top of page
  • Writer's pictureHayleigh Evans

Reflecting on Domestic Terrorism in America

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

In the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, a more extensive security perimeter was established around the Capitol, especially in anticipation of the Inauguration. (Victoria Pickering/Flickr)

After violent incidents in recent years, domestic terrorism has emerged as a major concern throughout the U.S. Even more than before, the nation has been divided since the recent storming of the Capitol. Many experts say it might have been planned, though the attack remains under investigation. Regardless of the long-term outcome of the January 6 Capitol riot, more public and political attention has turned to a growing trend of violent crimes and attacks on American soil.

What is domestic terrorism?

Domestic terrorism, also known as homegrown terrorism, is a form of terrorism in which a country’s own citizens are the perpetrators. Terrorism can originate anywhere, from differing religion to race and social status.

The PATRIOT Act defines domestic terrorism as involving dangerous acts to humans that intend to be used to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government via mass destruction, kidnapping, or assassination.

Domestic terrorism is not new to America. Some of the most well-known domestic terrorist groups include the Ku Klux Klan, the National Socialists (neo-Nazis), and white ethno-nationalists. These are among the most well-known associations, while also among the most threatening to Americans. These groups generally target U.S. citizens of color and injure or kill them ― intimidation of a civilian population. While these groups are among the most well identified, many others have also caused significant damage to America.

What is being done about domestic terrorism?

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee and gave his thoughts on the Capitol riot, or more importantly, on domestic terrorism throughout America: “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.” In January, President Biden ordered law enforcement and intelligent agencies to study the growth of domestic terrorism in America; with these gathered numbers, a federal policy will be developed to combat domestic terrorism.

The FBI conducts three different types of investigations of domestic terrorism, depending on the severity of the threat: assessments, predicated investigations, or enterprise investigations. The January 6 Capitol riots would most likely fall under an enterprise investigation, as it meets the following criteria described by the FBI: “Enterprise investigations are essentially full investigations targeting an entire organization suspected of domestic terrorism or some other pattern of illegal activity.”

Though it may still be in question, many people who played a role in the storming of the Capitol have already faced legal consequences. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has suggested that each person involved in the Capitol attack should be put on a “no-fly list,” while the FBI is still holding the rioters under investigation. Some perpetrators have been charged or taken into custody, while others are still being investigated.

New York Air National Guard Security Forces Airmen arrived in Washington, D.C. to support law enforcement in the days following the storming of the Capitol. 6,200 National Guard soldiers and Airmen were called in. (New York National Guard/Flickr)

Currently, many policies and laws are being considered by President Biden in the wake of the Capitol attack. With Biden’s request to receive more information and hold more conferences with data agencies, the government will be taking more active measures against domestic terrorism. One notable measure is Biden’s “Unity” campaign, which aims to unite the American population amid current chaos. It is hoped that the campaign will work to bring down hate crimes, as its purpose is to overcome division formed through differing views.

While the “Unity” campaign is only a spoken promise, and may take several years to achieve, a new bill has already been released. The Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2021 was released on January 19, shortly after the Capitol riot. The bill outlines the importance of tracking and investigating potential terrorists ― mainly white supremicists ― and attempted attacks. This is a promising step to help curb the violence within the United States.

Foreign Terrorism to the DOJ

The definition of foreign terrorism, according to the FBI, is “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).” Foreign terrorism is combated with more strict laws and policies compared to domestic terrorism, which has only recently received more attention.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has set up a multitude of precautions to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the U.S. In 2018, several preventative measures for border control were put into place, though as of right now, they have been set aside. As of January 22, 2021, Secretary for DHS David Pekoske has signed a memorandum to have the DHS and their border personnel review and reset enforcement to focus on more pressing issues. This period will last for 100 days and will pause removal of individuals entering the U.S. to ensure a “fair and effective immigration enforcement system focused on protecting national security, border security, and public safety,” according to a DHS report reviewing immigration enforcement practices and policies, which was released in January of this year. While current DHS procedures may not be directly targeting terrorism, they are addressing current border control policies for immigrants.

Though both domestic and foreign terrorism are serious threats, foreign terrorism has remained the utmost concern of the Department of Homeland Security ever since 9/11. However, after the storming of the Capitol, more light is being shed on domestic terrorism and the threat that it constitutes to the American people.

As with international terrorism, military forces have dispersed across the country to combat foreign terrorists and their groups. Most military action has occurred outside of the United States, targeting organizations like Al Qaeda and their supporters. More arrests have also been conducted in the past years of foreign travelers attempting to enter America. According to a report on international terrorism conducted by the DHS and DOJ, “from October 1, 2011, to September 30, 2017, a total of 355,345 non-U.S. citizen offenders were administratively arrested after previously being convicted of an aggravated felony.”

These immigrants were arrested after traveling to the U.S. and either committing a crime within the country or being identified as on the terrorist watchlist. The government cracked down more severely after the election of Donald Trump, as he had made it a priority to stop foreign terrorists from entering the U.S., and was a staunch proponent of increased border security, pushing for the construction of a border wall between Mexico and the U.S.

Domestic Terrorism to the DOJ

Foreign terrorism has been a top concern for the U.S. government ever since Al Qaeda surfaced, but domestic terrorism has been given considerably less weight. While foreign terrorism is a major concern for American citizens, damage is still being done inside the country by domestic terrorists.

A 2017 crime victim survey conducted by the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that from 2004 to 2015, around 250,000 hate crimes were committed each year. President Biden stated that following the Capitol riot that took place on January 6, domestic terrorism is now considered a “top threat to the homeland.” The DHS cautioned that as of right now, white supremacist extremists will continue to remain the “most persistent and lethal threat” to America. Even with all of these alarming reports, the threat is only being widely discussed after recent events.

In March 2019, a new bill was introduced that was specifically aimed at handling homegrown terrorism. Much like the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act 2021, it went over many instances of hate crimes committed over the recent years and explained the training and action that should be put in place to help combat domestic terrorism. The bill explained how many security and investigation organizations should be working together to try and learn more about the number of domestic terrorists that were active in the country or may become violent. In 2019, it did not make a huge impact due to more “pressing issues,” but the DTPA for 2021 will be more heavily enforced. Its provisions are very similar to what President Biden has requested recently. The only difference is that his request was underscored with more urgency.

Out of the estimated 250,000 hate crimes committed each year, the DOJ only prosecutes around two dozen assailants each year. The main reason that so few are punished is that not all states designate hate crimes as an offense, and only around one-tenth of the local and state law enforcement agencies around the country report hate crimes within their jurisdictions. This results in an average of only 5,000 to 7,000 cases even being presented each year. In 1990, Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act to have the DOJ collect data and report the amount of bias-motivated crimes each year. The DOJ relies on the voluntary state and local law enforcement agencies, which severely undercount hate crimes.

What comes next?

Hate crimes and attacks have devastated the lives of many. However, with protests, petitions, and other calls for public action, domestic terrorism continues to be pushed into the public eye. Many hope that the government will take more serious measures to combat the rise of domestic terrorism, and it appears to have risen in importance in current politics.



bottom of page