The Biden administration released today the first-ever national strategy for countering domestic terrorism — a milestone accomplishment for a country that was slow to acknowledge the threat from domestic extremism amid the post-9/11 global war on international terrorism. The strategy marks a leap forward for the United States, bringing us closer to the approaches used by our allies overseas to combat far-right extremism. The real challenge lies ahead, though, because success will hinge on the administration’s ability to change the way this country thinks about the threat of extremism.
The report focuses on four pillars — two of which reorient existing counterterrorism strategies to address the domestic threat and two that reflect a major shift in how the United States approaches extremism and terrorism. In the pillars that deal with reorientation, the focus is on shifting attention to the threat from domestic violent extremism and its transnational ties, prioritizing research and analysis, and improving communication to enhance law enforcement and security responses. There is a notable emphasis on helping state and local partners understand the rapidly evolving threat, but the focus is still on risk — an approach squarely in the US counterterrorism wheelhouse.
The rest of the strategy, however, breaks significant new ground by broadening the US approach beyond risk to also focus on resilience. The strategy includes a major focus on public health-focused violence prevention, emphasizing community-level work that might interrupt early radicalization. It notes the need for closer collaboration with schools, parents, and mental health providers and singles out the role of online exposure and radicalization, calling for digital literacy and media literacy programming.
This acknowledgment — and the new national strategy in general —brings the US closer to the whole-of-society approaches that are key to stopping people from becoming radicalized in the first place. Efforts focus on training law enforcement and bystanders to recognize and intervene before violent outcomes. The new emphasis marks a departure, officially broadening the definition of prevention to include early intervention needs and the critical importance of equipping everyone with the skills to recognize and resist disinformation and propaganda. This is a welcome change in both the formal acknowledgment of prevention as part of the overall strategy to thwart domestic violent extremism and in the way that prevention itself is defined.
The final pillar is the most notable change in US strategy to counter extremism, by acknowledging the role of broader societal issues in fostering climates for extremist violence to grow. The report specifically names racism, polarization, and the easy accessibility of firearms as issues that underpin rising extremist violence. This is a stunning charge for a country that has historically treated extremism as an issue of fringe groups and ideologies rather than as an outgrowth of problems that are firmly within the mainstream. Given the current backlash against educational efforts to teach about systemic racism, this is an especially important signal from the Biden administration that domestic violent extremism is inextricable from the environments that help foster it.
This acknowledgment — and the new national strategy in general — brings the United States closer to the whole-of-society approaches that are key to other countries’ counter-extremism strategies. From Norway to New Zealand to Germany, our allies’ approaches are decidedly multi-agency, engaging ministries of health, education, culture, labor, and more. They fund community diversity and inclusion programs, extremism prevention programs in soccer clubs, and parenting networks, all aimed at strengthening democratic values around social inclusion and preventing susceptibility to extremist propaganda.
The United States now joins countries across the globe in acknowledging that it isn’t possible to combat domestic violent extremism without also addressing the underlying challenges of racism and social inequity. Germany invests heavily in combatting antisemitism as part of its broader democracy-strengthening efforts, for example, and pledged 1 billion euros in new legislation this past year that aims to combat both racism and right-wing extremism. As part of its response to the Christchurch terrorist attacks, New Zealand is establishing a new national research center devoted to diversity, social cohesion, and the prevention of violent extremism.
The success of the United States’ new national strategy will ultimately hinge on whether the country is able to make another important leap ahead, toward a multi-agency, evidence-based, whole-of-society approach to combatting extremism. This will require shifting counter-extremism work into a broader range of agencies and departments, drawing on experts who are steeped not only in law enforcement approaches but also in mental health, education, youth culture, evidence-based interventions, and more. The new strategy hints at such an approach, suggesting that the departments of health and human services and education will be called upon to help implement the plan’s strategies. But the administration’s ability to truly engage a holistic approach remains to be seen.
The new national strategy isn’t a panacea. There are aspects in need of considerably more emphasis, including engagement with targeted communities along with long-term victim and survivor-centered support. The counterterrorism field needs rigorous insistence on evidence-based approaches as we move to nationally scaled interventions and prevention work, including support for pilot study testing of interventions to ensure effectiveness. This is especially important because untested interventions can backfire, reinforcing conspirational beliefs. The last thing the country needs are interventions that make things worse.
But with this new strategy, the United States joins its allies around the globe in asserting that domestic extremism cannot be fought only by combatting fringe extremist groups. It must also address mainstream society’s underlying support for supremacist beliefs and the structural challenges that undermine efforts to create an inclusive and equitable society. The Biden administration strategy is a remarkable first step toward achieving this.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss directs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University and author of “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.”