The United States faces a far greater threat from homegrown “lone wolf” terrorists than jihadists, according to a newly released report -- but political concerns prevent authorities from tackling them head-on.
The Department of Homeland Security essentially disbanded its team devoted to non-Islamic domestic terrorism in early 2009 over complaints that President Barack Obama was targeting all conservatives and military veterans, rather than radical elements plotting violence.
That leaves Americans vulnerable to terrorist attacks carried out by U.S. citizens, according to a report issued Thursday by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The report – “Age of the Wolf: A Study of the Rise of Lone Wolf and Leaderless Resistance Terrorism” – found that right-wing radicals or homegrown jihadists carried out violent attacks every 34 days, on average, between April 1, 2009, and Feb. 1, 2015.
Many of these attacks are carried out by individuals who sought no assistance and told no one else of their plans – making them particularly difficult to detect until they act.
“What keeps me up at night is these guys – the lone wolf,” said Chief Art Acevado, of Austin, Texas, police.
His officers shot and killed Larry Steve McQuilliams, a white supremacist who had launched a violent assault in December against a federal courthouse, Mexican consulate, and the police department.
The White House will host a major summit next week to examine the threat of violent extremism, but the SPLC cautioned against focusing exclusively on Islamic terror in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks last month in Paris.
“Our study clearly shows the urgent need for federal agencies to reinvigorate their work studying and analyzing the radical right,” said Mark Potok, SPLC senior fellow. “It’s important to recognize the trend away from organized groups committing acts of domestic terror. As Timothy McVeigh demonstrated with the Oklahoma City bombing, lone wolves and small cells of domestic terrorists can create massive carnage.”
The report lists more than 60 domestic terrorism cases over a nearly five-year period ending at the start of this month, including the killings of two Las Vegas police officers last year by a husband-and-wife duo who had associations with the Bundy ranch and at least two unsuccessful political candidates.
The DHS unit provided law enforcement agencies with key intelligence about domestic terrorists before its mission redirected under political pressure by conservatives.
The former police chief in West Memphis, Arkansas, blamed the government for failing to notify law enforcement about the danger posed by “sovereign citizens” – two of whom killed his police officer son in 2010.
The FBI monitors threats posed by domestic terrorists, but experts on violent extremism say a dedicated unit is needed.
“It was a big mistake to take those people off the radar,” said Mark Hamm, an Indiana State University criminologist. “As soon as Barack Obama was elected, we could almost see it in the wind that there was going to be a revival of the radical right.”
Daryl Johnston, a former DHS analyst who authored the controversial report on right-wing extremists, said the government continues to focus too much on foreign Muslim terrorists instead of watching for homegrown threats.
“We’re long overdue for a much greater attack from the far right,” Johnson said. “We are long overdue.”