US counter-terrorism chief: domestic extremists ‘most lethal threat’ to homeland

Rising threat of domestic terrorism comes after counter-terrorism officials spent two decades focusing on Islamist groups

Domestic extremists currently pose the “most lethal threat” to America, the country's counter-terrorism chief said on Tuesday.

National Counter-terrorism Centre Director Christine Abizaid told the US Senate that domestic violent extremists - or DVEs - have become more dangerous than any other group and will remain a top threat for years to come.

“DVEs pose the most lethal terrorist threat to the homeland,” Ms Abizaid said.

Domestic extremism has been on the rise since 2015 and crossed a new threshold in January when hundreds of supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol in a deadly rampage and attempted to overturn President Joe Biden's election win.

Ms Abizaid said that many of the factors underpinning the motivation of domestic extremists are likely to endure.

“Social polarisation, negative perceptions about immigrants, conspiracy theories promoting violence, distrust of government institutions and biases against minority groups will likely drive some DVEs to conduct attacks this year,” Ms Abizaid said.

She added that “racially or ethnically motivated extremists” pose a particular source of concern from a counter-terror perspective.

Shortly after taking office in January, Mr Biden gave National Intelligence Director Avril Haines the task of conducting a review of domestic violent extremism.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report in May indicating that US political and social unrest “will almost certainly continue to drive” radicalisation”, motivating extremists to carry out attacks.

A man espousing anti-government views issued a bomb threat from a truck outside Capitol Hill last month, eventually surrendering after an hours-long stand-off with police.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has characterised the January 6 attack on the Capitol Hill as “domestic terrorism.”

Ms Abizaid’s use of the term “domestic violent extremists” contrasts with the “home-grown violent extremists” categorisation that she said was “largely inspired by Al Qaeda or ISIS".

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, US counter-terrorism and intelligence officials focused on Islamist-inspired extremist groups.

While the rise of racially motivated domestic extremists in the US has eclipsed that threat in recent years, Ms Abizaid said that foreign terrorist groups still pose a risk.

“While years of [counter-terrorism] pressure has degraded the Al Qaeda network, the group and its affiliates remain intent on using individuals with access to the United States to conduct attacks,” she said.

“This was most recently demonstrated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in their probable approval of a 2019 attack in Pensacola, Florida, where a Saudi US Air Force officer killed three and wounded eight US servicemembers.”

She also singled out Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan as the biggest terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.

“In the wake of our withdrawal, the question is at what point does that regional threat build to a capability and intent that is focused externally and particularly focused on the homeland,” Ms Abizaid said.

She also warned of the potential for Iran-backed attacks in the US.

“We also remain vigilant against Iran and its agents and proxies, principally Lebanese Hezbollah, and their intent of retaliating in the United States for the January 2020 killing of former IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani,” she said.

Updated: September 21st 2021, 9:38 PM