It wasn’t that long ago that senior Department of Homeland Security officials shied away from focusing on domestic terrorism, often fearing political backlash.
The White House pushed the sprawling department to focus overwhelmingly on immigration enforcement, at the expense of just about everything else. DHS veterans told reporters that white supremacist terror was the FBI’s issue, not theirs. When a DHS analyst warned of far-right violence in 2009, congressional Republicans bellowed in protest, with a lasting chilling effect. Under the Trump administration, the department disbanded a group of intelligence analysts focused on domestic terrorism. Cybersecurity staffers got shipped to the border. In the days after the massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, leading DHS minds focused on the migrant caravan. And, as NBC reported, the administration cut funding for DHS grants designed to prevent radicalization.
But as white supremacists have terrorized communities around the country, senior officials at DHS have tried to step up their work against the threat. They fought to get that counter-radicalization money back, for instance. A consensus within the department slowly began to form: DHS exists to fight terrorism—even when those terrorists are American.
Then came the El Paso shooting, which left 22 people dead in the Texas border city. That’s when, in the words of one senior DHS official, “the dam broke.”
“There were robust conversations before El Paso,” added that official, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal talks. “Acting DHS Sec. Kevin McAleenan has been very clear that this is a top priority for the Department, as Nielsen had also previously stressed. But the conditions are different now. We will ensure the Department is doing everything possible with existing capabilities and resources, and seek more capabilities and resources as needed. And more will be needed.”
Since the shootings in El Paso and Dayton that left 31 people dead, DHS officials are working overtime to find ways to ramp up domestic terrorism prevention efforts, according to four DHS officials familiar with the situation. But it’s not easy, sources said; over the last two years, the department has maximized resources focused on border security, and it’s already strained.
“These two shootings have caused a mad scramble where they are pulling every publication and book off the shelf in an attempt to figure out what they can do to address this problem,” said one former DHS official.
Senior DHS leadership had a call on Saturday night after the El Paso shooting and then again on Sunday afternoon, after a second shooter killed 10 people in Dayton. The violence was spiraling. So McAleenan directed senior officials to start a working group to assess what DHS was doing about domestic terrorism and what more it could do immediately, according two sources familiar with the situation. The department’s advisory council is supposed to speak with McAleenan about domestic terrorism prevention this week, one of those sources said.
It’s too soon to tell if El Paso will be a turning point for DHS. But just taking a serious look at what the department is doing to fight domestic terrorism and what more it can do—that marks a significant moment, especially when many in the White House remained laser-focused on stopping the flow of immigrants.
“People are scrambling,” said a current DHS official.
And they aren’t alone. The Daily Beast reported last week that the National Counterterrorism Center, another 9/11-era counterterror institution, has also quietly amped up its work fighting domestic terror.
DHS, meanwhile, heightened its efforts last week after President Trump condemned white supremacy and domestic terrorism. For more than two years, according to current and former DHS officials, the White House has directed the department to rev up its efforts to deal with the mass flow of migrants into the country.
Now, department officials are looking to elevate the mission to prevent domestic terrorism by leveraging existing resources and surging capabilities from throughout the department, according to another senior DHS official. It’s not dissimilar to the concept the department uses in responding to a natural disaster, the official added. The number of people involved is smaller, but it draws from people all across the department. They’re also putting together an action plan looking at the growing threat from domestic terrorism, according to multiple DHS sources.
“To ensure our communities are safe, we are focusing efforts on enhancing our prevention and preparedness, and creating response assets in communities so they will be better able to mitigate risk and respond to these kinds of events when they do occur,” McAleenan said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “So far we’ve reached thousands of people in communities around the country, educating them about indicators of radicalization or mobilization to violence. Community awareness can play a major role in preventing an attack.”
But significant turnover among senior DHS leadership has complicated its efforts to help state and local law enforcement partners.
“Trying to find someone in charge at DHS overall—it’s been hard lately!” said one senior state law enforcement official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Since DHS has been in existence, it’s always been fairly chaotic. But this is probably the longest it’s been with so many people in acting positions.”
The department’s effort to increase its focus on domestic terrorism has left officials in DHS playing catch up. One official said some of the individuals working overtime do not have domestic terrorism experience, as most have spent their careers on international terrorism.
“That’s a bit of a challenge,” said the official.
The challenge hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“This scramble is a direct result of the fact that notwithstanding concerns raised by some in DHS over the past several years, there have been no serious planning efforts by the department to focus on [domestic terrorism],” said John Cohen, former deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at DHS. “That’s due in large part because of the insistence by the White House that the department first and foremost focus on immigration and border security.”
The Daily Beast reported on DHS’ decision to disband a group of domestic terror analysts just days before McAleenan took office. Soon after, the secretary directed a review of all DHS efforts to combat targeted violence and domestic terrorism, including programs funded by federal grants doled out to the department in 2017, a department spokesperson said.
“Given the proof-of-concept nature of these programs, DHS was not prepared until earlier this year to make an assessment of their efficacy,” a spokesperson for the department said, adding that McAleenan directed the department to request more funds for domestic terrorism prevention for fiscal year 2020.