How 9/11 Clouded the Threats Closest to Home

“The American anti-terrorism plan cannot consist only of a never-ending war overseas. First and foremost, we need to clean up our own backyard and root out domestic terrorism.”

By Nora Swidey

Rioters storm the hallway of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Rioters storm the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Photo: Getty Images

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the American people and government have been fearing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil by foreign-born jihadists. However, in the two decades since 9/11, this country has witnessed just one deadly attack of this nature. At the same time, an even more dangerous threat has been forming on our very own soil. The Jan. 6 Capitol raid showed just how vicious domestic right-wing terrorists can be.

The domestic threat is not new, but it has been long overlooked as a security priority. Even more troubling, it’s on the rise. A Washington Post analysis of The Center for Strategic and International Studies data found that domestic terrorism incidents in this country reached an all-time high in 2020. Of the domestic terrorist attacks from January 2015 to January 2021, right-wing extremists are responsible for 267 and left-wing extremists for 66.

What explains this dramatic spike? Trump’s presidency emboldened homegrown extremist groups, giving them legitimacy from the highest office in the land. Trump’s first year in office saw a stunning 70 percent increase in far-right violent attacks. His rhetoric meets four out of five indicators of “dangerous speech,” a framework developed by Susan Benesch to identify speech that has a good chance of leading to violence, and his policies fueled the white nationalist agenda. His call from the debate stage in 2020 for the white supremacist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” exemplified his support of right-wing violence. In this context, the Jan. 6 Capitol raids can be viewed not as an aberration but instead as the crescendo of his four-year record of reckless incitement.

Despite this growing threat from home, public sentiment and policy has remained more wary of jihadists. One reason for this distorted threat assessment involves the popular American depiction of what a terrorist is. In the U.S., a Muslim perpetrator is almost always labeled a terrorist while far-right domestic extremists are more often classified as mass-shooters. A study on mass shootings found that 39 percent of events classified as mass-shootings met all four criteria of terrorism, indicating that the U.S. often disregards the terrorist intent behind these forms of violence. Increased fear around jihadist events might be both the fuel for, and the result of, this finding. If we don’t even acknowledge white right-wing extremists as terrorists, how can we properly combat the serious threat they present?

The Islamophobia that accompanied the War on Terror helped fuel the right-wing movement which capitalized on the fear following 9/11, launching anti-Muslim campaigns and marrying them with anti-immigrant and white-supremacist agendas. This societal fixation on jihadist terrorist gave far-right groups only more fuel for their recruitment drives. And while these groups spread on American soil, the U.S. government was preoccupied overseas, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. A review of government counter-terrorism spending reflects these distorted priorities. The Stimson Center reported that, from 2002 to 2017, the U.S. spent less than $80 billion on domestic counterterrorism efforts, a tiny fraction of the nearly $3 trillion in estimated total counter-terrorism spending over that period.

Some people contend that the U.S. government’s laser-like focus on foreign jihadists is to thank for the relative dearth of jihadist terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11 attacks. While the U.S. government’s decision to flood the zone with resources to fight jihadists may have had a deterrent effect on new plots, a more plausible argument is al-Qaeda got what it wanted by drawing the world’s most powerful nation into an all-consuming forever war it can never win. The Costs of War Project at Brown University released a new assessment that is more comprehensive than the Stimson Center study, and it finds that the U.S. has spent $8 trillion fighting terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere since the Sept. 11 attacks.

And what does this nation have to show for this treasury-depleting outlay? As the messy exit of U.S. forces in Afghanistan last month shows: nothing good. Despite all the lost American and Afghan lives over the last 20 years, the Taliban still wrested control of the country as the U.S. forces departed.

The American anti-terrorism plan cannot consist only of a never-ending war overseas. First and foremost, we need to clean up our own backyard and root out domestic terrorism.

Combating foreign-orchestrated jihadist terrorism should certainly remain a security concern, but the U.S. must move past the War on Terror era and recognize times have changed. Luckily, the Biden Administration represents a sharp contrast from the Trump-era support of far-right extremists. Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism is the first of its kind and promises over $100 million to combating the threat.

A hefty budget will not solve this problem alone, however. American society must follow suit and condemn right-wing domestic terrorists as strongly as they did jihadist terrorists post-9/11.

Right-wing extremist ideology is pervasive and dangerous. It preys on people’s fears of being “replaced” and deep histories of racism. According to the Dangerous Speech Project, one effective way to stop the spread of these groups is to “inoculate” the audience against inflammatory speech by teaching them to recognize and resist it.

The new domestic terrorism plan vaguely mentions programs to improve internet literacy and resistance to online recruitment. To effectively break the cycle of dangerous ideas that fuel this violence, the Department of Education should focus on implementing anti-racism education in public schools. This approach has been effective in other countries, like Germany, Norway, and New Zealand, experiencing a rise in right-wing extremism. Unfortunately, many Republican states have already passed laws banning programs like this, labeling them as divisive. So, it will take a Herculean effort to accomplish the societal change necessary. If combating domestic terrorism is truly a priority of the new administration though, they must try.

The Department of Justice will surely be a major part of addressing the threat as well, but the Biden plan already allocates more resources for the Department of Justice and the FBI to hire new analysts, investigators, and prosecutors, as well as provide better training to aid investigations and prevent threats before they come to fruition. The plan also discusses the possibility of creating specific legislation to explicitly outlaw domestic terrorism. Both free speech absolutists and civil rights activists have raised concerns over this law, arguing that the FBI and other relevant organizations already have sufficient jurisdiction to interrupt these threats: all they need to do is exercise it. And so, a broader societal campaign to recognize the present threat may be more effective in condemning domestic terrorists as well as in encouraging government organizations to do their jobs to prevent these attacks.

While there will be no simple way to neutralize domestic terrorism, we will have no hope of meeting that challenge if we fail to first acknowledge just how clear and present a danger it represents.

Nora Swidey, a Stanford student at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), wrote this opinion piece as part of her coursework in CISAC’s PS114S, International Security in a Changing World.