The Deparment of Justice’s new domestic terrorism unit will face similar challenges that have so far undermined efforts to counter its rise.

On January 11, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the formation of a specialised unit focused on domestic terrorism. This reflects the growing concerns within the US government of the rising threat from far-right extremism. It is also one of the tools the Biden Administration hopes to employ to implement its national strategy for countering domestic terrorism, which includes the diversion of additional sources to the fight against local extremist groups.

The indignant response from the far-right should not surprise those who are familiar with its dominant anti-governmental conspiracy narratives. For members of the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and other more regional militia groups, this is another confirmation of their views about the intrusive and authoritarian nature of the federal government and its desire to escalate its policies against those who are interested in limiting its powers. 

The news about the new DOJ unit intensifies among many far-right activists a growing sense that their ideological movement is under siege and being persecuted by the federal government in its effort to silence those who oppose its policies. 

The persisting beliefs in the “Big Lie” and “stolen” elections further fuel the sense of anger, frustration, and desperation among many contemporary activists of the American far-right. Such sentiments led to further escalation in the militancy within far-right groups and drove some of their members to engage in violent hate crimes and anti-governmental activities. 

According to data collected by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Development Service Group, a DC-based think tank, the timeframe between 2019-2021 saw the highest yearly rate of hate crimes in the US since at least 1990, up by more than 200 percent compared to the time period between 2008 to 2018.

Despite the importance of providing more resources to fight far-right extremism, the DOJ’s new domestic terrorism unit will face similar challenges that have so far undermined efforts to counter its rise.

Enduring issues

The absence of a federal criminal statute on domestic terrorism complicates the situation as it prevents the state from banning strictly domestic extremist groups (in contrast to foreign groups) – even those that allegedly promote violent practices.

But the lack of legal means has emboldened such elements and may explain some of the reasons for the rapid proliferation of paramilitary associations in the US, including those which effectively recruit former military and law enforcement and engage in military training. 

Another concern is related to limited data about the scope and nature of the phenomenon. For example, in 2017, more than 87 percent of the agencies that report to the American National Crime Survey, which is the primary tool used by the government to track crime trends in the US, indicated zero hate crimes in their district. This reflects severe under-reporting. Indeed in 2018, DOJ officials admitted that there is significant underreporting about hate crimes. 

But the most important challenge facing the US in its response to far-right violence is the escalation in environmental factors — the main drivers of hate violence — which do not receive systematic treatment. 

The first is a contentious political environment and rhetoric, which empowers extremist far-right elements to further challenge political and law-enforcement authorities and facilitate a sense that far-right violence is more tolerated than other manifestations of violence. Without consensus- building around the need to curb far-right violence, on both state and federal levels, political polarisation and the increasing delegitimisation of political rivals and democratic practices will further inflame the emergence of militant actors on the far-right.

It is also crucial to develop policy tools that will prevent violent backlash to demographic diversification. The United States is becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse, a process most demographers believe will intensify in the foreseeable future. 

Considering that a growing number of studies show that regions experiencing faster diversification (ie. an increase in the minority population) are also those experiencing the highest increase in hate crimes, community programmes should focus not just on identifying and helping individuals vulnerable for radicalisation but also in facilitating greater trust, tolerance, and collaboration between majority and minority populations.

Despite these challenges, the creation of the new Domestic Terrorism unit at the DOJ is a further indication of the substantial progress in improving legal and criminal justice mechanisms to address the threat of domestic terrorism. With all the reservations detailed above, the situation today is significantly better, especially with regards to the growing awareness of the threat and willingness to address its root causes and proliferation. 

As with other security threats, eventually, interagency collaboration, combined with joint efforts from the private and non-profit sector, is the most promising way forward in improving US resiliency to far-right militancy.

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Source: TRT World