WASHINGTON ― The anti-Muslim white supremacist charged with murdering two men in Portland, Oregon, when they intervened in his bigoted tirade at two teenagers is the kind of extremist that former Department of Homeland Security official Daryl Johnson worried about.
Eight years ago, working in the department’s now-defunct Extremism and Radicalization Branch, Johnson authored a memo intended to warn law enforcement about the threat posed by right-wing extremists. It wasn’t just the election of the first black president, he wrote, but the troubled economic situation, the divisive political climate, and angry rhetoric about immigrants and outsiders that could spark attacks. Right-wing extremists, he wrote, could capitalize on “racial and political prejudices” to reach a “wider audience of potential sympathizers.”
The backlash to Johnson’s 2009 memo was swift. Some conservatives portrayed it as an Obama administration attack on the tea party movement. Under political pressure, the administration backed away from the memo. They dismantled Johnson’s team. He left the government.
In the years since, the U.S. has seen several high-profile incidents of violence by right-wing extremists. The latest tragedy occurred last week with the stabbing deaths of Ricky John Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, on a commuter train. A third man, 21-year-old Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was severely injured. Jeremy Christian, 35, has since been charged in the incident. The men had confronted Christian as he was harassing two teenage girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab.
Christian left a long trail of hate online. His mother told HuffPost that her son, who had spent time in prison, had a habit of “spouting anti-establishment stuff.” At his first court appearance on Tuesday, he called for the death of the “enemies” of America. “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism,” Christian said. “You hear me? Die.”
Johnson, now a security consultant, has fielded calls from reporters in the wake of other such attacks by domestic extremists. After a white supremacist killed six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. After another white supremacist slaughtered African-American churchgoers in South Carolina. After militia extremists occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. After radicalized military veterans murdered police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Dallas. After three members of a Crusaders militia were arrested for plotting an attack on Muslim immigrants in Kansas.
Rather than dialing back after President Donald Trump’s win, as some had predicted they would, domestic extremist groups seem to have been “emboldened” by the rhetoric of the 2016 election, Johnson told HuffPost. Friday’s attack in Portland, he said, highlights once again the federal government’s failure to take the threat of domestic terrorism seriously.
“This just re-emphasizes that we have an issue that has pretty much permeated the entire country, and yet the legislators and leadership in government either don’t recognize it, or are de-emphasizing it, or are not really playing close attention to it,” Johnson said.
On that point, he agrees with then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who told HuffPost in 2015 that the murder of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, should serve as a “wake-up call” about the danger of domestic terrorism. Holder said America liked the fiction that the extremist threat arose solely from ideologies coming from outside the United States.
“We have a young man who apparently becomes radicalized as the result of an incident and becomes more radicalized as a result of what he sees on the internet, through the use of his computer, then goes and does something that by his own words apparently is a political, violent act,” Holder said at the time. “With a different set of circumstances, and if you had dialed in religion there, Islam, that would be called an act of terror.”
There’s a history of the U.S. government treading carefully when it comes to domestic extremists. During the Clinton administration, extremists seized on two deadly conflicts between federal agents and fringe groups ― in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993 ― to recruit and propagandize. Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995, was motivated by those incidents. Since then, the government has adopted a strategy of acting with what one former FBI hostage negotiator called “infinite patience” in direct standoffs with domestic extremists. Rhetorically, too, the government has largely avoided language that could heighten tensions with those groups. In some situations, like the wildlife refugee standoff in Oregon, that approach has generated criticism and accusations that the feds are appeasing extremists.
More recently, the government has taken some limited steps to address domestic extremists. In 2014, the Justice Department re-established the Domestic Terrorism Task Force, which had been set up in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing but allowed to go dormant after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2015, the head of the department’s National Security Division said that domestic groups organizing online were a “real threat” to the United States and established the position of counsel for domestic terrorism matters. The counsel, former FBI official Thomas E. Brzozowski, said last year that extremists’ underlying ideology is “immaterial” to how the Justice Department approaches domestic terrorism.
The major hurdle that prosecutors face in the realm of domestic terrorism is that supporting such groups is largely protected by the Constitution. That’s not the case for those who back designated foreign terrorist groups: They can be hit with “material support” charges for a wide variety of activities, even tweeting support for foreign terrorists.
Johnson noted that the government also puts a much greater emphasis on preventing attacks inspired by the Islamic State and al Qaeda and has assigned a lot more resources to those types of cases. But that doesn’t mean domestic extremists are any less of a threat, he said.
“If the government wanted to shift its focus and look at other types of domestic terrorist groups and individuals, if they decided, ‘Hey, that’s a priority of ours,’ they could pump out as many cases on the right-wing side,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of priorities and budget and resources.”
It is, of course, a tall order for the federal government to track every self-radicalized lone wolf in the country. Still, FBI stings aimed at right-wing extremists have been rare. And some cases against domestic organizations, like the Hutaree militia in Michigan and the anti-government forces that took over the Oregon wildlife refuge have been unsuccessful, with prosecutors facing skepticism from judges and juries that is rarely seen in cases against Muslim extremists. (There are also successful prosecutions: Alaska extremist Schaeffer Cox received 25 years, while senior citizens in a Georgia militia got sentences in the range of five to 10 years.)
The federal government doesn’t make much of an effort to really keep an eye on domestic extremists, according to Ryan Lenz, a senior investigative reporter for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
“It seems that the federal government is very reluctant to call American citizens terrorists, even when their actions meet the definition of what terrorism is,” said Lenz. “It’s much easier to assign that label of terrorist to someone who is Muslim and comes from a foreign country than someone who is American and looks like people in Congress.”
It’s not just the government, Johnson said, it’s the way cases are treated by the media as well. There would be a lot more reporting on the Portland attack if it had been committed by a Muslim, he contended, and it likely would have been national news for days.
What is it going to take for them to step up and actually recognize the threat for what it is? Daryl Johnson, former Department of Homeland Security official
When an attack is committed by a Muslim, Johnson said, “everybody gets real spun up, and there’s a lot more news coverage, and you have all of these counterterrorism consultants all over the news talking about the threat of Muslim extremists. You don’t get that same attention and that same response from the public or these counterterrorism officials or the government over these similar incidents that were hate-motivated.”
For now, Johnson predicts the government will continue to aggressively target sympathizers of Muslim extremist groups with sting operations and pay only lip service to the idea of tackling homegrown terrorism.
“That’s just the government’s stances and its policy, wanting to reinforce the war on terror. So we’re going to target these ISIS supporters and do these sting operations against people we feel are being sympathetic towards ISIS and al Qaeda,” Johnson said.
In the short term at least, he’s not very hopeful that the government will launch a similarly dedicated effort to combat domestic extremists.
“We’re already behind on resources and attention given to domestic terrorists, and now we’ve got even more emerging from different sides of the political spectrum,” Johnson said. “Right now, the picture in my opinion is bleak.”
He also had some urgent words for those critics in Congress who attacked his 2009 memo.
“I would say it’s never too late to reconsider your stance on how serious this threat is,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen the threat grow and grow year after year, and here we are eight years removed and incident after incident has pretty much validated the analysis in that report. What is it going to take for them to step up and actually recognize the threat for what it is?”
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