WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are coming to grips with what experts warned Thursday is a dangerous and escalating threat of homegrown violent extremism following last month's riots on Capitol Hill.
Members of the House committee on homeland security heard chilling warnings about a "high likelihood" of domestic terror attacks fuelled by the divisions that were on such stark display on Jan. 6.
That date was an inflection point in the nature of the terror threats faced by the U.S., said Elizabeth Neumann, a counterterrorism expert and former Department of Homeland Security official.
Prior to the riots, terrorism was largely an international threat, Neumann said. Afterward, it became a domestic one.
"There is a high likelihood of violence in the coming months on a range of softer targets associated with their perception of the deep state, including infrastructure, mainstream media, law enforcement, big tech and elected officials," Neumann told the committee.
"Sadly, I do believe that we will be fighting domestic terrorism that has its roots and inspiration points from Jan. 6 for the next 10 to 20 years."
Neumann called it "paramount" that Congress establish a bipartisan commission on domestic terrorism to establish a "shared understanding" of the threat and to prevent discussions from being co-opted and manipulated by the very people they are meant to target.
Extremist ideology, she said, has been "mainstreamed and normalized" as a result of political rhetoric, conspiracy theories and social media communications that exploit humour and memes "to mask the danger of those ideas present."
Such a commission, she added, could explore the pros and cons of putting domestic extremism on the same legal footing as international terrorism. Under current U.S. law, it's typically easier for authorities to prosecute crimes as terrorist incidents when they have a link to organizations overseas.
On Wednesday, Canada got out ahead of that idea when the federal government designated the white-supremacist Proud Boys, who played a prominent role in last month's storming of the Capitol, as a terrorist organization.
Also among the 13 groups added to the list were The Base, the Atomwaffen Division and the Russian Imperial Movement, all described as neo-Nazi and white-supremacy organizations.
Thursday's hearing was far from unanimous when it came to the idea of changing the law in the U.S., a country that takes its commitment to the idea of free speech extremely seriously.
"We do have to re-examine how we view incitement" in the modern-day context of the internet and social media, said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the non-profit Rand Corp. think-tank.
"I'm cautious about new anti-terrorism legislation that leads us to decide, 'Well, you're a terrorist, this group is a terrorist, this group is a terrorist' — that's going to be a long and futile argument," Jenkins said.
"Examining the communications technologies and how these platforms run and rule themselves is something we have to do."
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, laid the blame for the rise of right-wing extremism squarely at the feet of former president Donald Trump and the social media platforms that have provided shelter to dangerous rhetoric.
"No longer does a person have to decamp to a clandestine compound in the woods; today, you can find hate 24/7 with just a few clicks on your phone," Greenblatt said.
Of the 17 U.S. deaths last year that the ADL has tied to extremist activity, 16 of them were caused by groups or individuals espousing a right-wing ideology, he added.
He called the Capitol riots "the most predictable terror attack in American history" and a "watershed moment" for the U.S. white-supremacy movement.
Greenblatt's seven-point strategy includes passing the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which would give the federal government more authority and resources to investigate, prevent and respond to the threat, though it stops short of putting it on the same plane as international terrorism.
He also called for banning extremists from the military, law enforcement and elected offices; tighter controls on social media; a concerted effort to prevent radicalization; and targeting foreign white-supremacist groups.
"Make no mistake, this movement is a global threat," Greenblatt said.
"There is no silver bullet to stopping the threat of domestic terrorism. A single statute won't solve the problem. This is a multi-pronged approach to address a multi-pronged issue."
U.S. law enforcement agencies are in the process of a comprehensive intelligence assessment of the extent of the threat — a review the White House said it would await before deciding whether to follow Canada's lead on white-supremacist groups.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press