Prosecuting “Domestic Terrorism” in the United States

El-Paso Memorial for the victims of the mass shooting that took place on 3 August 2019. Image Credit: Paul Ratje of Agence France-Presse (Getty Images)

Infamously coined ‘lone-wolf’ attacks or acts of violence, the United States has tragically experienced 2 separate mass shooting occurrences this month that claimed the lives of many innocents. The shooting in El-Paso, Texas, carried out by 21-year-old Patrick Wood Crusius, is being treated by United States Federal Prosecutors as “domestic terrorism”. Federal officials, however, have been hesitant to use the term “domestic terrorism” for the reason that although the term is defined in United States law; there exists no actual criminal penalty attached to what would be treated an act or incident of “domestic” or “home-grown” terrorism.

Given this paradox between definition and applicable legal criminal responsibility, how, then, can a mass shooting or any attack conducted by an individual such as Crusius be brought to justice as ‘domestic terrorism’? This article will examine the intricacies of “domestic terrorism” and the stipulation for precise criminal penalties tied to such an act of violence.

Domestic Terrorism as Understood in the Patriot Act and the Federal Bureau of Investigation

Section 802 of the United States of America Patriot Act addresses domestic terrorism. It has been common to mistake Section 802 as a section that concretely defines ‘domestic terrorism’ as a criminal offence on its own. However, Section 802 is not to be interpreted in this way. Section 802 supplements the existing definition of terrorism in the Patriot Act, largely created to expand investigative powers onto an individual (or individuals) should they be suspected of engaging in domestic terrorism. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recognises “domestic terrorism” as an act (or acts) “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature,”.

This brings us to the way in which domestic terrorism has been worded. An individual is recognised as ‘engaging’ in domestic terrorism if they commit an act that “could result in death”, and is in violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States of America, or if the act appears to be intended to:  (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.

The legal scope of Section 802 regarding “domestic terrorism” is therefore limited to an act (or acts) that meet the following criteria: (1) violates federal or state criminal law and (2) is dangerous to human life. Consequently, it becomes evident that Section 802 “opens” an act of domestic terrorism to a broad interpretation when proceeding with criminal responsibility and prosecution.

Justice for the El Paso Victims, and the “Future” of “Domestic Terrorist” Acts

John Bash, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Texas, stated that Crusius’ act of violence will be treated as a “domestic terrorist case.” With consideration to the aforementioned, Crusius cannot be literally charged as a “domestic terrorist”. Therefore, in terms of actual criminal penalty and prosecution, Crusius’ horrific act will be charged as a capital murder. In the state of Texas, Crusius may face up to 99 years in prison or even the death penalty, if found guilty.

Horrific mass shootings such as Crusius’ are not a new threat or occurrence in the United States. It has been reported that individual ‘lone-wolves’ have similar backgrounds in terms of personality attributes, isolation from society, profound interests in select extremist groups, to name a few. As examined, prosecuting such an act specifically as a crime of “domestic terrorism” is currently not possible under United States law. The justice system must therefore rely on state laws pertaining to murder and other acts of violence, such as the charge for capital murder, in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Given the increasing prevalence of such mass shootings, it may be soon necessary for “domestic terrorism” to become codified in United States law as a criminal act of its own. However, the legal process of having “domestic terrorism” officially codified may pose issues. The debate regarding a mutually agreeable definition and criteria for what constitutes an act of domestic terrorism, or an individual who will be recognized as a domestic terrorist, will be subject to a broad lens.

13 Hours of Extremism: Domestic Terrorism Across the Political Spectrum Highlights Domestic Extremism Concerns

The two perpetrators of the Dayton, Ohio and El Paso mass shootings. (L) Connor Betts (R) Patrick Crusius. Image Source: Eurweb

Between August 3-4 2019, America was horrified by multiple mass killings across the nation. Dozens were left dead and even more injured. At least one of the events is being actively treated as an act of domestic terrorism, while the other appears to be linked to extremism. Below is a summary of the events, a summary of what is known about the perpetrators, and a summary of potential links between the attacks and societal repercussions of the horrific events.

The following summaries of the incidents and individuals are based on statements made by witnesses and relevant officials.

3 August 2019

Patrick Crusius, age 21, drove upwards of ten hours from his home to a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Crusius exited his vehicle and entered the store where he sought to identify his potential targets based on the desire to kill and hurt as many people of Hispanic descent as possible. At the time of Crusius’ pre-attack surveillance, officials stated that there were between 1,000 and 3,000 people inside the Walmart. Crusius exited the store after satisfaction with the potential number of Hispanic victims inside. Just prior to the attack, a manifesto was circulated on digital extremist forums that highlighted anti-immigrant and racist conspiracy theories. The manifesto is posted under a pseudonym, however, it has largely been linked to Crusius. Crusius then prepared for the attack in or around his vehicle in the parking lot before commencing his plan. He was taken into custody near the scene. Twenty-two people have died thus far with dozens more injured.

4 August 2019

Connor Betts, age 24, appeared to have been active on social media on 3 August 2019. Earlier in the day, on the Twitter account associated with Betts, there was a retweet that called for Joe Biden to “Hurry up and Die”. In the wake of the news breaking about the attack in El Paso, the Twitter account “liked” several tweets that pertained to the attack. On the morning of 4 August 2019, Betts approached a popular bar in Dayton, Ohio, and began to open fire with a rifle. Law Enforcement was quick to respond, killing Betts on scene, but only after Betts managed to kill at least 9 people and injure dozens more. As of this writing, no manifesto or any communication of intent of the attack has been discovered. Prior to Betts’ Twitter account being taken down, it was discovered that Betts often commented support for various left-wing movements, stating his support for Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. There was at least one retweet in favor of an account linked to the far-left ANTIFA extremist group.

What Do We Know About the Perpetrators?

 Patrick Crusius

Few people from Crusius’ personal life have come forward since the attack, therefore less is known about him. However, Crusius appears willing to speak with law enforcement following his arrest, and the manifesto that has been linked to him is telling. Crusius admitted to law enforcement officials that he purposefully targeted Hispanics in his attack. In the manifesto, a sociological/political theory known as “The Great Replacement Theory” is discussed, which is essentially an anti-immigrant ideology that calls for the separation of races. It has been linked to white supremacist attacks internationally and has at least a marginal following amongst white supremacist groups worldwide. Accounts have been discovered on extremist forums that are believed to belong to Crusius. A LinkedIn account believed to have belonged to Crusius shows that he had been unemployed for at least the last five months. The account, which has been taken down, stated that Crusius was largely uninterested in a career but was interested in computer software, as he stated that he spent most of his days on a computer anyway. It was not immediately clear if Crusius had any education after high school, and his economic and social life was not apparent.

Connor Betts

Multiple people have come forward who reportedly knew Betts, most painting an image of a dangerous individual. It has been reported that Betts had been suspended from high school at least once in reference to possession (and believed production) of a “hit list” and “rape list”. Betts was a musician and had at least some college education. He was a self-described “leftist” and “atheist”, but was described by peers as a loner and outcast. Multiple sources have reported that Betts had an obsession with mass shootings for some years. A female has come out and stated that she was dating Betts, but had broken up with him in May of 2019 over his concerning behavior. It is not clear if Betts was working at this time and his economic situation is unclear.

Potential Link Between the Attacks in El Paso and Dayton

As was mentioned earlier, a Twitter account linked to Betts ‘liked’ several tweets in regard to the El Paso attack, just hours before launching his own attack in Dayton. The attack in El Paso was rumored to be inspired by white supremacist ideology relatively quickly after the news broke and was subsequently confirmed as more information came out throughout the night. It is possible that Betts was inspired to launch an attack in furtherance of far-left extremism in response to the far-right attack in El Paso. That being said, it is unclear whether the attack in Dayton was pre-planned. As had been reported, Betts was obsessed with mass shootings for some time, however, his online links to the far-left cannot be ignored. His apparent following of the events in El Paso potentially link the two attacks as a form of tit-for-tat extremism between individuals on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Online Extremism: A Domestic Issue

 Both Crusius and Betts were active, at least in part, in online communications with extremist accounts or forums. Crusius has been linked to the publication of the Manifesto as discussed above and has been connected to profiles in extremist forums on websites such as “8chan”. Betts’ link to online extremism has been less clearly defined, but on at least one occasion he was connected to an ANTIFA account and shared a message in furtherance of the group.

While it is too early in the investigation to begin making definitive judgements about the level of influence such digital extremism had on either Crusius and Betts, it is clear that there is a connection between their actions and the extremist rhetoric that they consumed.

Preliminary Recommendations

 It is too early for exact political and/or policy recommendations to be relevant. Both investigations remain active. However, as the attacks appear to be linked to the far end of both sides of the linear political spectrum, adding more rhetoric in an attempt to further politicize the event may serve to further radicalize individuals with like-minded ideas. People of influence on either side of the political spectrum should consider this when crafting their messaging to avoid further influence for extremism.

Digital extremism communications represent a real challenge for policymakers. Preventing the free exchange of ideas is fundamentally against the ideals of the United States, however, as events such as the ones discussed above demonstrate the potential dangers associated with the ideal. It is recommended, that any ‘red flag’ laws that are implemented should expressly allow for the admittance of online forum discussions in consideration of individual cases. Domestic law enforcement agencies must also develop capabilities for monitoring such forums that are linked to extremist ideologies. Intelligence-led policing must be brought to the forefront of the discussion as the leading chance for preventing domestic terrorism events.

John Patrick Wilson is the Director of the Domestic Counter-Terrorism Program at Rise to Peace with experience in law enforcement, political research, and counter-violent extremism research. 

Extremism Assessment Series: Far-Left Extremism

Image Source: Fox News, Lukas Mikelionis

  • Based on Marxist principles – left wing extremists believe that the working class should revolt against those in power; Can often be classified as “antifascist”.
  • One of the major goals of left-wing terrorism is the creation of a “utopian” society
  • There is absolutely no religious facet of leftist ideology
  • One of their biggest tactics is “provocation” – provoking those in power to overreact in order to garner more sympathy and members
  • Primary targets are government buildings, symbols of authority, and right-wing conservative rallies/demonstrations

Summary of Extremist Narrative

 The leftist narrative can be defined as a desire to overthrow the current political state and replace it with an anarchist or communist system. Members of these left-wing groups are often-times autonomists, which is a term used to describe individuals who are anti-authoritarian and believe they exist outside of the political system. One of the biggest characteristics of these groups is the desire for society as a whole to rise up and revolt. These left-wing groups do not discriminate and allow anyone who believes in their ideology to join their ranks.

 History of Ideology in the United States

 Leftist ideology originated around the time of the industrial revolution. Many were flocking from the countryside to find jobs in new factories, making the demand for work very high. Factory owners had no trouble filling vacant spots. Karl Marx, a German law student, saw the differences between the workers and the factory owners and started to describe the working class as “proletariat” and the factory owners as “bourgeoisie”. He saw that the factory owners did not have to work as hard as the working class, yet they kept getting richer and richer. Marx called this a “capitalist society” and believed that a revolution of the working class was inevitable. He believed that the working class would be victorious and a “communist society”. This formed the basis of leftist extremism, with individuals believing that a classless, moneyless, and stateless society is the only option.

During the 1980’s, left-wing terrorism was attributed to 74% of all terrorist attacks in the US Left wing terrorist groups today are based in communism, anarchism, or socialism, which are all connected to Marx’s teachings. Today, these groups are reflections of the current political climate meaning that members of these groups believe that the political culture of their country is too right-wing or fascist. Throughout history, there have been several known leftist groups that operated within the US, including the United Freedom Front, New World Liberation Front, Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and ANTIFA. Some of these groups are supported from outside countries such as Cuba, China, and Russia. They have also found support in the Communist Party of the USA.  Just recently, Trump declared that he may soon try to classify ANTIFA as a major terrorist organization.

 Current State of Far-Left Extremism

 Left-wing extremists are still active, not only in the U.S., but around the world. While these leftist groups serve different purposes, they all have an underlying theme of replacing the existing political system and removing class labels. Some even aim to carve out new nations within the US. Although the FBI reports that right-wing extremists are more of a concern today than left-wing extremists, they also acknowledge that left wing extremism still exists and should not be ignored.

As David Rapoport has stated, terrorism comes in waves. Left-wing terrorism was highly active in the 19060’s to the mid-1980’s, after which right-wing terrorism became active. This suggests that left-wing terrorism will become more active in the coming years. Due to the fact that left-wing extremists are more likely to be educated and from urban areas, they are better able to effectively organize demonstrations and attacks than their right-wing counterparts.

One of the more active left-wing groups in the US today is ANTIFA. ANTIFA’s main ideology is rooted in the antifascist movement, which was first seen under Hitler’s rule in Nazi Germany. Today, the antifascist movement is violent and threatening to society at large. ANTIFA members attend alt-right movements and demonstrations in order to protest and put an end to “alt right messages of hate.”  ANTIFA leaders have called for violence in order to confront conservative groups, often times putting innocent people in danger. Some of their tactics include burning cars, attacking right-wing protestors, and destroying property/businesses.

ANTIFA does not have a clear, hierarchical structure, bringing us back to one of the main characteristics of left-wing groups; anyone can join and participate as long as they support the cause. There are times when ANTIFA members will call for non-members to meet them at rallies in order to protest against right-wing conservatives.

Left-wing extremist groups are primarily operating under capitalist systems where they believe that there are inexpressive amounts of marginalization and inequality at the hands of the current political party. These groups often attend right-wing conservative rallies in order to violently protest and oppose right-wing hate rhetoric.

As mentioned earlier, left-wing groups do not discriminate against members and believe that anyone who believes in their antifascist cause can join their movement. There are no religious undertones, making this group very diverse and fluid in their recruitment. Left-wing groups also utilize social media in order to attract individuals to their movement. They will often call on others to join their cause, recruiting individuals who may feel marginalized or disgruntled with their current political climate.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.

Prevention and Redemption Initiatives Are Key to Countering Terrorism in Russia

The mountains of Chechnya where “going to the forest” is a colloquial term for joining an extremist group. Photo Credit: eTurboNews.

A series of recent incidents validate the Russian Federation’s concerns over the rise of internationally-linked terrorist groups active within its territory. This security matter is heightened by the presence of battle-hardened fighters who returned from fighting in the Middle East and North Africa. The main query that emerges is whether Russian authorities will amend their counterterrorism tactics, or continue to engage in a framework simplified as a nexus of a military-bureaucratic-judicial instruments.

Russia has long contended with the dilemma of homegrown terrorism, especially in the North Caucasus region. Radicalization and the development of terror cells were intrinsically linked to the Chechen independence movement that expanded into neighboring Dagestan. Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al- Qaeda) once called the region ‘a shelter’ for fighters from across the globe. It is little wonder then that Daesh capitalized on homegrown ethnic grievances in Russia’s ‘inner abroad’ for recruitment.

Russian officials estimate that approximately 4000 citizens fought as militants in the armed conflicts in Syria. The state of affairs shifted domestically too. Militants that once operated under the banner of Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) transferred allegiances to Vilayat Kavkaz —  a branch of Daesh in the North Caucasus. Russia identifies the pan-Islamist political movement Hizb ut- Tahrir (Party of Liberation) as a terrorist organization, and deems it culpable in the recruitment of foreign fighters as well. It is undoubtedly a case where international groups seized upon already active movements to franchise ideologies.

As a consequence, recent terror-related events in Russia are linked to the international moniker of Daesh, although the actors are domestic agents. The Federal Security Service (FSB) conducts operations across Russia linked to Daesh through a perpetrator’s affiliation, but few links to the umbrella organization. For instance:

• April 13: two suspected members were killed in a raid in Tyumen; an oil rich town in Siberia.
• June 26: a declared member who created explosives and sought to carry out attacks in the name of Daesh was neutralized in Saratov; a city in the southwest.
• July 1: police in Khanty-Mansi (a region in western Siberia) sent out an alert of a woman suspected of membership in an international terrorist organization being in the area.
• July 12: Moscow District Court sentenced seven members of Daesh to 15-21 years of incarceration for planning to attack the Sapsan train in Saint Petersburg in 2017.

These cases exhibit a Russian reliance on strict legislation and applications of force as primary counterterror tactics. Numerous laws have been passed, including the revocation of citizenship for naturalized citizens, life sentences for some terror-related crimes, and guidelines aimed to counter proliferation of extremist ideology, especially the contentious Yarovaya package.

A preference for the military-bureaucratic-judicial nexus and intelligence collection means psychological rehabilitation and cultural efforts receive less attention. Up until 2013, Russia applied such methods until preparations for the Sochi Olympics required hardline policies. However, emphasis on these two spheres provide Russian authorities with a humanitarian method to prevent radicalization before it takes root, and to counterbalance extremist teachings post-indoctrination, to those willing to relent. This is a key recommendation that needs to be met at many levels.

Those at risk of radicalization must be exposed to civil society organizations that promote tenets of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue. Exposure to educational and employment prospects, tolerant views amongst peers, and wider community solidarity provide numerous opportunities for exchange.

Preservation of cultural traditions that display a wider understanding of ethnicity and religion — that have not been manipulated to advocate extremist or political views — teach at-risk youth they are already part of an important community, rather than a terrorist cell or a linked international organization. Sports provide additional occasions of solidarity, especially those that prioritize strength of character. For example, combat sports widely practiced across the region place the historic mindset of a ‘Caucasian warrior’ in a positive context, at the same time young girls practicing tightrope walking in Dagestan are taught to be ‘fearless’.

Psychological supports and deradicalization initiatives are of vital importance in the current context. These programs are especially beneficial to returnees willing to shun extremist views as they are offered a path towards redemption, as well as chances to inform at-risk peers of the realities of membership in such groups. The Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism 2019-2023 reveals provisions covering this matter. As well, a member of the Russian State Duma announced the development of a rehabilitation center focused on individuals influenced by Hizb ut- Tahrir in annexed-Crimea, though it is viewed as politically motivated.

The Russian Federation strongly relies on military-bureaucratic-judicial methods as violent extremism and terrorism are serious infractions under the criminal code, as they should be. It seems easier to manage the localized and decentralized nature of domestic extremism in that framework. However, such hardline measures should be employed concurrently with softer methods aimed at prevention and redemption. They offer broader social advantages in totality.

Réjeanne Lacroix is the Editor-in-Chief at Rise to Peace.

Extremism Assessment Series: Antifascist Action (ANTIFA)

Image: The most identifiable form of the Antifa logo used by the group and found in public sources.

  • ANTIFA represents a semi-disorganized collection of extremists on the far-left, sometimes considered the alt-left
  • ANTIFA is more accurately described as a brand, as opposed to a formal group, however, for ease of understanding it may be referred to as such throughout this assessment
  • With the upcoming presidential election, ANTIFA violence should be expected to rise alongside increasing political turmoil

Summary of Extremist Narrative

 ANTIFA’s self-described purpose is to counter fascism and prevent fascism from taking root in society. The ‘enemy’ of ANTIFA does not stop solely with fascists, however. Individuals believed to be far-right, conservative, and even individuals considered center-left on the political spectrum may be identified as an enemy of ANTIFA. Within the often militant organization, tactics for accomplishing objectives can vary from acts of violence, vandalism, criminal damage to property, or spreading of propaganda in interest of their ideology.

Within the social and political roots of ANTIFA, free speech is targeted as believers in the underlying ideology of ANTIFA believe that select speech is violent and must be suppressed for the betterment of overall society. This is a key justification for believers to resort to violence. As such, law enforcement has been deemed as an accessory to the enemy by ANTIFA as law enforcement seeks to separate clashing political protestors, hence preventing ANTIFA from attacking those they deem the enemy.

History of the group

 The majority of individuals who identify as ANTIFA come from Marxist political backgrounds, including communists and socialists. It is important to understand that ANTIFA does not represent a single organization or network. Numerous groups or individuals may consider themselves ANTIFA members, leading to the group being highly disorganized in terms of the overall structure.

The history of the ideology that brought about ANTIFA can be found in both the history books as well as in the writings of various political theorists. Communism, socialism, and far-left anarchism have had a small following within the US for well over a century. Such Marxist political leanings often call for a societal revolution to rise up through militant activities to support their political agendas.

Political theorists have argued that the spread of extremist political leanings begets the rise of the opposite form of extremism along the linear political spectrum. Regardless of which form of extremism first came about, ANTIFA believes that ‘fascist creeping’ has begun to attempt to take hold within the United States. This partially is cited as justification for violent acts against those considered supporters of fascism. While various international groups have used a varying version of ‘anti-fascist action’, the current American use began in the mid-2000s.

In the lead up to the 2016 presidential elections, ANTIFA surged in activity and membership with followers engaging in acts of violence across the nation. Protests and counter-protests sparked civil unrest unlike anything observed in decades in the United States with groups like ANTIFA at the forefront of the violence.

 Current state of the movement

 ANTIFA is very much active as an extremist ideology and brand. With the modern version of the group having become increasingly active and violent since its inception just over a decade ago, ANTIFA will be a source of far-left extremism for the foreseeable future. The ability for ANTIFA to inspire and recruit people into its brand of thinking is highly dependent on a politically volatile United States, which most would agree is the current operating environment. With the looming 2020 presidential election approaching, look for ANTIFA or ANTIFA inspired violence to increase.

 Where is ANTIFA operating?

As has been widely observed, ANTIFA is often found participating in political protests across the nation. Primarily located in major US cities or on college campuses nationwide, ANTIFA often has a presence amongst more volatile far-left protests.

 What are the primary recruitment methods into the movement?

ANTIFA messaging can be found easily on the internet. The spread of Mark Bray’s 2017 writing, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is a ready source of information for the brand and helps to spread its ideology. The spread of this and related writings on the internet has been fostered by various online communication platforms that also serve as communications centers for the coordination of physical militant activities and the organization of protests and counter-protests.

The Extremism Assessment Series is an initiative of Rise to Peace’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Program. It seeks to provide short educational pieces highlighting groups or social movements linked to extremist ideologies and/or tactics. Check back for new additions to the series.