By Alex Kingsbury
Sept. 23, 2019
Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of homeland security, has a cold. “I won’t shake your hand,” he said, palms upward. He is in the prevention business.
Mr. McAleenan wears two black bands on his right wrist. The first commemorates the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, the second the victims of the mass shooting in an El Paso Walmart this summer.
We met inside One World Trade Centre earlier this month, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, to talk about a broadening of the Department of Homeland Security’s mission, to include preventing domestic terrorism — in addition to thwarting international terrorists — and what Mr. McAleenan calls “targeted violence,” meaning attacks against places like schools, movie theatres and houses of worship.
“There’s a moral clarity that comes with articulating what the mission is,” he told me. That’s important, particularly at a time when the public’s image of the department is wrapped up in the conduct of the Trump administration’s harsh immigration crackdown.
The shock of the Sept. 11 attacks prompted the creation of the department in 2002, a sprawling bureaucracy that pulled in all or part of 22 federal agencies and departments, including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It has more than 240,000 employees.
The mission then was self-evident: defend the homeland from foreign terrorists. If someone had said in 2001 that there wouldn’t be any successful attacks by Al Qaeda in the United States for the next two decades, no one would have believed it.
Instead of more Qaeda attacks in the United States, the threat evolved. Terrorists started to self-radicalize, their ideological movements becoming leaderless. Domestic terrorism — long a feature of American life — increased its potency with the widespread availability of military-style rifles. Mass casualty attacks became do-it-yourself.
The El Paso attack in August hit particularly close to home for the department. Nearly 4,000 Department of Homeland Security employees — many of them Hispanic — and their families live in El Paso. Six family members of department employees were among the 22 people murdered in the attack. One employee was in the Walmart during the attack and helped treat the wounded. “We have to acknowledge that the overall terrorism and targeted violence threat has changed,” Mr. McAleenan said.
Over the weekend, the F.B.I. arrested an American soldier, who, apparently motivated by far-right ideology, talked about bombing a news network and attacking the presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, according to an F.B.I. affidavit.
Even cataloguing the current domestic terrorism threat is difficult. Americans have been killed for their race in Charleston, for their religion in Pittsburgh, for their sexual orientation in Orlando and for their ethnicity in El Paso. They were shot by the hundreds for no apparent reason in Las Vegas.
Refocusing on the new face of terrorism — the American face — is the idea behind the new counterterrorism strategy that the department released last week. “In an age of online radicalization to violent extremism and disparate threats, we must not only counter foreign enemies trying to strike us from abroad, but also those enemies, foreign and domestic, that seek to spur to violence our youth and our disaffected — encouraging them to strike in the heart of our nation,” the strategy paper reads. That acknowledgment of domestic radicalization as, in part, a global phenomenon is going to be critical to applying any lessons learned from the past two decades of focusing on transnational Islamic terrorism.
The new strategy also focuses unapologetically on right-wing terrorism, particularly white supremacist extremism, a shift that is both urgently needed and long overdue. A department report written a decade ago on the rising threat of right-wing extremism was met with outrage by conservatives. After a slew of murders by right-wing extremists, however, the response to this broader strategy has been more muted.
Which isn’t to say that the strategy itself is muted. “White supremacist violent extremism, one type of racially and ethnically motivated violent extremism, is one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism,” it says, noting that white supremacy has an “increasingly transnational outlook.”
The strategy paper traces the white supremacist roots of “conspiracy theories about the ‘ethnic replacement’ of whites as the majority ethnicity in various Western countries.” Those conspiracy theories have recently had a wide airing, from Fox News to the president’s re-election advertisements.
The strategy calls for better data collection and dissemination of intelligence to local communities and greater unity of effort in dealing with disinformation and radical content. Social media companies, for instance, made great strides in keeping radical Islamic content hard to find and share online — if only they did as much for white supremacist material.
One often overlooked result of the Sept. 11 attacks was that they prompted many thousands of Americans to join the ranks of government service, civilian and military, as a calling to prevent the next attack. Mr. McAleenan applied to work at the F.B.I. on Sept. 12, 2001, and worked his way up the ranks. (He took the reins of Homeland Security in the wake of the Trump administration’s defenestration of the last secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.)
Looking out over the footprints of the twin towers, Mr. McAleenan said that the relentless series of domestic terrorist attacks may spur a new generation of Americans to pursue careers in public service.
The new focus from his department could further that goal — attacking the problem while calling good men and women to the fight.
Original Headline: Rethinking Counterterrorism
Source: The New York Times