By William Fisher
In 2009, Daryl Johnson was at the apex of a 15-year career as an expert on domestic terrorist groups — particularly white supremacists and neo-Nazis — as a senior government counterterrorism analyst, the last six of them at the Department of Homeland Security.
As the DHS “go-to” guy for what the DHS called non-Muslim counter-terrorism, Johnson’s six-person unit was about to release a comprehensive report on domestic terrorist groups as a government counterterrorism analyst.
But in 2009, according to WIRED Magazine’s Spencer Ackerman, Johnson’s career took an unexpected nosedive. That’s when he wrote an analysis on the rise of “Right-Wing Extremism” (.pdf). The work triggered a testy political controversy, under pressure from conservatives inside and outside DHS. Conservative writers feared the DHS as demonizing — even, potentially, criminalizing — mainstream right-wing speech.
Stung, DHS responded by cutting “the number of personnel studying domestic terrorism unrelated to Islam, canceled numerous state and local law enforcement briefings, and held up dissemination of nearly a dozen reports on extremist groups,” the Washington Post reported in June 2009.
According to Johnson, his former team now consisted of a single analyst tasked with tracking all domestic non-Islamic extremism. His database has been shuttered. A Tea Party activist expressed his displeasure with Johnson’s 2009 report on the danger of far-right extremism. Rightwing hysteria came in the person of pundit Michelle Malkin.
Napolitano caved. As a craven and cowardly sop to her right-wing base, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano repudiated Johnson’s paper, deep-sixed it, and would soon close down Johnson’s unit, leaving only one analyst to track what it called non-Muslim domestic terrorism.
Journalist Ackerman describes Johnson’s frustrations regarding the Sikh massacre. For Johnson, Ackerman writes, “ …the shooting was a reminder that the government’s counterterrorism efforts are almost exclusively focused on al-Qaida, even as non-Islamist groups threaten Americans domestically.” Johnson told WIRED magazine.
“DHS is scoffing at the mission of doing domestic counterterrorism, as is Congress,” Johnson told Danger Room. “There’ve been no hearings about the rising white supremacist threat, but there’s been a long list of attacks over the last few years. But they still hold hearings about Muslim extremism. It’s out of balance.” But even if that balance was reset, he concedes, that doesn’t necessarily mean the feds could have found Page before Sunday’s rampage.
“Johnson’s team was dissolved in April 2010,” Johnson told Danger Room, at which point he left. He says had he been at DHS, he “would have published an analysis calling attention to a growing number of attacks on mosques”, which he thinks could serve as a “warning” to Sikh communities that are often mistaken for Muslim ones.
But, as WIRED correctly points out, finding so-called ‘lone wolf” terrorists like Page is a challenge no matter their motivations, since they operate outside established extremist cells and often don’t have criminal records, making it difficult for law enforcement or homeland security officials to spot them.
Now a security consultant in the Washington D.C. area, Johnson used to work for DHS’ analysis shop, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A). He supervised a team of six analysts studying what he calls “domestic non-Islamic extremism.”
Looking at al-Qaida, the DHS employed as many as 40 analysts who looked at al-Qaida and other jihadist groups’ inroads into the homeland.
According to WIRED Johnson ran everything else. One person on his team worked on the threat from anarchists; another, the threat from animal-rights extremists. Still others looked at anti-abortion radicalism, white supremacy and radical environmentalism. They were supplemented by analysts at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; but outnumbered by the literally thousands of analysts, operatives and other counterterrorism officials throughout the government who focus on jihadism. “Salaries were our major budget item,” he recalls.
Then, in April 2009, Johnson warned that the election of the first African-American president, combined with recession-era economic anxieties, could fuel a rise in far-right violence.
“The Department of Homeland Security protects our country from all threats, whether foreign or homegrown, and regardless of the ideology that motivates its violence,” spokesman Matt Chandler told Danger Room.
“We face a threat environment where violent extremism is neither constrained by international borders, nor limited to any single ideology. This is not a phenomenon restricted solely to any one particular community and our efforts to counter
violent extremism (CVE) are applicable to all ideologically motivated violence. DHS continues to work with its state, local, tribal, territorial and private partners to prevent and protect against potential threats to the United States by focusing on preventing violence that is motivated by extreme ideological beliefs.”
Johnson, who has written a forthcoming book about far-right extremist groups, concedes that the definition of “right-wing” in his product was imprecise. In retrospect, he says he should have clarified that his focus was on “violent” right-wing organizations, like white supremacists, neo-Nazis and so-called Sovereign Citizens who believe the U.S. government is an illegitimate, tyrannical enterprise. Much like mainstream Muslims denounce terrorism and object to over-broad analysis portraying Islam as an incubator of extremism, so too do mainstream conservatives denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists and dispute that those groups are authentically right-wing.
Nor does he think DHS should ignore Islamic extremism. “It just needs to be more balanced,” Johnson says. New York congressman Peter King has held three hearings in the past year on Muslim extremism,” he says, referring to the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, “but he’s yet to have a
single hearing on right-wing extremism when there’s been a lot more activity.”
His report – the one that got him fired – contains little that is sensational. People who follow non-Muslim hate groups will be familiar with most of the organizations included in the report.
The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence, but rightwing extremists may be gaining new recruits by playing on their fears about several emergent issues.
“The economic downturn and the election of the first
African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment,” the report concluded.
It continued: “Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts. Nevertheless, the consequences of a prolonged economic downturn—including real estate foreclosures, unemployment, and an inability to obtain credit—could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists and even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past.”
The Report said, “Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to recruit new members, mobilize existing supporters, and broaden their scope and appeal through propaganda, but they have not yet turned to attack planning.”
“The current economic and political climate has some similarities to the 1990s when rightwing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers.”
“During the 1990s, these issues contributed to the growth in the number of domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups and an increase in violent acts targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, banks, and infrastructure sectors.”
“Growth of these groups subsided in reaction to increased
government scrutiny as a result of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and disrupted plots, improvements in the economy, and the continued U.S. standing as the preeminent world power.”
“The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.”
“Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejectinggovernment authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
“Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons bans likely would attract new members into the ranks of rightwing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government. The high volume of purchases and stockpiling of weapons and ammunition by rightwing extremists in anticipation of restrictions and bans in some parts of the country continue to be a primary concern to law enforcement.”
“Returning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.”
“DHS/I&A assesses that a number of economic and political factors are driving a resurgence in rightwing extremist recruitment and radicalization activity. Despite similarities to the climate of the 1990s, the threat posed by lone wolves and small terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years. In addition, the historical election of an African American president and the prospect of policy changes are proving to be a driving force for rightwing extremist recruitment and radicalization.”
But Johnson doesn’t contend that more resources would necessarily have stopped Page from attacking the Sikh temple. Lone-wolf terrorists are hard to spot. What the government should do instead is broaden its counterterrorism focus beyond just jihads.
As for the FBI, it appears virtually impossible to separate the contra- terrorism operations into (a) against international terrorists and (homegrown)non-Muslim domestic terrorists. The FBI provides no figures as to budgets or personnel for the two operating tracks.
It is known that FBI brass thinks the international side of the assignment is much sexier and more likely to produce press conferences and headlines from which promotions come. Since 9/11, the FBI, DHS and similar state and federal agencies have been drowning in a tsunami of physical and human resources.
So climbing the FBI international success ladder appears to be a far easier goal to aspire to.
This approach, many believe, is the FBI’s natural inclination. They are having a hard time breaking free of the Middle East/Muslim brand that decimated the World Trade Center and The Pentagon. Those frantic days post 9/11 days chasing brown-skinned Muslims are seared into their brain, and it will probably be another generation or two before they begin to recede.
Meanwhile, the skinheads, the neo-Nazis, the KKK, the Sovereign Citizen Movement, the heavily armed militias – and a thousand others – will continue to enjoy their First Amendment rights as they burrow deeply into life blood of our country.
This article originally appeared in the pages of Prism Magazine.