Biden says fight against U.S. extremists is one from ground up

Ryan Bundy (left) and Wes Kjar, an occupier, take up positions after a door was rattled in an office at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 6, 2016. (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Laying out his plan to root out homegrown extremism hiding in plain sight, President Joe Biden on Tuesday released a national strategy that calls for a whole-of-government approach.

It is the first plan of its kind handed down from a U.S. president that calls on not just the federal government, but state, local and tribal governments to unify their efforts and share intelligence on threats. The shift toward domestic extremists comes nearly 20 years after the September 11, 2001, attacks brought America’s focus firmly on foreign terrorism.

In the last 10 years, however, law enforcement have observed an appetite for ideologies like white supremacy flourishing in corners both public and private. Digging into this phenomenon, the 32-page strategy includes a brief summary first released by the U.S. intelligence community in March.

Using shorthand, the summary says that DVEs, or domestic violent extremists, are heavily motivated by old “biases against minority populations and perceived government overreach.” But that is not to say that some DVEs won’t be instigated this year by what the summary calls “newer sociopolitical developments — such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol, conditions related to the Covid–19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence.”

The intelligence community used some more abbreviations — RMEs and MVEs — to identify racially motivated extremists and militia violent extremists living within America’s borders as the groups most likely to conduct lethal mass-casualty attacks against American civilians.

Biden came into office on the heels of such an attack when the very stage on which he stood to be sworn in on Jan. 20 was overrun just two weeks earlier by a mob intent on giving former President Donald Trump the second term he lost in the 2020 election.

Trump’s incitement of the insurrection led to his second impeachment in the House of Representatives, and Biden announced a 100-day review of the country’s extremist elements on his first full day in office.

The fruits of those labors could prove difficult to enforce, however, and have already taken some criticism from civil liberties groups.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, said in a statement Tuesday that while the White House is “rightly focused” on addressing white supremacist violence, its strategy “includes none of the civil rights and liberties safeguards that rights groups and communities of color have long sought.”

“Embracing civil rights and liberties as a national security imperative means little when this new strategy fails to rein in abusive counterterrorism tools that result in unfair and unjustified surveillance and targeting of Black and Brown people, particularly Muslims,” Shamsi said. “We’re deeply disappointed that the administration failed to impose safeguards against biased profiling, overbroad law enforcement information sharing, and other measures that harm free expression and equal protection, including of the very communities that white supremacists target.”

Biden’s 32-page strategy calls for greater funding at the Justice Department and FBI for analysts who can methodically track domestic terror cases. It also asks the State Department to continue exploring how foreign terror groups now linked to domestic terror groups can be legally designated and it asks the Department of the Treasury to link up with state and local law enforcement to identify, track and analyze the financial activity of domestic terrorists.

The Department of Homeland Security will offer $77 million in grants for state, local and tribal partners to prevent and respond to homegrown terrorism, and the Department of Defense will now incorporate specialized training for servicemembers retiring from the military on how to identify violent extremists who also have military training.

Roughly 70 people charged for their role in the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 7 were current or retired members of the military, law enforcement or government. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Tuesday during a press conference that there have been at least 480 people arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol.

With Biden himself touring Europe, Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told reporters Tuesday the Justice Department has already implemented some of the White House’s new strategies.

“Among other things, we have begun to reinvigorate the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee,” Garland said, noting a program first launched by former attorney general Janet Reno after the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing which killed 168 people, including 19 children.

“We have now, as we had then, an enormous task ahead,” Garland said, “To move forward as a country, to punish the perpetrators, to do everything possible to prevent similar attacks, and to do so in a manner that affirms the values on which our justice system is founded, and upon which our democracy depends.” 

Garland, too, highlighted some flash points from the country’s recent uptick in domestic terror attacks like the 2017 mass shooting at a Black-led church in Charleston, South Carolina, and a politically motivated attack on a congressional baseball game that same year. 

“Such attacks are not only unspeakable tragedies for the victims’ loved ones,” he said. “They are also a tragedy for our country, an attack on our core ideals as a society.”

Tracing how the country’s response to extremist attacks has evolved over the years, Garland also recalled the 100-year anniversary of a race massacre in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which saw a thriving neighborhood then known as “Black Wall Street” burned to the ground and not a single white rioter brought up on federal charges. 

Garland noted that the Justice Department will reevaluate its past strategies for handling domestic terrorism to implement those lessons and prevent future attacks, he added. 

“We cannot promise that we will be able to disrupt every plot, diffuse every bomb, or arrest every co-conspirator before they manage to wreak unspeakable horror. But we can promise that we will do everything in our power to prevent such tragedies,” he said. “And we can further promise that we will never again fail as we did after Tulsa to pursue justice.”