In the wake of the El Paso shooting and other white supremacist-motivated attacks, the Department of Homeland Security has added white supremacy to its list of domestic terrorism threats, marking the first time since the creation of the department post-9/11 that it has emphasized white nationalist domestic terrorism as a threat on par with that posed by foreign groups.
In a speech at the Brookings Institute on Friday, Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said that recent mass shootings had “galvanized the Department of Homeland Security to expand its counterterrorism mission focus beyond terrorists operating aboard, to include those radicalized to violence within our borders by violent extremists of any ideology.”
“The continuing menace of racially based violent extremism, particularly white supremacist extremism, is an abhorrent affront to our nation, the struggle and unity of its diverse population, and the core values of both our society and our department,” McAleenan said in the speech. The DHS also released a 40-page document outlining how it will work with local and state governments to improve its data collection methods on white nationalist threats and try to raise awareness of and reduce the spread of misinformation across social networks, which have contributed to the fueling of extremist ideology.
McAleenan singled out the August mass shooting at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas, which took the lives of at least 22 people, as cementing the DHS’s new strategy on combating domestic terrorism and “targeted violence” from white supremacists, as nearly 4,000 DHS employees were based in El Paso. “This was an attack on all of us, on our family,” he told the Atlantic.
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The Dept. of Homeland Security policy shift comes as welcome news to extremism researchers, who have sharply criticized the Trump administration for shutting down and defunding various DHS initiatives intended to curb the growing white nationalist domestic terrorism threat. “Civil rights groups have been screaming from the rafters about the federal government not taking white supremacy seriously,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), tells Rolling Stone. El Paso, she says, may have served as a “bit of a come to Jesus moment” for the DHS and other federal agencies in convincing them to invest more resources in investigating white nationalism.
The DHS statement did not sit well with some on the far-right, many of whom have long denied that white supremacists pose a significant threat to national security and have urged government authorities to consider extremist left-wing activism as an equally serious threat as far-right extremist violence. Publicly available data, however, tells a different story. Last year, a spokesperson for the ADL testified that 39 out of the 50 extremist-related attacks that took place last year were committed by white supremacists, as opposed to just one instance of a jihadi-related violent attack. In July, FBI director Christopher Wray said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the FBI had made about 100 domestic terrorism-related arrests since October 2018, “the majority of” which were motivated by some form of “white supremacist violence.”
Unlike in 2008, when the DHS issued a similar report about the threat of right-wing extremism that was withdrawn following extreme backlash from right-wing pundits, the Trump administration has stayed relatively quiet about the report. This silence “contrasts greatly,” Beirich says, with Trump’s statements downplaying the threat of white nationalism following the Christchurch massacre earlier this year. While she’s unsure what accounts for this silence, she says, “we’ve had Pittsburgh, Poway, Christchurch, El Paso. You can’t stick your head in the sand about this anymore.”