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2019 Marks A Turning Point In How The U.S. Confronts Domestic Terrorism


This year marked a turning point in how the nation confronts domestic terrorism. It's a big shift for a national security apparatus that's been focused almost exclusively on Islamist extremism since the 9/11 attacks. But now the focus is on homegrown extremism, amid a resurgence of white nationalist and other far-right violence. NPR's Hannah Allam joins us now to talk about the past year and what to watch for next year as the threat evolves.

Hey, Hannah.


CHANG: So what do you think has changed in how this country thinks about and talks about violent extremism?

ALLAM: Well, it's not like there's been an overnight shift where everybody was worried about ISIS and now we're worried about white power groups. It's definitely more gradual and subtle than that, but there has been a change. If we back up to 2017, the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., was a wake-up call about how racial hatred was moving into organized violence.

So 2019 was the year we've seen that awareness translate into action. We've seen congressional hearings, draft legislation, new law enforcement efforts and really just a wider understanding now that homegrown far-right militancy is a threat that's on par with or even bigger than the threat from Islamist extremists, at least here in the U.S.

CHANG: OK. Then how has the response from law enforcement evolved?

ALLAM: For years, far-right extremists have been the deadlier and more active threat to the United States. And now we're hearing officials say that publicly and acknowledge that in stark terms. In May, the head of the FBI's counterterrorism division testified that they're investigating 850 domestic terrorism cases.


ALLAM: Yeah. About 40% of those involved racially motivated violence, mostly by white supremacists. In July, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, said the same thing at another congressional hearing.

So 2019 - we are seeing a change in the conversation. And sadly, it's a conversation we've been forced to have. It seems like a long time ago now because of the pace of the news cycle. But if we just think back to some of the attacks of 2019, we saw white supremacists attack Muslims in New Zealand, attack a synagogue in Poway, Calif., Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso, among many other incidents. And that level of violence - it's impossible to ignore now.

CHANG: Yeah. So given that law enforcement has identified this as a specific threat, what is being done?

ALLAM: We have seen some movement in a number of places. This past year, there were at least four congressional hearings on the far-right threat and white nationalist violence. Some of those committees were discussing this issue for the first time. We saw the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, unveil a strategic plan that squarely targets far-right extremism, and that comes after years of focusing almost exclusively on jihadists. And the plan came with an introduction that said, as the threats evolve, we must do so as well.

We also saw the NYPD, the nation's biggest police department - just this month, it opened a new intelligence unit dedicated to policing extremist hate groups.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

ALLAM: And even at universities, on the academic front, academics across the country who study the far-right threat just formed a collective. They are - said that they felt compelled to better teach the public about the dangers of what happens when these fringe movements move closer into the mainstream.

CHANG: But what about the White House? I mean, President Trump came under a lot of criticism after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017 when he said there were, quote, "very fine people on both sides." Has his language changed any since Charlottesville when it comes to white nationalism?

ALLAM: Right. It's still a mixed bag with Trump. His own federal agencies say the far-right threat's a priority, but the president hasn't always been as clear. Early in the year, after the mass killing of Muslims in New Zealand, Trump was asked whether he thought white nationalism was a growing threat. He said he didn't. He played it down. So that was March. Fast-forward to August and the attack on Latinos in El Paso, and he sounded a different tune, as we hear in this clip.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate. In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.

CHANG: He's sounding very different notes than he did during Charlottesville.

ALLAM: I think anyone would say that's an unusually forceful and unequivocal rejection of white racial violence coming from this president.

CHANG: So Hannah, as we are heading into 2020, I'm curious - what do you think you will be watching for next year?

ALLAM: Well, first of all, I'll be watching for follow-through on those pledges to take this issue more seriously, including the White House and Congress. And we can't forget that it's an election year. Historically, there's always a rise in hate crimes in an election year, so I'll be looking at those divisions and whether we see them spilling into the streets. We're already hearing extremists pledge to fight against red flag laws and other efforts at gun control. It's hard to know how seriously to take some of these factions, but some are threatening armed rebellion.

CHANG: That's NPR's Hannah Allam.

Thank you, Hannah.

ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.