The recent mass murder at Walmart in El Paso is an act of terrorism, not much different from similar international terrorist attacks. Terrorizing innocent civilians, whether domestically or internationally, and spreading fear among the populace for whatever warped ideology or justification is part and parcel of the classical definition of terrorism.
International and domestic terrorist groups, cells and individuals usually commit acts of terror in the name of specific religious, racial, ethnic and other social ideologies. Ignorance and fear drive their fear of the “other” and their sick desire to kill.
Internationally, the “other” might be Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, Kurds, Hutus, and Tutsis. Domestically, the “other” has included African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, Germans and Japanese.
Three important factors are driving domestic terrorism: the pervasive use of the dark side of social media; the ubiquitous presence of deadly weapons; and the changing demography of the nation, which projects that within one to two generations, a majority of Americans will be people of color. The “whiteness” of the minority is dimming, and the “brownness” of the majority is shining brighter. Because of these factors, which are not expected to recede anytime soon, domestic terrorism is expected to rise exponentially over the next decade.
Those who resent this demographic are inevitability burrowing deeper and deeper in the dark side of social media in search of empowerment, purpose, identity and belonging. When a disgruntled, alienated and angry young man joins these groups and begins to read their abhorrent literature and so-called manifestos, he expresses his commitment and fealty to their intolerant, exclusivist ideologies by committing violence against members of the “other” that are perceived by these groups as an existential threat.
Unlike terrorist recruitment and indoctrination a decade or two ago, today’s aspiring terrorists go online and read about hating other communities perceived by these radicalizers as non-white and non-Christian. Mental health and other explanations are for the most part simplistic and unproductive in understanding the nature of terrorism, domestically or internationally.
Leaders’ words and rhetoric matter in the indirect empowerment and recruitment of potential terrorists. I have studied Osama bin Laden’s public statements, messages and pronouncements over the years. In every message, whether on Al Jazeera or online, Bin Laden had something to say to his followers and indicated a program of action against his perceived enemies.
He frequently repeated certain words and phrases as an effective tool to communicate his message to the “believers.” Examples included “crusaders,” “infidels,” “invasion,” and “anti-Islamic wars.” Similarly, such words as “invasion” figure prominently in the “manifestos” of some hate groups, as the El Paso massacre showed. Bin Laden’s targets were Christian “Crusaders,” Jews, Shia, America and Israel. The targets of domestic terrorists are for the most part non-white groups – African Americans, Sikh, Muslims, Latinos, LGBT, children, students and the “invaders” from Mexico and Latin America.
The path forward
American national security and value system are grounded in diversity – cultural, racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic. This amalgam of global cultures since 1776 has made America great for all Americans. When communities embrace and celebrate diversity, the voices of hate and division are drowned out.
At least three paths should be pursued at the national level. The president should reach out to the leaders of the House and Senate and ask them to join him in a nationally televised address to the nation calling on all Americans to denounce racism, division and hate. They must also tell hate groups and their recruits and adherents that they will be prosecuted as terrorists under the terrorism laws that were enacted before and since the heinous acts of 9/11.
Second, the Department of Justice, including the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security should establish a joint task force to track domestic terrorism, report on it, and advise policymakers on on-going activities and gathering threats of terrorist groups and individuals. The expertise, which the National Counterterrorism Center has accumulated in tracking international terrorists, should be utilized in the fight against domestic terrorism. The two departments should begin to issue annual domestic terrorism threat reports, similar to the Director of National Intelligence’s annual report on international terrorism.
Third, the United States Congress should work to pass appropriate legislation against potential domestic terrorist groups and individuals. Terrorist recruiters, whether individuals or social media platforms, should be held responsible and prosecuted where appropriate.
The scourge of international terrorism has shaken the world for decades. It should not be allowed to metastasize domestically.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of UNM’s Global and National Security Policy Institute and a former senior CIA intelligence service officer. A longer version of this article was on LobeLog.