We should fight white nationalist killers as though they were terrorists

Published on Sunday, 11 August 2019 21:00
Written by Mary B. McCord

Special To The Washington Post

Government officials, Republicans and Democrats, are calling last weekend’s mass shooting in El Paso domestic terrorism. This is correct; according to FBI officials, more U.S. deaths have been caused by domestic terrorists than international ones in recent years, and the majority of the bureau’s domestic terrorism investigations involve white-supremacist ideology. As it happens, America has ample experience fighting terrorism; we’ve been at it since the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush called on foreign leaders to help the United States defeat al-Qaida. The “global war on terror” he proposed wasn’t just a military campaign; it was also a terrorism prevention campaign, mobilizing law enforcement and the intelligence community to protect the homeland from future attacks.

What can we learn from the “war on terror”? Prevention of international terrorist acts in the United States is based on aggressive law enforcement techniques such as undercover online personas and sting operations. If we want to fight terrorism in the homeland, there are plenty of lessons to apply.

Undercover operatives, working online, have helped to combat a range of crimes, from child sexual exploitation to terrorism. To fight terrorism, officials pose as aspiring jihadists on social media and in chat rooms to identify people who may be plotting an attack. These techniques, though, are limited when it comes to preventing domestic terrorist attacks. FBI guidelines forbid agents from deploying them solely on the basis of First Amendment-protected activity; a white nationalist has a constitutional right to espouse hate and to join with others who agree with him. Instead, agents must have reason to believe that a crime is being, or may be, committed. That makes it important for the government to ensure that the set of possible crimes is broad enough to cover what it is trying to prevent.

Consider the most common international terrorism charge: material support to a foreign terrorist organization. It criminalizes providing “material support or resources” - including money, equipment and one’s self as the perpetrator of an attack - to a State Department-designated foreign terrorist organization. Although the First Amendment’s protections of speech and assembly would make it difficult to label white-nationalist groups here this way, there is no bar to designating foreign white-supremacist groups as terrorist organizations, which would make it a crime for Americans to provide help to them. The criteria for such designations are ideologically neutral: The organization must be foreign, it must engage in terrorist activity or have the capability or intent to engage in terrorist activity, and it must threaten U.S. national security. Foreign neo-Nazi groups such as the Nordic Resistance Movement, Combat 18 and Jobbik have waged terrorist violence. If the State Department put any of these groups on the list, the FBI could deploy undercover agents to engage with their members online.

Another gap in our law is that domestic terrorism is not a federal crime. Of the many terrorism statutes in the U.S. Code, none apply to the most common type of domestic-terrorist attack: using firearms to shoot large numbers of people. The same mass shooting, if committed by someone who announced allegiance to the Islamic State, would be prosecuted as an attempt to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization. This doesn’t mean domestic terrorism goes unpunished: Murder is a crime in all 50 states, and white-supremacist killings often violate federal hate-crime laws. But from a prevention standpoint, those crimes don’t give the FBI the tools it needs to treat white-nationalist killers like the Islamist terrorists whom investigators have spent their careers studying.

If Congress passed a law criminalizing domestic attacks along these lines, law enforcement agencies could more readily use the tools that have disrupted Islamist terrorism in the United States. This also would enshrine a moral equivalency in our laws: Killing innocents to try to end immigration and create a white ethno-state is no different than killing innocents because they are thought to be enemies of Islam.

White supremacy, like Islamist jihad, is a global problem. It deserves the same global approach. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), created after 9/11, has aided military success abroad and terrorism prevention here at home. But its mission could be expanded to include domestic terrorism. The NCTC’s involvement will lead to better awareness of key online radicalizers and operatives, the transnational links and networks they use, and tactics being pursued by aspiring domestic killers.

Some of the techniques of the “global war on terror” - torture, warrantless mass surveillance - should never be repeated. But if we want to treat white-nationalist shooters like the terrorists they are, there’s a template right before us.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Sunday, 11 August 2019 21:00. Updated: Sunday, 11 August 2019 21:03.