WASHINGTON -- Just like the Islamic State, radical domestic hate groups can use social media to spread messages and inspire attacks in the United States, a top counterterrorism official said Wednesday.
Domestic terrorism is a "real threat" that "demands to be addressed in new and creative ways," John Carlin, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department's National Security Division, said at an event at George Washington University on Wednesday. With the nation's focus on Islamic extremists since the Sept. 11 attacks, domestic extremism "doesn't get discussed as much as it should," Carlin said.
However, "over the past few years, more people have died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than in attacks associated with international terrorist groups," Carlin said.
For domestic terrorists -- just as it has for ISIS -- social media "can create for an extreme segment of society a sort of 'radicalization echo chamber' where followers reinforce for each other extremist propaganda and calls for violence," Carlin said.
"White supremacists post to social media, and studies now posit that mass killings are contagious. Violence begets violence, and through the power of the internet, a meeting hall is no longer needed. Formal organizational structures are unnecessary. Connections are made, and messages spread, through the push of a button," Carlin said in prepared remarks.
As the the white percentage of the U.S. population is expected to shrink over the next several decades, which could cause extremists to feel marginalized, the government is "definitely concerned about the challenge going forward," Carlin said.
But Carlin indicated that he didn't believe the U.S. government should designate domestic organizations as terrorist organizations, as it does with foreign groups, even though doing so would make it possible to bring "material support" charges against individuals who, for example, back certain organizations on social media. "Domestic terrorism groups," he noted, are not impacted by the “material support” statute -- a state affairs that "reflects our values."
"To do that for a group here would mean, based on who the group is and what they're doing, the entire group is designated as a terrorist group," Carlin said.
He said that undercover sting operations were also important in the domestic realm, but added that it was important to make sure defendants accused of planning an attack "take that extra step to walk the walk" by demonstrating willingness to act.
Carlin also announced a new position within the Justice Department that will serve as the "main point of contact" for federal prosecutors around the county who work on domestic terrorism matters. He also touted the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, which the Justice Department reestablished in 2014, and said that the group now includes representatives of both the Civil Rights Division and the Tax Division.
Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said her organization appreciated the efforts, as many had felt that the domestic terrorism threat wasn't getting as much attention as it should from the federal government.
Carlin's comments seemed to echo those former Attorney General Eric Holder made in an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this year.
"I think as a nation, we as a people have not focused on the domestic threat. We have thought that the threat is from without, and that the threat to the extent that it exists within the nation is only based on ideologies that come from outside of the United States," Holder said.
While Holder called the Charleston shooting earlier this year "clearly an act of terrorism" that should serve as a "wake-up call" for the country, and while the Justice Department treated the shooting in Charleston as a potential act of domestic terrorism, Dylann Roof was eventually indicted on federal hate crime charges.
"This type of crime in particular -- racially motivated violence -- for which a federal law was specifically enacted to cover is of grave importance to the federal government," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in July when she announced the charges against Roof.