The Discussion of White Supremacist Terror Ignores the Transnational Nature of It

Betsy Woodruff has the scoop that, last year, the National Counterterrorism Center set up a small group focusing on what the article calls “domestic terror.”

In early 2018, the official said, the head of the NCTC directed lawyers from the intelligence community to revisit its understanding of the law that governs it. A Democratic official on the House Intelligence Committee said Congress urged the Center to conduct the analysis—and fast.

By the summer of 2018, the lawyers concluded that NCTC could use its considerable resources to analyze purely domestic threats, as long as it did so to help the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). NCTC officials shared that view with senior officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that oversees the NCTC, and they didn’t get any pushback, per the official. Then the battleship started to turn—just a tad.

In the year since then, the official said, analysts in an NCTC entity that focuses on the radicalization and mobilization of potential foreign terrorists have been working on matters related to domestic terrorism.

NCTC officials have also begun setting up “a small element” in the Center’s Directorate of Intelligence focused on the domestic terror threat, the official said. The official noted that these efforts are not large-scale, and that they have had “to beg and borrow from different areas” to corral resources for the new domestic terrorism work.

She goes on to quote former national security officials applauding the move and civil libertarians raising cautions. But she herself admits the bigger issue: what has always been bracketed off (including in early NCTC documents, Woodruff notes) as “domestic” is not.

To be sure, there’s a nomenclature problem when it comes to domestic and international terrorism, as hateful ideology can cross-pollinate between the U.S. and other countries. For instance, the New Zealander who murdered 51 people at two mosques cited American white supremacist Dylann Roof as an inspiration. Then the terrorist who allegedly murdered a worshiper at a synagogue in Poway, California cited the Christchurch shooter. When it comes to hate, Western nations have open borders.

The really awkward thing, which Woodruff implicitly acknowledges, is that the US exports white supremacist ideology and funding — whether through the networking of Steve Bannon or the Twitter feed of Donald Trump — in much the same way Saudi Arabia enabled Islamic terrorism before 9/11.

I agree with Hina Shamsi, quoted in Woodruff’s piece, that we need transparency about this more than anything. But the goal should be to understand what actually occurring in the government’s efforts to combat terrorism, and from that to learn what is necessary to protecting against terrorism.

Since 9/11, the government has used the existence of an international network — at first a network of internationally deployed operatives and money, and then a network existing in the vacuum created in Iraq and Syria in the wake of the Iraq war interacting with people in the US via social media — behind Islamic extremism as justification to treat brown terrorists differently than it treats white terrorists. Through that period — a period when white supremacist terrorism wasn’t being encouraged by the President — the FBI did a pretty good job of finding white supremacist terrorists.

The lesson from that fact should have been that all this infrastructure targeting brown terrorists was likely unnecessary, though it may have been a crutch for a time, because the government was (and may still be) culturally unable to bring the same nuance to investigations of terrorism by non-white non-Christians.

In recent years, some things have changed, even beyond Trump. The FBI has started playing games with its numbers (first inventing a category, Black Identity Extremism, to justify treating brown non-terrorists as terrorists, then eliminating that category and subsuming it under a racially motivated extremism category that hides the growth of white supremacist terrorism). Trump has eliminated some efforts to pursue white supremacist terrorism. Twitter has struggled with applying its standards equally when that would mean eliminating elected officials, including Trump, from the platform.

Given the normalization under Trump of white supremacist terrorism, it’s not clear whether the FBI can stay ahead of the danger anymore, as they were able to before Trump and his allies normalized all this.

But that suggests the problem is not about intelligence gathering, but is instead about the cultural factors that permit some kind of terrorism to thrive.

We’re only going to understand that, however, if we have real data to make the case.

From George Zimmerman to Dylann Roof to Bryce Williams

In a manifesto sent to ABC today, Bryce Williams — who shot several people on camera this morning before escaping then killing himself just before he was apprehended — explained that the Charleston Church shooting had been his last straw.

In the 23-page document faxed to ABC News, the writer says “MY NAME IS BRYCE WILLIAMS” and his legal name is Vester Lee Flanagan II.” He writes what triggered today’s carnage was his reaction to the racism of the Charleston church shooting:

“Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15…”

“What sent me over the top was the church shooting. And my hollow point bullets have the victims’ initials on them.”

It is unclear whose initials he is referring to. He continues, “As for Dylann Roof? You (deleted)! You want a race war (deleted)? BRING IT THEN YOU WHITE …(deleted)!!!” He said Jehovah spoke to him, telling him to act.

In his own manifesto, Dylann Roof attributed his own radicalization to white supremacists’ reframing of the Trayvon Martin killing.

The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words “black on White crime” into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?

Meanwhile, George Zimmerman is selling Confederate Flags to help protect what he sees as the First and Second Amendment rights of a gun shop owner who  has declared his shop Muslim-free.

Update: And now Zimmerman has weighed in:

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 6.41.04 PM

Our Definitions of National Security Crimes Are Fucked

I realized something the other day.

For the purposes of hacking, a theater (or at least any mall it was attached to) might count as critical infrastructure that would deem it a National Security target, just as Sony Pictures was deemed critical infrastructure for sanction and retaliation purposes after it got hacked.

But if a mentally ill misogynist with a public track record of supporting right wing hate shoots up a movie showing, it would not be considered a national security target. Given his death, DOJ won’t be faced with the challenge of naming John Russell Houser’s crime, but they would have even less ability to punish Houser for his motivation and ties to other haters than they had with Dylann Roof.

DOJ had no such problem with Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane, who got charged with terrorism (under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act) yesterday because they freed some minks. And a bobcat.

So shooting African Americans worshipping in church is not terrorism, but freeing a bobcat is.

Meanwhile, most of the 204 mass shootings — averaging one a day — that happened this year have passed unremarked.

I laid out some of the problems with the disparity between Muslim terrorism and white supremacist terrorism (to say nothing of bobcat-freeing “terrorism”) the other day.

“This should in no way signify that this particular murder or any federal crime is of any lesser significance.” [than terrorism, Loretta Lynch claimed while announcing the Hate Crime charges against Roof

Except it is, by all appearances.

When asked, Lynch refused to comment on how DOJ is allocating resources, but reporting on the increase in terrorism analysts since 9/11 suggests the FBI has dedicated large amounts of new resources to fighting Islamic terrorism, domestically and abroad. In addition, there are a number of spying tools that are tied solely to international terrorism — but DOJ has managed to define, in secret, domestic terrorism espoused by Muslims in the U.S. as international terrorism. That means FBI has far more tools to dedicate to finding tweets posted by Muslims, and fewer to find the manifesto Roof wrote speaking of having ”the bravery to take it to the real world” against blacks and even Jews.

Perhaps most importantly, because of vastly expanded post-9/11 information sharing, local law enforcement offices have been deputized in the hunt for Muslim terrorists, receiving intelligence obtained through those additional spying tools and sharing tips back up with the FBI. By contrast, as one after another confrontation makes clear — most recently the video of a white Texas trooper escalating a traffic stop with African American woman Sandra Bland that ultimately ended in her death, purportedly by suicide — too many white local cops tend to prey on African Americans themselves rather than  the police who target African Americans for their race.


Finally, the FBI has an incentive to call Roof’s attack something different, as it makes a big deal of its success in preventing “terrorist” attacks. If the Charleston attack was terrorism, it means FBI missed a terrorist plotting while tracking a bunch of Muslims who might not have acted without FBI incitement. That would be all the worse as the FBI might have stopped Roof during the background check conducted before he bought the murder weapon, if not for some confusion on a prior charge.


I’m certainly not saying we should expand the already over-broad domestic dragnet to include white supremacists espousing ugly speech (but neither should hateful speech from Muslims be sufficient for a material support for terrorism charge, as it currently is). Yet as one after another white cop kills or leads to the death of unarmed African Americans, we have to ensure that we call like crimes by like names to emphasize the importance of protecting all Americans. DOJ under Eric Holder was superb at policing civil rights violations, and there’s no reason to believe that will change under DOJ’s second African American Attorney General, Loretta Lynch.

But hate crimes brought with the assistance of DOJ’s Civil Rights division (as these were) are not the same as terrorist crimes brought by national security prosecutors, nor are they as easy to prosecute. If our nation can’t keep African Americans worshipping in church safe, than we’re not delivering national security.

But I’d add to that. If we’re discussing mass killings with guns (remember, earlier this year Richard Burr tried to include commission of a violent crime while in possession of a gun among the definitions of terrorism) then it suggests far different solutions than just calling terrorism terrorism.

What if we focused all our energy on interceding before crazy men — of all sorts — shoot up public spaces rather than just one select group?

What if our definitions of national security started with a measure of impact rather than a picture of global threat?

A Tale of Two Gun Possessions: Dylann Roof and Alexander Ciccolo

Ciccolos GunsI have been wondering whether the FBI has been coy about the ISIS-related arrests they’ve leaked to the press, in part, because those “terrorist plots” look minor compared to the murder, allegedly by Dylann Roof, of nine people at a black church in Charleston. As of four days ago, after all, Jim Comey was still weighing whether the attack on the historic black church by a right wing extremist who had written a manifesto explaining his views is terrorism. Did FBI miss the Charleston terrorism attack because it was focusing so much more closely on potential ISIS attacks? Does it want to avoid calling it terrorism because it would mean they failed to prevent a terrorist attack?

I grew all the more curious when FBI announced that Roof only managed to purchase the gun for the attack because his March admission to possession of drugs in conjunction with a felony [local officials have since corrected the record to reflect a misdemeanor arrest] arrest did not get processed before the 3-day window during which dealers have to wait on background checks.

On April 11, Roof attempted to purchase a handgun from a store in West Columbia, South Carolina, a near suburb of Columbia. That day was a Saturday. On the next business day, April 13, an examiner in our West Virginia facility was assigned the case and began to process it.

Her initial check of Roof’s criminal history showed that he had been arrested in South Carolina March 1 on a felony drug charge. This charge alone is not enough to deny proceeding with the transaction. As a result, this charge required further inquiry of two potential reasons to deny the transaction. First, the person could have been convicted of a felony since the arrest. Second, the underlying facts of the arrest could show the person to be an unlawful drug user or addict.


So the court records showed no conviction yet and what she thought were the relevant agencies had no information or hadn’t responded. While she processed the many, many other firearms purchases in her queue, the case remained in “delayed/pending.”

By Thursday, April 16, the case was still listed as “status pending,” so the gun dealer exercised its lawful discretion and transferred the gun to Dylann Roof.

Had the FBI tracked down Roof’s admission to doing drugs before that 3-day window expired, he might not have gotten the gun he used to kill 9 people, and maybe their lives would have been saved. (See this story from today on inaccuracies in the local records on Roof’s arrest.)

The release today of information on Alexander Ciccolo, the estranged son of a Boston cop who is charged with illegal gun purchases but allegedly was planning to conduct an ISIS-inspired attack on a university outside of Massachusetts, makes the comparison of these two alleged aspiring terrorists all the more poignant.

According to the detention memo and reporting from ABC, Ciccolo has had long difficulties with mental illness, and embraced Islam in roughly March 2013. On September 11, 2014, a “close acquaintance” (who may have been his father) reported him to the FBI, when they started monitoring his Facebook. On June 24 (just incidentally, a week after the Charleston attack, but also several weeks after Boston cops shot Usaama Rahim on June 2, and the month after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Ciccolo’s father took part in the manhunt for Tsarnaev) got sentenced to death in Massachusetts), an undercover informant (described as a “cooperating witness”) met with Ciccolo face-to-face; it’s unclear how long they had corresponded online first and how discussions of an attack first came up.

The detention memo makes it clear that Ciccolo was discussing attacks designed to inflict maximal casualties and he was modeling them at least partly on the Boston Marathon attack. Ciccolo — a cop’s son — said he had grown up around guns, so on that level, at least, he was probably far more competent than most plotters caught in stings. And while, as with most transcriptions of FBI recordings, this has lapses, the many changes in Ciccolo’s plans, as reported to the informant, makes it sounds like he was driving this plan (but also make him sound mentally ill). So Ciccolo looks like more of a threat than some of the people the FBI has caught in an FBI-planned plot.

That’s why the arrest and timing is interesting. On February 17, 2015, this guy — who was supposedly obsessed with Islam — was convicted of drunken driving, but given probation. That made it illegal for him to possess a gun that had been involved in interstate transit. An affidavit accompanying the detention memo describes that on July 2, after prompting from the informant, Ciccolo responded, “You get the rifles, I’ll get the powder” — though it also said Ciccolo had earlier “planned to rob a gun store to obtain firearms” — which for a number of reasons make the guns one of the dodgy aspects of his sting. On July 3, Ciccolo bought a pressure cooker from WalMart.

But you can’t arrest someone for buying a pressure cooker (at least not yet), especially given that he appears not to have obtained any powder to use in a pressure cooker bomb, given what they found in a search of his place. But you can arrest a felon for possessing guns.

On July 4, the informant gave Ciccolo (the memo says he “took possession of” and there is no mention of money exchanged) four guns, after which the FBI immediately arrested him.

And then the FBI sealed everything up. The docket still appears to be sealed, but he was apparently arraigned on July 6 (after two days), and the detention memo notes that he waived Miranda rights. “After the defendant was arrested, he waived his Miranda rights and spoke to FBI Special Agents Paul Ambrogio and Julia Cowley. The defendant refused to talk about the guns with which he was arrested but he reaffirmed his support for ISIL.”

The local press did report on the FBI’s search, but was denied information until today.

And thus far, at least, they haven’t charged Ciccolo with anything more — material support or a plan to engage in terrorism.

Now, as I have said, given the evidence in the documents released so far, it appears that Ciccolo may present more of a threat than most FBI sting targets (though he also seems like a guy who should have gotten mental health care years ago). As such, getting guns into his hands was a way for the FBI to get him in custody. We shall see how good the evidence is that Ciccolo, and not the informant, was driving the attack.

But ultimately, what we have here are two examples of alleged aspiring terrorists with prior arrest records tied to intoxicating substances that could be used to arrest them if they got a gun. In Ciccolo’s case, that was used as a way to get him in custody and — the FBI suggests — to prevent a planned attack on a college in another state. In Roof’s case, the FBI did the requisite background check but didn’t track down the actual records in timely fashion. Had the FBI tracked Roof — whose online activities the FBI continues to investigate, but appears to have been active on at least one Neo-Nazi site — as closely as it had been tracking Ciccolo, it might have caught him in a sting too.

But there’s no evidence the FBI tracks white supremacist threats of violence as closely as it tracks ISIS or Al Qaeda related threats of violence.

I’m not saying the FBI should have prevented the Charleston attack; I don’t think it’s possible for FBI to stop everything, nor do I support the kind of dragnets that might try.

But the comparison of what happened to these two alleged aspiring terrorists when they tried to obtain guns is notable.