Congress’ problematic ideas on global terrorism

The House held a hearing on global terrorism, here is what you need to know.

November 1, 2019

On Wednesday, October 30th, the House Homeland Security Committee held the second of a series of hearings on global terrorism entitled “Global Terrorism: Threats to the Homeland, Part II.” The invited witnesses were Kevin McAleenan, the Acting Secretary in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Christopher Wray, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); Russell Travers, the Acting Director of the National Counterterrorism Center; and David J. Glawe, the Under Secretary of the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis. 

This hearing comes on the heels of several important developments over the past few months. Not only has debate roiled on Capitol Hill over legislation regarding white supremacist terrorism, but:

These hearings offer a chance for federal agency representatives and lawmakers to exchange internal notes over the threat of white supremacist terrorism and brainstorm possible legislative fixes. The historical backdrop makes this particular hearing only more significant.

McAleenan, Wray, and the Committee members all spoke of white supremacist terrorism as the significant threat that it is. Given the lack of attention paid to white supremacy over the years, the shift in rhetoric among lawmakers and government agencies is a good sign. However, both McAleenan and Wray repeated several problematic ideas about white supremacist terrorism. 

The first bad idea is that white supremacists borrow their online messaging tactics from organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda. In fact, the online messaging tactics used by current white supremacist groups date back to the early 1980s. Back then, white supremacists from around the world organized through sites such as Stormfront, Liberty Net and Iron March. The FBI was actively engaged in counter-terror efforts.

The second bad idea is that white supremacists only operate through lone actors who self-radicalized online. In fact, the reality is much more complicated. As we noted in our white paper, “The White Supremacist Threat to America,” the online presence of disparate white supremacist organizations allows extremists “to connect the dots between their causes and those of others” and create “a sort of informal movement” logic. In other words, white supremacists have organized in groups for decades. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, law enforcement and legislators appeared united in their condemnation of white supremacist violence. They also displayed a lack of understanding regarding the nature of the white supremacist threat. Even if the FBI and DHS mean well in trying to combat the white supremacist issue, the policies can still have an adverse impact on the American Muslim community. Their commitment is a positive, but their internal awareness is a cause for concern. These ideas may inform future legislation and are a reflection of DHS and FBI strategies. 

Organizations like ours are responsible for ensuring that this commitment leads to policies that will protect the American Muslim community. We are doing just that. Through task forces in Los Angeles and with the DHS, we have engaged government and civil society partners ensuring the protection of faith communities at their houses of worship. At the legislative level, we are working with congressional partners to improve hate crimes enforcement and pass legislation which assesses the threat of white supremacist violence, improves government agency mechanisms for data collection and reporting, and protects civil liberties and civil rights. Overall, we are working to reform the way government agencies address domestic terrorism while maintaining vital civil liberties and civil rights protections.

We are committed to working with government agencies, Congress, and our communities to ensure that all vulnerable communities are protected from the threat of terrorism and targeted violence. We will continue to keep you updated as this process develops. 



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