Remarks by Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall at the University of Virginia on National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism
Good afternoon. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to speak at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, even if only virtually, and to discuss the Biden Administration’s new National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.
I asked to speak in the historic setting of Charlottesville because the nation was riveted four years ago this summer on the chilling events that reflected disturbing trends in our culture raised the specter of domestic terrorism.
President Biden launched his campaign by pointing to the violence we saw in Charlottesville in August 2017—including domestic terrorist violence. He called it a battle for the soul of America.
In his inaugural address, President Biden specifically pointed to “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
The use of violence to pursue political ends is a profound threat to our public safety and national security. And it is even more than that: it is a threat to our national identity, our values, our norms, our rule of law—our democracy.
We saw this vividly on January 6th when the Congress and the U.S. Capitol were attacked.
Democracy isn’t something we create once. Democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is, as President Biden said today, “a way of being.”
We have to renew it and reinvest in it in each generation, affirming a simple but profound premise: that we can and must resolve our differences peacefully, through civil civic discourse and at the ballot box, rather than through physical intimidation and violence.
At the same time, our efforts to counter domestic terrorism must take place within the context of upholding Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties—the very freedoms that make us the United States of America.
President Biden is briefed regularly on the domestic terrorism threat and has discussed what we need to be doing to counter it in a series of meetings in our first five months in office with his key Cabinet members, including Attorney General Garland, Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas, FBI Director Wray, and Secretary of Defense Austin.
And he has consistently guided us to undertake this vital work without undermining our values and freedoms or, inadvertently, exacerbating the very challenges we are seeking to address.
Notably, we are tackling these challenges 20 years after the events of September 11th, 2001, which led to the building of a strategy and indeed an entire architecture to counter global terrorist threats—which is work that Fran Townsend pioneered earlier in her career. We have learned a lot over the last two decades. That experience has taught us the importance of remaining true to who we want to be at home and in the world, and about finding the balance between countering very real threats while protecting basic freedoms that are the foundation of our democracy and our enduring advantage in the world.
I’d like to explain some of the core guiding principles that informed our approach to that vital task and then set forth the four key pillars of our strategy, which the Attorney General announced in a major speech at the Justice Department last week, on June 15th.
Our first guiding principle: Start with the facts, and analyze them rigorously.
This is foundational to everything we do on this front – as it is more broadly in the national security domain.
To establish an objective, fact-based view of the domestic terrorism challenge we faced as a new Administration in January 2021, President Biden tasked the intelligence and law enforcement communities during his first week in office to produce a comprehensive assessment of today’s domestic terrorist threat. The goal was to understand the risks that domestic terrorists pose and let the expert assessment guide us as we formulate a strategy and implement it.
The career professionals found that domestic violent extremists motivated by a range of ideologies pose an elevated threat to our country —with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and anti-government militia violent extremists posing the most lethal threats.
Further, violent extremists who promote the superiority of the white race have the most persistent transnational connections.
Overall, however, the report did not find a robust nexus between domestic terrorists and foreign actors. At this time, this is largely an inside-out problem, not an outside-in problem, though we know that our adversaries are seeking to sow divisions in our country.
This brings me to our second guiding principle: Make this a clear White House priority so that the entire U.S. Government gives immediate attention to an urgent threat and sustains that attention throughout our Administration.
That’s why we built a team at the National Security Council specifically dedicated to coordinating our government’s domestic terrorism strategy—the first team of its kind ever created within the White House. We have learned lessons from international terrorism where we could; and we treat domestic terrorism as distinctive where we should.
The third guiding principle underpinning this work is to ensure that we learn from the career professionals and experts who do this hard work every day.
Our team has worked with an extraordinary community of relevant experts across the Federal Government, including law enforcement and homeland security components and elements that haven’t traditionally been part of national security conversations, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs. They have helped us to grasp what important efforts are already underway to address issues related to domestic terrorism and shared lessons learned from previous efforts about where there are gaps and opportunities to innovate and improve, so that we evolve as quickly as the threat is evolving.
The fourth guiding principle is that we must be in ongoing conversations with the broader stakeholder community, from civil rights groups to faith-based organizations to technology companies to universities like the one hosting this dialogue today to law enforcement partners at the state and local level. We have also consulted with Members of Congress—both Democrats and Republicans—to learn how they regard this evolving threat and to ensure they understand our approach.
By following these core principles, we developed America’s first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, with a focus on four key pillars.
The first pillar, which addresses understanding and sharing information about domestic terrorism, builds directly on the comprehensive threat assessment completed in March. We must understand this threat fully in order to address it fully. That’s why we’re ensuring that the Federal Government is gathering information on domestic terrorism comprehensively, within existing authorities and consistent with constitutional protections, to improve that understanding. For the first time, The Department of Justice is now tracking Federal law enforcement’s investigations nationwide in this area comprehensively. For the first time, the Department of State and other agencies are making this issue a priority for information exchanges with foreign partners. And, for the first time, we’re creating a structured mechanism to ensure that our government benefits, in a consistent and systematic way, from the worthwhile research and analysis done on this issue by non-governmental experts like the experts at the Karsh and Miller Centers.
That understanding informs the Strategy’s second pillar, which focuses on prevention.
Drawing on the expertise of a variety of Federal departments and agencies, we will work with communities to become more effective at preventing individuals from ever reaching the point of committing acts of terrorism.
To do this, we will strengthen domestic terrorism prevention resources and services and work to improve public awareness of Federal resources to address threatening behavior before violence occurs.
For example, the Department of Homeland Security is building on its counterterrorism mantra that if you see something, you should say something. Recognizing that family, friends, and co-workers may be the first to realize someone is radicalizing to violence, we need to create pathways for sharing information that feel comfortable and are easily accessible.
For the first time, DHS has designated “Domestic Violent Extremism” as a National Priority Area within the Department’s Homeland Security Grant Program, which means that over $77 million will be allocated to state, local, tribal, and territorial partners to prevent, protect against, and respond to domestic violent extremism.
To offer another example, the Department of Defense is ensuring service members leaving the military are aware that they could be targeted for recruitment by violent extremists.
We will also be augmenting efforts to address online terrorist recruitment and mobilization to violence by domestic terrorists. This is an enormous challenge and one that will require ongoing ingenuity and collaboration with the private sector. The strategy directs increased information sharing with the technology companies and the creation of innovative approaches to foster digital literacy and build resilience in the face of terrorist recruitment and mobilization.
Relatedly, in May, we announced our decision to join the Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online, an international partnership among 56 governments and 10 technology companies including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that works to develop new solutions to eliminating terrorist content online while safeguarding free expression.
This framework was forged by some of our closest foreign partners following the 2017 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 dead and dozens wounded. What they’ve built has energized and guided an important global conversation about how to address terrorism threats online while protecting and indeed promoting freedom of expression that we as Americans cherish. And we are stronger when we stand together with countries that share our values, especially in urging technology companies to take vital actions to secure their platforms against exploitation.
Prevention efforts are important, but we know they will not always succeed in stopping radicalization toward violence. That’s why the Strategy’s third pillar involves disrupting and deterring domestic terrorists.
Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement are critical to countering domestic terrorism. We are deliberately increasing support to law enforcement to enable them to more effectively address domestic terrorism nationwide.
As Attorney General Garland has emphasized, U.S. Attorney’s Offices and FBI Field Offices across the country are making domestic terrorism a top priority, with the Justice Department and FBI reallocating or requesting appropriate funding and resources to target the threat. In the President’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget, we have included over $100 million in additional resources for DOJ, FBI, and DHS to ensure that the Federal Government has the analysts, investigators, prosecutors, and other personnel and resources it needs to thwart domestic terrorism and do justice when the law has been broken.
State, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement will have access to increased intelligence sharing and training on domestic terrorism and associated threats. That includes, for example, enhanced training on domestic terrorism iconography, symbology, and phraseology as well as augmented information on how to recognize potential indicators of mobilization to domestic terrorism.
In the Federal Government, we are also working to address the potential “insider threat” posed by deliberate domestic terrorist recruitment of individuals who hold or have held sensitive positions in the military and law enforcement. We are, in particular, improving employee screening to enhance methods for identifying domestic terrorists who might pose insider threats.
The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice are pursuing efforts to ensure domestic terrorists are not employed within our military or law enforcement ranks and to improve screening and vetting processes. Moreover, resources are being developed for state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement partners to enable them to enhance their own employee screening programs.
Finally, we must also address long-term contributors to domestic terrorism. That is the fourth pillar of our Strategy.
This reflects the context within which our first three pillars are situated, and involves broader possibilities for reducing the drivers of domestic terrorism over the years and generations to come, such as by reducing persistent economic inequality and by helping those who feel left behind in a 21st century economy. Our long-term efforts also involve reducing and protecting Americans from racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds; building trust in our institutions; working toward an information environment that fosters healthy democratic discourse; and stemming the flow of firearms to individuals intending to commit acts of domestic terrorism, including through initiatives that will be discussed by the President later today as part of the Administration’s gun violence and violent crime prevention strategy. While this work is beyond the remit of traditional counterterrorism work, our strategy will be situated within our Administration’s comprehensive efforts to strengthen the long-term health of our nation.
I’ve learned across my opportunities to serve in government, with this being my fourth tour of duty, that strategies mean little unless they are translated into concrete and consequential actions. Having first worked for President Biden in the Senate when I was 26 years old, I can say with confidence that he puts a premium on effective implementation. The work of implementing this strategy so as to make Americans safer is already well underway. And in doing this work today and every day, we will remain vigilant against all threats to Americans, including those posed by terrorists internationally, because we will never take our eyes off threats to our safety and security, whether they come from at home and abroad.
It is a privilege to join each of you today to discuss this vital work. By tackling domestic terrorism together, each of us can make a contribution to safeguarding our precious democratic experiment. So, I thank each of you, wherever you are today, and whatever role you play—perhaps in the Federal Government; perhaps with a state, local, territorial, or tribal partner; or perhaps with a non-profit, such as a university, working on violence prevention or researching terrorist recruitment online.
We are committed to protecting this nation and staying focused on this work. And we believe this Strategy can guide us for years to come. As Justice Thurgood Marshall said upon receiving the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, “Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work.” That’s exactly what we’re doing: we are getting to work.
Now I’ll turn things back to Fran, who knows very well the challenges of serving as Homeland Security Advisor and tackling existential threats. Fran, thank you again for making time for this, conversation.