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Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin Delivers Remarks on Domestic Terrorism at an Event Co-Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security’s Program on Extremism


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Lorenzo [Vidino], for that kind introduction. 

It is an honor to be at this event, co-hosted by the George Washington University’s new Program on Extremism and the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

The partnership between SPLC and GW serves as a reminder that violent extremism is neither a new phenomenon, nor one that is limited to any single population, region or ideology. 

Since its creation in 1971, SPLC has been an important voice on the wide range of extremist groups throughout this country.  And over the past four decades, the existence of hate, violence and extremism has remained unfortunately all too constant.  Earlier this year, we honored and remembered the victims of the horrific Oklahoma City bombing on the 20th anniversary of that devastating attack.  Less than two months after the anniversary, we again saw unimaginable violence motivated by hate.  A young man killed nine African-American men and women attending a bible class in Charleston, South Carolina.  A senseless, racist act.  The list goes on, past and present.

But as we gather today, new and disturbing trends loom over the horizon – trends we must understand to defeat. 

New initiatives, like GW’s program, which focus on empirical research and analysis, are critical to policymakers and the interested public alike. 

So although the problem set is by no means new, it is changing, and we must take lessons learned in the past and couple them with trend analysis to understand these shifts. 

Today’s event is a good start to that conversation.  We are here to talk about combating domestic terrorism, which the FBI has explained as “Americans attacking Americans based on U.S.-based extremist ideologies.”

Much attention has focused on those inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) message of hate and violence spreading worldwide and reaching homes here in America through the group’s unprecedented social media recruitment efforts.  And rightly so.

But today is a good opportunity to focus the conversation broadly on violent extremism here in America.  The threat ranges from individuals motivated by anti-government animus, to eco-radicalism, to racism, as it has for decades. 

The full spectrum of violent extremism shares a number of common elements, and our approach to disrupting them must recognize these connections. 

As just one example, earlier this year, two women were charged in New York with conspiring to build a bomb to conduct an attack in the United States.  While these women were motivated by Islamic extremist ideology, they allegedly conducted research into the type of bomb used in the Oklahoma City bombing, demonstrating the continuing resonance of that attack. 

The Threat

The Department of Justice’s highest priority is combatting terrorism, both international and domestic, and other threats to our national security in order to protect the American public, and we strive to remain nimble so we can adjust to current threats as they evolve and new threats that emerge. 

The range of national security threats is staggeringly broad.  We work every day to adapt and improve our approaches to address the dangers posed by ISIL, Al Qaeda, AQAP and other terrorist groups; the threats posed by foreign terrorist fighters intent on waging Jihad abroad; and the threat of fighters who may seek to return home, trained and willing to die for their extremist cause. 

Yet, while we continue to address this evolving international threat of violent extremists, we have not lost sight of the domestic terrorism threat posed by other violent extremists.  Terror and extremism do not always originate elsewhere or take place outside our borders.  Homegrown violent extremists can be motivated by any viewpoint on the full spectrum of hate.  Anti-government views, racism, bigotry, anarchy and other despicable beliefs.  When it comes to hate and intolerance, no single ideology governs. 

In America, harboring extremist views is not itself a crime, nor is the expression of even a hateful ideology or association with a hateful group.

But the line between speech and violence is crossed too often, resulting in heartbreaking tragedy.  The list includes:

• Plots and attacks on government buildings, synagogues and mosques, businesses and public infrastructure;

• Assassinations and planned assassinations of police officers, judges, civil rights figures, doctors and others;

• Stockpiles of illegal weapons, explosives and biological and chemical weapons; and

• Killing sprees that have terrorized local communities.

Looking back over the past few years it is quite clear that domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists remain a clear and present danger here inside the United States. We recognize that according to at least one study more people died in this country in attacks by domestic extremists than attacks associated with international terrorist groups over the last, say, five to six years.

First, as our SPLC colleagues can attest, racial hatred motivates many of the violent extremist attacks.  The Attorney General noted this summer that these kinds of hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism.  Among domestic extremist movements active in the United States, white supremacists are the most violent.  The Charleston shooter, who had a manifesto laying out a racist worldview, is just one example.  His actions followed earlier deadly shooting sprees by white supremacists in Kansas, Wisconsin and elsewhere. 

For example, in January 2011, Kevin William Harpham, a man with ties to a neo-Nazi organization, planted a radio-controlled pipe bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, intent on inflicting mass casualties.  Luckily, parade workers spotted the bomb and law enforcement officials were able to defuse it before anyone was harmed.  He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 32 years in prison.

We are not always so fortunate.  In August 2012, Wade Michael Page, who also espoused white supremacist and neo-Nazi views, fatally shot six people and wounded four others, including a responding police officer, at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  He acted alone and died in the course of the attacks from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

We also see anti-government views triggering violence throughout America.  As just one example, three militia members were recently sentenced in Georgia for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction in attacks against federal government buildings.  They attempted to acquire explosives in early 2014, with the goal of destroying U.S. government infrastructure as part of a guerilla warfare strategy to undermine the U.S government.

More broadly, law enforcement agencies nationwide are concerned about the growth of the “sovereign citizen” movement.  According to one 2014 study, state, local and tribal law enforcement officials considered sovereign citizens to be the top concern of law enforcement, ranking above ISIL and Al Qaeda-inspired extremists. 

Adherents to the sovereign citizen ideology believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities or law enforcement.  And although most sovereign citizens peacefully espouse these views, some sovereign citizen extremists resort to violence.

• Terry Nichols, convicted accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing, may have viewed himself as a member of the sovereign citizen movement. 

• In 2010, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father and son who identified with the sovereign citizen movement, killed two police officers and were themselves killed in the ensuing shootout with police after a routine traffic stop.  

• And in June 2014, Jerad and Amanda Miller, likely motivated by the sovereign citizen anti-government ideology, killed two Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers at a restaurant in Las Vegas.  Then they went to a nearby Walmart and killed another innocent person.  During their attacks, they declared the beginning of a so-called revolution. 

These attacks and many others cause us to rededicate ourselves to identify, disrupt and prevent domestic threats.   

The Common Challenges

No single ideology governs hate and extremism – nevertheless, we see commonalities among those who wish to do us harm.  This gives us important information as we shape our deterrence and disruption strategies. 

Across the spectrum of extremist ideologies, two related traits emerge: first, the prevalence of lone offender attacks that do not require a terrorist network; and second, the increasing number of disaffected people inspired to violence who communicate their hate-filled views over the Internet and through social media.     

Both of these traits are present in the threat posed by ISIL.

Over the past year, foreign terrorist fighter arrests in this country increased from about a dozen to more than 60.  But as we disrupt travel and make it harder for potential ISIL recruits in this country to get to Syria and Iraq, ISIL adapts, increasingly encouraging individuals in the West to conduct terrorist attacks at home.  No passport or travel required.

As a result, in 2015, we have witnessed a surge in individuals inspired by this extremist ideology who want to conduct attacks inside the United States.  Unlike Al Qaeda, which had been a tightly controlled organization that carefully planned large-scale attacks, ISIL encourages lone offenders.

This diffused approach may be new in international terrorism, but it bears striking similarity to other violent extremism here in America – whether you label it domestic terrorism, hate crime or plain murder.  As was the case with McVeigh and Nichols and the Charleston shooter, lone offenders or small groups often plan and carry out attacks on their own or with limited assistance.  In these cases, few others know of their violent plans, making their plotting more difficult to disrupt. 

Second, across the spectrum of extremist ideologies, we see an alarming new trend – an increasing number of disaffected people linked together in their adherence to violence over the Internet and through social media. 

As the ISIL threat reveals, new communications technologies, including social media and the widespread use of encryption, pose tremendous challenges to public safety and national security and these are challenges everyone with a stake in the matter must continue to work together to address. 

The same is true for domestic terrorism and extremism.  Sovereign citizens continue to communicate and recruit through the use of YouTube and Twitter.  White supremacists post to social media, and studies now posit that mass killings are contagious.  Violence begets violence, and through the power of the internet, a meeting hall is no longer needed.  Formal organizational structures are unnecessary.  Connections are made, and messages spread, through the push of a button. 

The Department of Justice’s Response

Fortunately, by recognizing common patterns we can craft a common response.  No matter who is behind the violence and intimidation, we will continue to use every tool at our disposal to deter and disrupt the threat. 

We will do all we can to identify, track and defuse those who would engage in large-scale acts of violence.  To achieve these objectives, we are:

1. Improving coordination between investigations and prosecutions;

2. Utilizing the same all-tools approach we leverage against all national security threats; and

3. Actively exploring options to address the sources of violent extremism.

Ensuring Coordination

Success in disrupting domestic terrorism requires close coordination, as extremist conduct ranges widely in ideology and knows no jurisdictional bounds.  At the Department of Justice, our goal is to ensure that coordination is as effective and efficient as possible. 

Our Counterterrorism Section within the National Security Division (NSD) maintains connectivity with the U.S. Attorney community around the country for purposes of all terrorism matters and also maintains expertise on a variety of statutes frequently used in domestic terrorism prosecutions.  In addition, NSD, along with the FBI and a representative from the U.S. Attorney community, co-chairs the Attorney General's Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee (the DTEC).

The DTEC was originally launched by Attorney General Janet Reno in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing with the goal of ensuring that those combating domestic terrorist activity had a forum to share information and coordinate efforts.  It met regularly and it was scheduled to meet on Sept. 11, 2001, but due to the events of that day, that meeting never took place.

Fortunately, in recognition of the importance of combating domestic terrorism, the department re-established the DTEC last June.  Today, the DTEC consists of senior officials from NSD, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney community, the Civil Rights Division and the Tax Division, among others, as well as other federal law enforcement agencies who work on domestic terrorism matters.  As it did many years ago, it provides a national-level forum for information sharing at the department’s leadership level and within the federal law enforcement community. 

The DTEC helps to ensure national-level coordination.  But our local U.S. Attorney’s offices, FBI field offices and Joint Terrorism Task Forces, working closely with our nation’s police officers, district attorneys and local community officials, are the country’s eyes on the ground. 

At NSD, in order to ensure that we are gaining the benefits of the information and input from those eyes on the ground from around the country, and in recognition of a growing number of potential domestic terrorism matters around the United Sates, we have created a new position to assist with our important work in combatting domestic terrorism.  Just this week, we appointed a new Domestic Terrorism Counsel to serve as our main point of contact for U.S. Attorneys working on domestic terrorism matters.  The new DT Counsel will not only help ensure that DT cases are properly coordinated, but will also play a key role in our headquarters-level efforts to identify trends to help shape our strategy, and to analyze legal gaps or enhancements required to ensure we can combat these threats.  The new counsel will also play an important role with the DTEC by providing its members with insights from cases and trends from around the country.

Investigation and Prevention

Working together, our collective objective is to disrupt and prevent attacks.  To do that, we must aggressively use all the investigative tools at our disposal. 

We do not investigate people for exercising their First Amendment rights, but we are obligated to investigate extremist groups and individuals when we have reason to believe they may be involved in the commission of a federal crime, including threatening violence. 

And we utilize proactive enforcement tools and investigative techniques, including the use of undercover operations, to stay ahead of the threat.  Undertaken with careful oversight and with appropriate respect for civil rights and liberties, these tools are highly effective.  We have used them with success for many years, and now, they are recognized globally as invaluable in the fight against terrorism and organized crime.

But we can only track threats that we can see. 

With the explosive use of social media and encrypted communications, those inspired to violence by messages of hate, we run the risk that we will see less as the bad guys see more. 

Social media can create for an extreme segment of society a sort of “radicalization echo chamber” where followers reinforce for each other extremist propaganda and calls for violence. 

Service providers must take responsibility for how their services can be abused.  Responsible providers understand what the threats are and take action to prevent terrorist groups from abusing their services to induce recruits to commit terrorist acts. 


When we become aware of potential extremist criminal activity, prosecution is one powerful tool in our tool box. 

In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, or AEDPA.  That legislation is critical to the U.S. government’s efforts to protect the nation against international and domestic terrorism.

On the domestic front, the code book defines domestic terrorism as illegal activities that are dangerous to human life that take place primarily here in the United States and appear to be intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a government.”

However, what causes some confusion is that “domestic terrorism” is not an offense or a charge. 

Instead, we have the whole criminal code at our disposal.  Over the years, we have charged violent extremists with a variety of crimes, ranging from firearms or explosives offenses, to arson, threats or fraud, tax violations or hate crimes and murder.  We will continue to increase our focus using the full range of our authorities to protect the public against these threats.

AEDPA provided enhanced sentences for certain terrorism-related offenses, and it created a new federal offense that prohibits the possession of stolen explosives.  That statute continues to be significant in keeping dangerous explosives out of the hands of those who would use them for violent ends. 

Additionally, through the leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congress passed a statute that criminalizes teaching or distributing bomb-making information in support of federal crimes of violence. 

This statute allows us to prosecute not only individuals who engage in terrorist attacks themselves, but also those who share their deadly skills so that others can engage in such attacks. 

For example, in 2005, Daniel Schertz, a one-time member of the Ku Klux Klan, pleaded guilty to six offenses including a violation of this provision, for constructing seven pipe bombs and instructing a confidential informant on how to use the bombs to cause the most destruction.  Schertz believed that the bombs would be used to attack Mexican and Haitian immigrants in Florida.  He was ultimately sentenced to more than 14 years in prison. 

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE)

Although law enforcement is a powerful tool, it is not the only tool.  We must also reach individuals early on their path towards radicalization.  Programs like those associated with GW and SPLC will be particularly valuable on this front.  

To counter violent extremism, we must begin by doing more to empower those who are best-placed to affect change – parents, teachers, coaches, mental health service providers and others who know their communities best.  To that end, the Attorney General recently announced the launch of the Strong Cities Network, the first-ever network of city leaders from around the world involved in building community resilience.  This network was created in recognition of the key role of communities in combating violent extremism and the need for more than a top-down approach.   

And it takes a page from our integrated strategy in combating other types of violent extremism. 

We have long known that our efforts are most successful when we partner with local communities to uphold the law.  Local communities form the fabric of our nation, and community members are often best-positioned to identify and relate to individuals who have begun on a path to violent extremism.

Community members see things that law enforcement agencies do not.  Here in the United States, one study found that in more than 80 percent of violent extremist cases with a connection to international terrorism, third-party bystanders observed activities or behaviors suggesting radicalization or violent intent.  However, more than half of the witnesses discounted or downplayed their observations. 

Similar evidence exists regarding bystanders in other cases of crime and extremism.  So community members are not only best positioned to intervene with those on a path towards violent extremism, they also may be the first to see potential steps towards radicalization to violence.

Recognizing the importance of community engagement in early intervention, the Department of Justice has developed three community-based pilot programs – in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; the greater Boston area; and Los Angeles.  Government, academic and community leaders are working together to develop counter narratives, youth programming and constructive dialogue on disengagement.  Strong outreach programs for communities and training for law enforcement lead to a relationship of trust and increased cooperation on everything from civil rights to radicalization-to-violence.

The Department of Justice is also exploring options to intervene with would-be violent extremists before violence occurs, and to address disengagement and rehabilitation, including “off ramps” on the path of radicalization to violence.

CVE will require community engagement, and as we are learning in the international terrorism context, it will also require countering the message of hate online.  Often, former extremists can be the most persuasive voices, and we should look for opportunities to harness social media’s power to provide a positive vision for young people. 

SPLC has a long history of tracking and countering hate, and their efforts will continue to be critical.  Social media allows us to amplify the stories of young people who are overcoming difficult circumstances and avoiding the hate-filled alienation that can lead to violence – channeling their talent and energy to produce positive change in their societies.

To conclude, in all of our work, we strive to honor those most directly affected by acts of terrorism – who were killed or injured, as well as the survivors, first responders and families who have been touched by these heinous acts.  As we work to make our country safe, we welcome opportunities to discuss our work and share ideas at programs like this. 

In our efforts to address violent extremism, we are aware of the grave challenges that we face.  We must always seek new and innovative ways to protect our national security in the face of evolving threats, while preserving our civil rights and civil liberties.

We are grateful to have the Southern Poverty Law Center and the George Washington Program on Extremism on our side, working with us to tackle some of today’s most pressing national security threats.

Thank you again for having me. I look forward to your questions.

National Security
Updated November 14, 2016