Why it's time to take domestic terrorism seriously

Fire personnel gather at the base of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, April 20, 1995, one day after the fatal car bombing.
Fire personnel gather at the base of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, April 20, 1995, one day after the fatal car bombing.

After the deadly Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995, then-Attorney General Janet Reno formed a special task force to coordinate the country’s response to the threat of domestic terrorism.

The task force was scheduled to hold one of its monthly meetings on Sept. 11, 2001, but did not for obvious reasons. In fact, because the threat of jihadist terrorism has taken so much of the government’s attention since 9/11, the special task force has never met again.

The killings in Overland Park, Kansas, last Sunday remind us, however, that the threat of domestic terrorism is still very real. What’s more, Saturday is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, an event that killed 168 people and led to the formation of the now-defunct special federal task force. It is time, therefore, to ask whether the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of jihadist terrorism.

There were actually good reasons to ask this very question before the events of the past week – a point we made in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last year.

A 2006-2007 survey of state police agencies sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, found that more states reported the presence of far-right anti-government, neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups than Islamic extremists. Since the time of that survey, our tracking shows that the number of far-right anti-government groups has exploded, and the number of neo-Nazi and racist skinhead groups has remained at an extraordinarily high level.

Another DHS-sponsored study in 2011 found that criminal violence was associated with a significant percentage of hate groups. And a study last year by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that right-wing violence between 2000 and 2011 surpassed that of the 1990s by a factor of four.  

Despite the continuing threat, the resources devoted to combating non-Islamic domestic terrorism took another hit in 2009. That year, the DHS produced an intelligence assessment warning that right-wing extremists posed a mounting threat because of several factors that included the election of the nation’s first African-American president. The report, which said that some extremists could come from the ranks of “disgruntled, disillusioned” Army veterans, might have been describing men like Frazier Glenn Miller, the neo-Nazi and former Green Beret who has been charged in the Kansas killings. Like so many on the far, far right, he regularly ranted about President Obama.

When the DHS report became public, a firestorm erupted in certain conservative quarters. Some groups and pundits insisted, for example, that the report slandered veterans and equated all conservatives with terrorists.  

But instead of standing by the report, Napolitano disavowed it. What’s more, the DHS unit that produced the assessment – the very unit that analyzed security threats from non-Islamic domestic extremists – withered away. Most of its members left the agency, and, as of today, the unit has still not been reconstituted.

We are not contending that the threat from right-wing terrorists deserves as much attention as the threat from jihadist terrorists. Although it has been widely reported, based on data from the New America Foundation, that right-wing extremists have killed 34 people in the U.S. since 9/11, while terrorists motivated by al Qaeda’s ideology have killed “only” 21, the count would be much different if the time frame included 9/11, rather than starting the day after it.

Instead, we’re raising a question – the question of whether the law enforcement pendulum has swung too far in the direction of jihadist terrorism at the expense of other threats.

It’s a question that has to be asked in light of last week’s tragedy in Overland Park, Kansas. And it’s a question that has to be answered before the next domestic terrorist incident takes place.   

J. Richard Cohen is a civil rights lawyer and the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.