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Opinion: Kidnapping plot against Whitmer shines spotlight on domestic terrorism

Javed Ali

News of the brazen plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer serves as stark reminder of the threat of terrorism inside the United States. 

This phenomenon appears to have grown substantially in recent years, while the international terrorist threat to the country — which was the overwhelming focus of the U.S. counterterrorism enterprise for nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks — now appears to be on the wane, at least temporarily.   

Various indicators from this year alone — whether the large number of FBI domestic terrorism investigations, the number of disrupted plots in various locations, social media efforts to address domestic terrorism propaganda and even lethal attacks — suggest this trend may only continue to rise. 

Social media platforms create echo chambers for like-minded individuals to share their discontent over government-imposed restrictions, Ali writes.

As a former senior counterterrorism analyst, with experience in the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, who looked for patterns and trends in domestic terrorism during my government career, these developments look daunting.

While there is no one single factor that can explain why this threat has become so prominent, three key factors — the impact of the pandemic, the social justice protests and heightened political rhetoric — may help to explain what is motivating individuals to plan violent action.

First, as COVID-19 continues to affect the United States, different states and local governments have used a variety of measures to stem the disease’s spread. 

Restrictions on personal freedoms such as travel and the ability to gather in large numbers, rules on wearing masks indoors or in public spaces, and the closing of certain businesses and the significant economic dislocations that have been created have all combined to fuel grievances by a variety of individuals who subscribe to different extremist beliefs.  

These views are then shared and promoted openly on social media platforms or within closed communication networks, creating echo chambers for like-minded individuals to share their discontent over these government-imposed restrictions, and at times plan attacks to roll back these measures — such as in the alleged plot against Whitmer. 

Next, the social justice protests that emerged in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and other similar incidents have also created a backlash on the domestic terrorism front. Government assessments warned earlier this summer that anarchist extremists and militia groups could attempt to exploit the protests and engage in violent attacks, and events over the past few months in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Portland, Oregon show the dangers when individuals on opposites sides of the ideological spectrum converge in the same physical space armed and ready to confront the other. 

Media reports have described how this dynamic has played out at various locations across the country these past few months, and each time this occurs the potential for violence increases. 

Lastly, the heightened political rhetoric in the country — only amplified now in the run-up to the election in a few weeks — may also be fueling the increase in domestic terrorism. Some researchers believe there is a causal relationship between divisive language used by politicians and commentators and an increase in terrorist activity. 

As the election looms closer and the stakes seem higher given the highly polarized condition in the country, discourse that widens political rifts may further animate individuals to move forward with attack plans.   

The threat of domestic terrorism is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Prior to 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 was the single largest act of terrorism in U.S history, and the bombers' adherence to the anti-government patriot movement is believed to have motivated the horrific attack

However, in contrast to 25 years ago, a different series of key factors are pushing the threat of domestic terrorism in a troubling direction. As a result, we need new policy approaches, strong leadership and dedicated attention to make sure we do not have a repeat of an Oklahoma City-type tragedy on U.S. soil in 2020 and beyond.

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. He has over  years professional experience in Washington, D.C. on national security issues.