Domestic Terrorism Is a ‘Transnational’ Threat

Thomas Brzozowski, counsel for domestic terrorism at the Department of Justice, said publicizing efforts to counter domestic terrorism can be challenging.

January 15, 2020

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Thomas Brzozowski, counsel for domestic terrorism at the Department of Justice, speaks at a GW Program on Extremism event. (Harrison Jones/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

The nature of domestic terrorism is becoming "increasingly transnational," said Thomas Brzozowski, counsel for domestic terrorism at the Department of Justice. Individuals from around the world interact online—trading tips, literature and ideology—that inspire acts of violence. 

These individuals have no demonstrable connection that would constitute a conspiracy or group identity, therefore apprehending would-be perpetrators before they act is a complication for investigators. Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, and without a credible threat, individuals who spread hate online often cannot be charged.

"We do bend over backwards and bring threats cases all the time around the country when we can," he said. "There are going to be instances where we can’t, and it presents a real challenge.

"We are leveraging every tool that we have… to address the issue, but I don’t want anybody laboring under the impression that this problem is solved because it’s not."

Mr. Brzozowski spoke at George Washington University on Tuesday as part of a discussion on domestic terrorism in the United States. The fifth annual event was hosted by the Program on Extremism

Former Assistant Attorney General John Carlin announced the creation of the domestic terrorism counsel position in a speech delivered at a program event four years ago. Since that time, the Program on Extremism has hosted a recurring discussion with the counsel for domestic terrorism.

Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Program on Extremism, said the topic of domestic terrorism has become increasingly relevant over the past five years. Violence in El Paso, Texas, San Diego and New York over the past year "tell us why the topic is crucially important."

Mr. Brzozowski delivered a presentation on existing threats and the Justice Department’s options for responding to those threats. There is no federal statute for domestic terrorism, which is why perpetrators who commit violent acts widely considered to be domestic terrorism are typically charged with committing a hate crime or gun crimes.

"The statues that are typically deployed in connection with domestic terrorism cases are going to be kind of pedestrian in nature… it’s not going to say terrorism on its face," he said. "This confuses people, and it leads to this pervasive, but false, narrative that somehow the government is paying more attention to the Islamic extremist threat than to the domestic terrorist threat."

Cases where individuals are charged with clear federal terrorism offenses often get more media attention than investigations where the word terrorism can’t be found in publicly-available documents, Mr. Brzozowski said.

The statute also makes it challenging for the government to communicate what it is doing to combat domestic terrorism, Mr. Brzozowski said. Oftentimes officials do not want to label an incident domestic terrorism while litigation is ongoing, which can complicate their ability to bring a case against an individual.

"Whenever we can, we’re really striving to make sure that folks understand those cases that we do consider domestic terrorism," he said. 

The United States has a list of banned foreign terrorist organizations, but there is no similar list for domestic groups. There is some evidence, however, that some individuals under investigation travel abroad to train with banned groups and then return to the United States with the goal to commit violence.

"We’re trying to leverage all of our existing authorities that have traditionally been focused internationally to see if we can’t reconstitute them a little bit with a view toward addressing some of these transnational threats," he said. "That process is ongoing."

Mr. Brzozowski participated in a Q & A session led by NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam following his presentation.