of urban uprisings in the 1960s, and other threats helped shape public opinion about the nation’s security and guide its responses. One goal of such a panel, advocates say, would be to create an accepted public record of U.S. extremist violence over the past decade. {snip}


What’s clear is that the fight against domestic extremism will be a defining issue for a President who said he chose to run because of Charlottesville and whose Inauguration was overshadowed by the Capitol riot. Biden has promised to unite the country while delivering the “defeat” of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. It’s not clear it’s possible to do both.