Carnegie Mellon University

Assessing the Assessors: What Can We Learn by Analyzing the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Threat Assessment? By Colin Clarke CIRP Journal online

November 02, 2020

Assessing the Assessors: What Can We Learn by Analyzing the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Threat Assessment?

By Colin P. Clarke

Bill Brink

In early October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released its first annual Homeland Threat Assessment report, laying out how the department perceives the primary threats to US homeland security. The report analyzes numerous potential threats to the homeland, including those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, cyber-attacks, foreign election interference, economic vulnerabilities, terrorism, transnational crime, illegal immigration, and natural disasters. In this essay, I analyze the DHS assessment of the threat of terrorism, including the threat posed by foreign terrorists and domestic/homegrown violent extremists.

DHS correctly highlights the still very real threat posed by foreign terrorists.

Sure, the ability of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Lebanese Hezbollah to strike the US homeland has been diminished over the past several years. Yet they still remain capable and determined. 

In December 2019, an FTO carried out the first foreign-planned terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001. In this attack, Saudi Air Force Second Lieutenant Mohammed Alshamrani killed three US Navy sailors and injured eight others at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. Alshamrani had been in touch with members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda’s franchise based in Yemen.

In Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, the Islamic State is slowly rebuilding, and retains a war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars. Over time, it is possible that the Islamic State could seek to resuscitate its external operations unit and focus once again on both planning and inspiring attacks in the West. For its part, Lebanese Hezbollah has long maintained a presence in the United States. DHS is rightly concerned about the potential for Hezbollah to plot and conduct attacks in the United States if the situation between Tehran and Washington continues to escalate.

Yet the gravest terrorist threats to the United States today are homegrown.

After nearly two decades of the so-called Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), it is actually domestic violent extremists (DVE), as DHS labels them, that pose the gravest terrorist threat to the United States today. DHS defines a domestic violent extremist as an “individual based and operating primarily within the United States or its territories without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power who seeks to further political or social goals wholly or in part through unlawful acts of force or violence.” DHS includes an important caveat in a footnote, noting that “the mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics may not constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally protected.”

The DHS report further distinguishes “homegrown” violent extremists (HVEs) from other “domestic” violent extremists, with the key difference being that the former are inspired by a foreign terrorist group or ideology. DHS defines an HVE as “a person of any citizenship who has lived and/or operated primarily in the United States or its territories who advocates, is engaged in, or is preparing to engage in ideologically-motivated terrorist activities (including providing support to terrorism) in furtherance of political or social objectives promoted by a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), but is acting independently of direction by an FTO.”

Terminology for these types of domestic threats differs across the US government and within the intelligence community, with variations including domestic terrorism, racially motivated violent extremism, and racially and ethnically motivated terrorism. Within this category, available data overwhelmingly points to the threat posed by white supremacist extremists (WSE), defined by DHS as “a group or individual who facilitates or engages in acts of unlawful violence directed at the federal government, ethnic minorities, or Jewish persons in support of their belief that Caucasians are intellectually and morally superior to other races and/or their perception that the government is controlled by Jewish persons.” 

As seen in the figure below, 2019 was a particularly lethal year, the most lethal for domestic violent extremism since 1995, when an anti-government extremist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the Alfred P. Murragh Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people and injured an additional 800 individuals.


In 2019, as the data shows, white supremacist extremists conducted half of all lethal attacks and killed the lion’s share of all killed (more than 80% of all fatalities). In 2020, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that I peer-reviewed, white supremacist or “other like-minded extremists” were responsible for 67% of terrorist plots between January 1, 2020 and August 31, 2020, and their targets included African Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and Jews.

DHS overlooks how white supremacist extremism has gone transnational.  

Certain white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in the United States maintain connections abroad, which elevates the threat of violent white supremacy on US soil. Groups like The Base and the Atomwaffen Division—recently rebranded as the National Socialist Order—were founded by Americans but maintain transnational ties to violent white supremacists overseas from Canada to Scandinavia to Ukraine to Russia. This past April, the US Department of State designated the Russian Imperial Movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.

A weak spot in the DHS assessment is its failure to identify or name these transnational networks, even though their members have committed attacks on US soil. Evidently, transnational white supremacist networks are lost in a policy blindspot or legal seam at DHS, being neither specifically designated as FTOs or DVEs. The DHS assessment likewise fails to name the threat posed by the Boogaloo Bois, the conspiracy theory movement QAnon, or the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group comprised of scores of former law enforcement and military members. There was similarly no mention of ANTIFA by name, despite President Trump’s repeated references to t­­he terrorism threat posed by this movement (which the data does not support). This is partially a result of the lack of a domestic terrorism designation in the United States, an issue that many have called to update. 

There are other shortcomings to the report’s section on terrorism as well, including no discussion of the concept of reciprocal radicalization, which is the idea that extremist groups fuel one another’s rhetoric and/or actions, including violence.

DHS presents an incomplete picture of the terrorism threat.

The DHS report correctly analyzes terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures, including an increase in vehicle attacks, but falls short in its analysis of the organizational structures that undergird the current terrorist threat and how these structures have evolved over time. Unlike in years past, the types of groups that primarily threaten the US homeland are not sophisticated global terrorist organizations motivated by Salafi-jihadist ideology. Rather, instead of groups and organizations, the most serious threat to the United States results from movements and networks, as well as heavily armed lone actors who are US citizens. Some of the most ardent and vocal anti-government extremists openly call for civil war. “Accelerationists,” for example, span the political spectrum from extreme left-wing to extreme right-wing and seek to destroy the current system and foment anarchy.

The DHS assessment also lacks a robust discussion of the role that government can play in tandem with social media and technology companies like Facebook and Twitter, especially surrounding the utility of identifying de-platforming terrorist content. Social media has played a central role in the radicalization of DVEs and HVEs in the United States, so any comprehensive analysis of the threat needs to include a robust discussion of what more Silicon Valley can do, and how public-private partnerships can assist counterterrorism efforts more broadly. Emerging technologies as a distinct category or force multiplier for extremists also received inadequate treatment, as the word drone only appears once in the report.

DHS is right to identify COVID-19 as a game changer for homeland security and to identify weapons of mass destruction as continuing threats.

One major area that the DHS report gets right is the focus on the importance of the COVID-19 pandemic as a game changer for counterterrorism and the threat to the US homeland. Throughout the assessment, DHS recognizes the challenges wrought by the novel coronavirus and the resulting impact on socio-economic trends, which are factors in radicalization. The past eight months of quarantine have been a boon to violent extremists, particularly white supremacists, who have used the lockdown to aggressively recruit new and younger members into its movement. One area where DHS should pay particularly close attention to is recruitment of white supremacists and violent extremists through online gaming and other social media platforms, including Steam and Gab. 

Another strong point of the DHS assessment is the section on weapons of mass destruction and other chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. The COVID-19 pandemic could very well accelerate the quest by terrorists and violent extremists to acquire the materials necessary to conduct a chemical or biological attack on US soil, especially given how devastating the coronavirus has been. A major part of terrorism is the psychological impact of an attack, which would be heightened given events of the past several months.

Homeland threats loom over the upcoming 2020 US Election.

With the US presidential election approaching on November 3, tensions are raw and law enforcement remains on high alert. A number of counterterrorism analysts are raising alarm bells about the potential for political violence in the lead up to, the day of, and immediately after the election. The scale and scope of the violence will depend on the outcome, as well as on the actions of President Trump, his rhetoric, and the actions of both his supporters and those who vehemently oppose him. Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, joined conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his show Infowars and proclaimed that his organization will maintain a presence at polling stations and is “ready to kill Democrats.” The DHS report does devote a small section to election-related violence, although most of the analysis focuses on the role of foreign influence operations and the role of China, Russia, and other hostile actors interfering or attempting to meddle in the electoral process.

The inaugural DHS Homeland Threat Assessment demonstrates that the department understands the terrorist threat facing this nation, as outlined in the report, but it glosses over other important issues, including changing organizational structures, transnational linkages of far-right extremist groups, and the use of emerging technologies by violent non-state actors and other extremists. 

Colin P. Clarke is an assistant teaching professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS), where he teaches courses including “Terrorism and Insurgency” and “Social Media, Technology, and Conflict.”