Part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog post series

In the aftermath of the attempted coup conducted by white supremacists on January 6 on Capitol Hill, the discourse regarding “domestic terrorism” has reemerged in the political and legislative spheres with a myriad of bills and initiatives seeking to curtail the ideologies and activities of these insurrectionists. In his inaugural address President Joe Biden warned of “a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism,” which, he stated, “we must confront and we will defeat”. However, what is often forgotten is the history of legislative and policy based frameworks that have been adopted in the name of fighting domestic terrorism, particularly in the post 9/11 world where Black, Brown and Indigenous communities carried the brunt of the oppressive force of these policies and laws.

An early example of these oppressive initiatives includes the post 9/11 creation of the NSEERS registration list, which required males aged sixteen and above who were visa holders from Muslim-majority countries, to register on a governmental database. The program, which targeted Arabs and Muslims, also required registrants to attend routine check-ins with Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and to be tracked during their entire course of their stay in the United States. After years of grassroots organizing and advocacy, the program was eventually eliminated. But the perpetual violation of the civil liberties of Arab and Muslim communities by the federal government, and local police departments, did not. In the name of countering domestic terrorism, local and federal initiatives such as the social mapping of entire communities of Muslims and Arabs throughout New York City were implemented and justified.

The list of the ill-advised policies in the name of countering domestic terrorism progresses well into President Obama’s era, with the adoption of the arbitrary No Fly List that was carried out in a cloud of secrecy. Not only were the names of those on the list undisclosed, the placement of individuals on that list was also based on secret evidence and arbitrary data. The list included citizens and non-citizens alike, with infants, military veterans and the late Representative John Lewis and Senator Ted Kennedy. In many cases, those with popular Arabic or Muslim names, found themselves on this arbitrary list. Take for example, a young Yemeni American man whose first and last names were very common in Muslim households. After 9/11, he was told he was on the No Fly List. There was no way for him to find out why. For years, he would have to avoid traveling, or face intensive interrogations for hours, and often having to contact civil rights organizations for support before being allowed to board a flight.

Another so-called soft power, “community-based” approach amongst these domestic terrorism policies includes the creation of the DHS-led Countervailing Extremism Program, (CVE), a federal program modeled off the UK’s counter-radicalization PREVENT program. The program funded and provided training to social workers, teachers, medical professionals and other community leaders in efforts to engage them in assisting the government in monitoring the “signs of radicalization” of those community members who they deem are at risk for acts of domestic terrorism. Under this program surveilling and targeting of Muslim American youth in their classrooms was normalized by their teachers. Youth were often monitored and reported for basic political expressions. A recent case of a young Muslim man in Northern California illustrates the tragic consequences of such policies. He had expressed views on social media regarding wars in the Arab World, and the role of the United States. An undercover FBI agent builds a relationship with him in order to entrap him. Fast forward two years, not having committed any act of violence, he is charged with material support of terrorism, and his life and the lives of his family turned upside down. For its racial profiling and criminalization of Muslim youth, CVE was met with mass opposition from community-based organizations, educators and advocates. However, it continues today under the new brand, Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP).

It is no wonder then, granted the historical playout of these racist policies that the Trump administration was able to utilize domestic terrorism as a reason to close borders, and ban individuals from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Therefore, the Muslim Ban was not outside the realm of possibility, but rather a logical progression of two decades of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab legislation and policies in the name of fighting domestic terror.

What occurred on January 6th was a violent and horrific act. It is important for us to recognize the very real and dangerous threats white supremacists pose, not only against these government institutions, but the threats these insurrectionists pose to immigrants and communities of color across this country that are still dealing with the racist aftermath of the Trump administration and its oppressive and racist policies.

It is important to understand the very significant and real threat that is posed by white supremacist violence, while not expanding the terrain for more violence against vulnerable communities. The rhetoric of domestic terrorism has justified the very policies that have historically targeted Muslims, Black, Brown and Indigenous communities and progressive activists. We saw this at Standing Rock, where until today Indigenous water protectors are facing charges of domestic terrorism for defending basic human rights. We also have seen this with Trump’s designation of the “Black Identity Extremist”, an extension of COINTELPRO tactics to quell Black liberation movements. As the Brennan Center states:

The counterterrorism framework always risks associating “extremist” ideas, a subjective and nebulous concept, with violence, thereby stigmatizing and delegitimizing innocent people in ways that touch on First-Amendment protected activity.

Policies utilizing the domestic terrorism framework would have a chilling effect on civil and constitutional liberties, and effectively criminalize dissent against the government or its institutions. The proposed legislation includes the increase of criminal penalties for monumental damages, obstructing traffic and the stripping away of unemployment benefits to those that participate in what is deemed as disruptive protests. The impact these legislative initiatives would have is what many civil right advocates and community activists are deeming the right-wing rebranding of anti-BLM protest laws. It is in light of these concerns and threats to the civil liberties that one must take a nuanced position when understanding the relationship between the term “domestic terrorism” and the enactment of oppressive policies against communities of color, and all those seeking to practice their constitutionally protected rights.


Graphic provided courtesy of Artist Nidal Elkhairy