Domestic Terrorism in the United States


Domestic terrorism involves acts that threaten human life and violate a country’s criminal laws to intimidate civilian populations or influence government policies or conduct. Recently incidences of domestic terrorism have greatly escalated in the United States. The increasing extremism cases have been associated with the growing political and social tensions regarding immigration, police violence, and government restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, domestic extremists committed around 110 attacks, the highest number ever recorded in the country (Lyons, 2021). The increased radicalism cases have sparked a huge debate among civil rights groups, lawmakers, and terrorism experts on whether new criminal laws should be enacted to curb the violence. The hatred for government, law enforcement, and certain races and religions fuels domestic terrorism in the United States.

Racism, anti-Semitism, and inspiration from Islamic extremists are the major contributors to domestic terrorism. Domestic extremists are motivated by diverse ideologies when executing their attacks. For example, the mass shootings at the Charleston church in South Carolina in 2015 and El Paso in Texas in 2019, which killed 9 and 23 individuals, respectively, stemmed from racism. Alternatively, the extremist attack on the Pittsburg synagogue in 2018 that resulted in 11fatalities was linked to anti-Semitism. In addition, motivation from Islamic terrorism has been associated with the shootings in San Bernadino in 2015 and Orlando in 2016 that led to the death of 14 and 49 people, respectively (Lyons, 2021). Domestic terrorism incidents are executed in different forms; some extremists act alone, and others work in small groups. Nevertheless, some radical movements have established well-structured and extensive networks comprising militias who violently attack certain communities (National Security Council, 2021). Therefore, domestic terrorism continues to evolve based on the nature of extremist attacks.

Social media platforms have been cited as key amplifiers for domestic terrorism. Most extremist groups use social media platforms to recruit new followers to join their cause (Lyons, 2021). Such avenues are also used to disseminate extremists’ conspiracy theories and ideologies to the public. This information contributes to the radicalization of some vulnerable individuals. Social media platforms are also critical in mobilizing and planning attacks in different regions. Other internet-based communication avenues used to rally support and strategize extremism acts include encrypted chat applications, online gaming platforms, small websites with targeted audiences, and file upload sites (National Security Council, 2021). Therefore the increased availability of extremist online material has significantly contributed to increased radicalization and escalation of domestic terrorism.

The rising cases of domestic terrorism have been linked to the far-right-wing extremists. Over the decades, right-wing terrorism has become a menace in the country. Research indicates that from 2015 to 2020, the far-right group executed 256 attacks that killed 90 people in the country (Lyons, 2021). The far-wing extremism comprises white supremacists and anti-government extremists. The white supremacists include the Ku Klux Klan groups and neo-Nazis (Anti-Defamation League, 2017). Alternatively, the anti-government fanatics, also known as the Patriot movement, consist of the followers of the sovereign citizen and tax protest movements (Anti-Defamation League, 2017). The militia group comprising of the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers is also a part of the anti-government radicals. In this case, 12 members of the Oath Keepers and several others affiliated with the Three Percenters were arrested for the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 (Lyons, 2021). The right-wing extremists mostly target government and law enforcement agencies and perform religious hate crimes against the Jews and Muslims (Anti-Defamation League). They also attack minority groups, including Hispanics, African Americans, multiracial families, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQIA.

The far-left activists have been connected to acts of domestic terrorism. The group’s ideologies, including socialism, anarchism, or communism, as well as radical views on animal rights or environmental protection, have been cited as causes of extreme violence. Research indicates that between 2015 and 2020, the far-left extremists committed 62 attacks resulting in 19 deaths (Lyons, 2021). Some far-left radicals who conflict with individuals they perceive as homophobic, racist or xenophobic have formed a movement known as Antifa (Lyons, 2021). The adherents of the Antifa group have been associated with sabotaging the far right-wing’s activities. For example, using homemade weapons and improvised explosives, members of the Antifa movement attacked a white supremacist group meeting in 2012 (Lyons, 2021). They also disrupted a neo-Nazi rally in Sacramento in 2016 and right-wing demonstrations in California in 2017 (Lyons, 2021). Nonetheless, the terror incidents committed by the far-right and far-left extremists are higher than attacks by Islamist radicals. From 2002 to 2020, the far-right, far-left, and Islamist fanatics executed 370, 157, and 129 attacks, respectively (Lyons, 2021). Thus, radical movements are posing a grave threat to the country’s safety.

A significant percentage of domestic terrorist attacks target law enforcement, military, and government agencies. Research indicates that an estimated 38% of domestic terror acts in 2020 were directed at the police, military, and government institutions (Lyons, 2021). Additionally, in March 2021, the department of defense (DoD) wrote a report to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees indicating that it was experiencing a threat from extremist groups (Jones et al., 2021). The government and military agencies are mainly targeted because some fanatics, particularly the far-right wing’s anti-government crusaders, perceive such institutions as corrupt, ineffective, and a threat to civilian freedom and rights. In this case, the worst extremist attack on the government was witnessed in the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, which caused massive injuries to hundreds of people and resulted in 168 fatalities, with 19 being children (Lyons, 2021). Furthermore, in 2016, a violent anti-authority fanatic shot and murdered five police officers in Dallas, while another gunman shot and injured four individuals in a congressional baseball practice in 2017 (National Security Council, 2021). Hence, the lack of confidence in the government and military organizations greatly fuels radicalism.

There has been a growing number of military personnel involved in domestic terrorism. Research indicates that some extremist groups have actively recruited military officers into their groups or encouraged their followers to join law enforcement (Jones et al., 2021). This is because individuals with an army or police experience have excellent skills in creating explosives, conducting surveillance, and firing weapons which are critical in extremist attacks. As a result, in 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) began probing 143 criminal cases involving former and current service members, with 68 incidents linked to domestic terrorism (Jones et al., 2021). The attack on the Capitol raised more concerns about military participation in extremist acts because a National Guard member, a reservist, and 31 veterans were arrested for conspiracy and other crimes (Jones et al., 2021). Additionally, about four police officers and three retired officers were charged for their participation in the insurrection. A report shows that the percentage of extremist acts committed by active-duty and reservists rose to 6.4% in 2020 from 1.5% in 2019 (Jones et al., 2021). Therefore, the police and military personnel have become perpetrators of extremism.

Homeland Security Methodologies of Preventing Domestic Terrorism

The department of Homeland Security (DHS) has devised several approaches to counter domestic terrorism effectively while safeguarding the civil rights of the citizens. One strategy involves collaborating with agencies such as the FBI, National Counterterrorism Center, and other military and law enforcement institutions to facilitate information sharing, intervention efforts, and training (Department of Homeland Security, 2019). Information sharing is critical because it updates the DHS personnel about the different extremist groups, their motivations, and attack mechanisms. Such details may assist in tracking the activities of radical groups and preventing extremist acts before they occur. Another approach integrates members of the state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) administrations, civil society groups, technology experts, and other partners to address issues of domestic terrorism (Department of Homeland Security, 2019). Such an extensive community may foster the immediate response to extremist acts to prevent the loss of lives. The radicals are located in different parts of the country; therefore, local leaders and civic groups may have vital information about an impending extremist attack that may be thwarted when communicated to the DHS personnel.

The collaboration of the DHS, department of justice (DOJ), and SLTT partners creates programs to lessen recidivism among incarcerated populations. The DHS targets convicts serving sentences linked to extremist acts to change their perception of crime. Most individuals who commit violent acts are often radicalized by other people. Hence, developing programs that train such convicts on the dangers of targeted violence may reduce the risk of recidivism once they are reintegrated into society (Department of Homeland Security, 2019). Furthermore, the DHS prevents the dissemination of extremists’ conspiracies and ideologies online by working closely with different social media companies to flag potential threats and remove misleading content from reaching the public. DHS also works with private businesses to lessen access to weapons and explosives by enforcing legal prohibitions to prevent such artilleries from being misused (Department of Homeland Security, 2019). Thus, the ban on using social media platforms for domestic terrorism activities and reducing access to weaponry and explosives prevents the mobilization of extremist groups which lowers their attacks.

DHS’s Challenges in Combating Domestic Terrorism

Despite its extensive efforts to curb domestic terrorism, DHS faces several challenges in combating the growing threat. One major problem is the ability to detect and prevent extremist attacks committed by lone offenders (National Security Council, 2021). Such radicals can mobilize discreetly and access firearms, thus increasing their chances of planning extremist acts without being detected. This may explain why lone mass shootings have become rampant in the country. In addition, there are limited resources channeled to law enforcement and investigative agencies such as the FBI, limiting these institutions’ capacities to counter domestic terrorism (Department of Homeland Security, 2019). For instance, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Domestic Prevention Act, which would have provided more resources for law enforcement to combat domestic terrorism; however, the Republican senators blocked the bill (Lyons, 2021). Therefore, underfunding and inadequate support for the departments dealing with extremism have significantly impaired DHS efforts to counter local acts of terror.

The lack of a specific law that criminalizes domestic terrorism has led to the rising cases of radicalism in the country. Although it is considered a crime to offer material support to foreign terror cells, no statute makes domestic terrorism a federal crime (Lyons, 2021). Consequently, the DHS cannot thwart domestic terrorism unless violent radicals face more severe penalties than those imposed on hate crimes, murder, or armed assault. Nevertheless, the push for a new domestic terrorism statute has been highly opposed by some lawmakers and civil rights organizations because it may threaten civil liberties (Lyons, 2021). Another challenge to averting extremism is that the United States does not regard radical movements as terror groups (Lyons, 2021). Thus, even if members of such groups are arrested, they do not face serious charges that can help deter other movements from acts of extremism. Moreover, the involvement of some military and law enforcement officers in domestic terrorism may thwart DHS’s efforts to counter terror acts.


Recently, the United States has experienced a spike in domestic terrorism acts. This has been linked to increasing social and political tensions regarding diverse issues such as immigration and police violence. The primary motivating factors for domestic terrorism include anti-Semitism, racism, and motivation from Islamic extremism. The government and law enforcement organizations are the primary targets for radical attacks. However, some military and law enforcement personnel have joined the extremist groups, becoming perpetrators of domestic terrorism instead of preventing it. In addition, a significant number of domestic terror acts have been linked to the fanatical right-wing movements, with the far-left and Islamic extremists also contributing to radicalism. Most extremist groups use social media channels to recruit new followers and plan for their attacks. Nevertheless, the collaboration of the DHS and other relevant agencies has considerably boosted information sharing, which has been critical in detecting and preventing many terror plots before they occur.


Anti-Defamation League. (2017). A dark and constant rage: 25 years of right-wing terrorism in the United States. Web.

Department of Homeland Security. (2019). Strategic framework for countering terrorism and targeted violence. Web.

National Security Council. (2021). National strategy for countering domestic terrorism. Web.

Jones, S.G., Doxsee, C., Hwang, G., & Thompson J. (2021). The military, police, and the rise of terrorism in the United States. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Web.

Lyons, C. L. (2021). Domestic terrorism. CQ Researcher, 31(18), 1-32. Web.

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