What Is Domestic Terrorism?

Counter terrorism officers in parade crowd are on alert for domestic terrorism threats.

Recent tragic events, such as the 2019 El Paso shooting, which left more than 20 shoppers dead, and historic events, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people, have placed a spotlight on domestic terrorism. In fact, the White House’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism states that “domestic terrorism in the United States is on the rise, with an increasing number of fatalities and violent nonlethal acts committed by domestic terrorists against people and property in the United States.” While foreign terrorism continues to be a critical threat, domestic terrorism presents a growing and evolving threat to the safety of American communities.

For professionals in the field of homeland security and emergency preparedness, protecting American communities from the threat of domestic terrorism is an important, yet challenging career. These professionals may work to prevent domestic terrorism acts, or they may be involved in response and recovery efforts after an act occurs.

What Is Considered Domestic Terrorism?

Sometimes referred to as homegrown terrorism, domestic terrorism differs from foreign terrorism in that the perpetrators are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Determining precisely what domestic terrorism is depends on the source. The FBI considers an act of terrorism domestic when the act is “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” This definition characterizes the perpetrator of a domestic terrorism act as someone who’s motivated by extremist views and has clear U.S. associations.

The USA Patriot Act provides a slightly different definition that focuses more on the goal or reasoning behind a domestic terrorism act. It describes domestic terrorism as acts that are “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

The evolving definition of domestic terrorism presents a challenge for professionals in this field, particularly during the process of charging and prosecuting perpetrators of domestic acts. Unlike foreign terrorism, which is a crime under federal law, domestic terrorism is currently not defined in federal law. As a result, an individual can’t be criminally charged with domestic terrorism. For example, individuals who have committed a domestic terrorism act must be charged with related offenses, such as capital murder or hate crimes.

Another challenge for professionals in this field is the diverse profile of domestic terrorists. The rise in domestic terrorism acts in recent years is often attributed to right-wing extremists. Someone who holds extreme political or religious views and acts on these views would be considered an extremist. Right-wing extremists are individuals or groups with extremely conservative or far-right views. According to the Anti-Defamation League, domestic right-wing extremists were responsible for 73.3% of terrorism-related deaths from 2009 to 2018. During this same time period, Islamic extremists were responsible for 24% of fatalities. Right-wing domestic terrorism examples include acts perpetrated by white supremacists or Christian extremists.

The Role of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Professionals

Homeland security and emergency preparedness professionals play a crucial role in preventing and responding to domestic terrorism acts. For example, homeland security professionals work to prevent domestic terrorism by researching new security techniques or monitoring intelligence data to identify potential threats. Homeland security experts may also work with local communities to ensure that critical infrastructures, such as electrical utilities and transportation networks, have the proper physical and cyber security protections in place.

Emergency preparedness professionals specialize in the creation of procedures and plans for emergency situations, such as a domestic terrorism incident. An emergency preparedness professional will work with local law enforcement, public officials and private organizations to create preparedness plans and response and recovery plans if a domestic terrorism attack occurs. A preparedness plan will identify areas of weakness that require fixing, as well as training practices and procedures, to ensure adequate preparation for an attack. Response and recovery planning may include communications protocols and steps to restore any impacted critical services.

Preparing and protecting communities from unexpected events, such as domestic terrorism attacks, requires a unique skill set and knowledge base. A graduate degree, such as a Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP), provides specialized knowledge to support individuals who are pursuing a career in this field. Students enrolled in an HSEP program gain expertise and skills in areas such as national defense, emergency management, law enforcement and policy management to prepare them to be future leaders in the security field.

Preventing Domestic Terrorism

Government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), employ various techniques and tactics to detect and prevent domestic terrorism acts. Some domestic terrorism prevention strategies include advanced explosive detection methods, cybersecurity protections for critical infrastructure and information-sharing partnerships.

Advanced Detection of Explosives and Other Weapons

According to the DHS, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the most common weapons terrorists use. IEDs can cause mass destruction and can often be easily made or purchased. For this reason, detecting explosives is critical to preventing domestic terrorism acts.

Techniques employed by the DHS to improve early detection of IEDs include providing nationwide training to explosive detection canine units and SWAT teams and providing education to all levels of government to support the identification of suspicious bomb-making materials.

Protection of Critical Infrastructure From Cyberattack

Although cybersecurity is an important security concern for most industries across the country, a successful cyberattack against critical infrastructure could have significant, far-reaching consequences. According to the DHS, critical infrastructure is “physical and cyber systems and assets that are so vital to the United States that their incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on our physical or economic security or public health or safety.” For instance, a cyberattack against a large electrical utility company could cause a power outage for millions of Americans, possibly resulting in loss of life.

Techniques used by the DHS to strengthen the quality of critical infrastructure cybersecurity include providing free resources and training, conducting vulnerability assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of a cybersecurity program, and encouraging the sharing of best practices across government organizations and the private sector.

The Creation of Information-Sharing Partnerships

Time is of the essence during a terrorist threat, and information sharing is key to ensuring public safety and securing assistance from local government agencies. The National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) is an information-sharing network created by the DHS to prevent terrorism. The NTAS compiles and releases advisories to the public in the event of a terrorist threat. The advisories use current information to share details about the threat and safety precautions with the general public. They deliver other critical information to stakeholders, such as emergency responders, airports and transportation hubs, and government agencies.

Get the Skills to Grow Your Career in Terrorism Prevention

If you’re passionate about making communities safe, then explore Virginia Commonwealth University’s Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program. This flexible online graduate degree is the first program in the country to specialize in both homeland security and emergency preparedness. Graduates of the program develop the unique skill set and well-rounded knowledge required to succeed in careers involving terrorism prevention and response.