Should we panic at the many warnings about domestic terrorism?

Summary:  Since 9/11 the security services have repeatedly warned about domestic terrorists of the Left and Right. The  important conclusion from these — and the numbers — is that domestic terrorism is probably a relatively small problem, one that our security agencies might give too much attention. This diverts attention and burns resources that could go to bigger and more likely risks.  (2nd of 2 posts today.}

Keep calm and carry on


  1. 2007: Islamic terrorist attacks in the next 3 years!
  2. 2009: right-wing terrorist attacks in the next few years!
  3. What do state and local police think?
  4. Again warning about domestic terrorism.
  5. Rise of the Lone Wolf Terrorist!
  6. Conclusions.
  7. For More Information.

(1)  Islamic terrorist attacks coming to the Homeland!

The July 2007 a summary was released of an National Intelligence Estimate about “The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland“.  This alarming forecast proved quite wrong, but that has not slowed the gravy train to the security services. Excerpt:

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next
three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al-
Qa’ida, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by
these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

… We are concerned, however, that this level of international cooperation may wane as
9/11 becomes a more distant memory and perceptions of the threat diverge. … As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.

(2) Rightwing extremists might attack the Homeland!


TIME cover: Timothy McVeigh, 1 May 1995
TIME cover: Timothy McVeigh, 1 May 1995.

The DHS published an Assessment (not an NIE) on 7 April 2009 about “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment“.

It was quickly leaked by those who did not want the government protecting us from such threats. the subject proved too hot for our leaders. Excerpt:

The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.

… The current economic and political climate has some similarities to the 1990s when rightwing extremism experienced a resurgence fueled largely by an economic recession, criticism about the outsourcing of jobs, and the perceived threat to U.S. power and sovereignty by other foreign powers.

The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.

Conservatives went wild in their condemnations. Here’s a rebuttal to some of their claims. The Washington Times reported that Ms. Napolitano told the House Homeland Security Committee on 13 May 2009 (oddly the only paper I see reporting this):

“The wheels came off the wagon because the vetting process was not followed. … “The report is no longer out there. … An employee sent it out without authorization. … {It will be} replaced or redone in a much more useful and much more precise fashion.”

Daryl Johnson, then a senior domestic terrorism analyst and co-author of the report, said that the government responded quickly to the critics, gutting the domestic terrorism unit. His interview is a must-read for anyone interested in the operation of our security services (illustrating their deep dysfunctionality).

Were they right? Look over the SPLC’s comprehensive list of domestic terrorist plots and serious incidents since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.


(3)  How do police rank domestic terror threats?

To assess the threat of domestic terrorism we can see the surveys of state and local law enforcement agencies by the U of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, The threat rankings change rapidly over even a few years — unrelated to actual changes in the environment — showing that they’re guessing about the likelihood of threats. See this excerpt from their 2014 report:

… law enforcement perceptions about what is a serious threat in their community has changed significantly over time. Law enforcement is much more concerned about sovereign citizens, Islamic extremists, and militia/patriot group members compared to the fringe groups of the far right, including Christian Identity believers, reconstructed traditionalists (i.e., Odinists), idiosyncratic sectarians (i.e., survivalists), and members of doomsday cults.

… there was significant concern about the resurgence of the radical far right (as evidenced by the 2006-07 survey, as well as additional concerns raised after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama), but it appears as though law enforcement is, at present, less concerned about these groups. Such changing perceptions about what is a serious terrorist threat is an important finding because identifying and prioritizing a threat is akin to hitting a moving target and evolves as new intelligence, data, and events develop.

START: list of terror threats

(4)  DHS again warns of domestic terrorism

This time DHS kept the report secret (so far), leaking their conclusions to friendly journalists at CNN:

A new intelligence assessment, circulated by the Department of Homeland Security this month and reviewed by CNN, focuses on the domestic terror threat from right-wing sovereign citizen extremists and comes as the Obama administration holds a White House conference to focus efforts to fight violent extremism. Some federal and local law enforcement groups view the domestic terror threat from sovereign citizen groups as equal to — and in some cases greater than — the threat from foreign Islamic terror groups, such as ISIS, that garner more public attention.

​ The Homeland Security report, produced in coordination with the FBI, counts 24 violent sovereign citizen-related attacks across the U.S. since 2010.

Twenty-four “violent attacks” over 4 years? The US had 16,121 people murdered in 2013.

Age of the Wolf

(5)  Rise of the Lone Wolf

A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center: “Age of the Wolf“. From the summary:

The Southern Poverty Law Center is releasing a new study showing that domestic terrorism and related radical violence — as opposed to terrorist attacks emanating from abroad — continue to plague the nation. Our study also reveals that the vast majority of this violence is coming from “lone wolves” or “leaderless resistance” groups, most of the latter composed of just two men.

The study, which covers the period between April 1, 2009, and Feb. 1, 2015, and includes violence from both the radical right and homegrown jihadists, finds that a domestic terrorist attack or foiled attack occurred, on average, every 34 days. It also shows that fully 74% of the more than 60 incidents examined were carried out, or planned, by a lone wolf, a single person operating entirely alone. A total of 90% of the incidents were the work of just one or two persons, the study found.

The long-term trend away from violence planned and committed by groups and toward lone wolf terrorism is a worrying one. Authorities have had far more success penetrating plots concocted by several people than individuals who act on their own.

… A large number of independent studies have agreed that since the 9/11 mass murder, more people have been killed in America by non-Islamic domestic terrorists than jihadists. That fact is also apparent in the new SPLC study of the 2009-2015 period. Since 9/11, however, the government has focused very heavily on jihadists, sometimes to the exclusion of violence from various forms of domestic extremists.

What’s the toll?  Bad for the people and their families affected, but tiny for a nation of 319 million.

The body count of victims during the 2009-2015 period is certainly less than that of the 1990s, but that is heavily skewed by Timothy McVeigh’s murder of 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. If the Oklahoma victims are subtracted, it appears that the rate of killing has remained approximately the same throughout. The SPLC study found that 63 victims had been killed in 2009-2015 terrorist attacks, along with 16 assailants. Another recent study, from the public-private National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, counted 368 people murdered by far-right extremists between 1990 and 2013, including 50 law enforcement officers. Without the Oklahoma victims, the START study (which did not include jihadists) shows an average killing rate of almost nine victims a year, while the SPLC study (including jihadists) finds an annual rate of almost 11.

No Fear

(6)  Conclusions

Since the early 1990s we have had occasional panic attacks about domestic terrorism, and (reasonably) more frequently since 9/11. The focus of our large and growing security services, to which they devote vast resources, is finding Islamic terrorists in the US — so rare that most found are manufactured by the FBI: see Why Does the FBI Have to Manufacture its Own Plots if Terrorism and ISIS Are Such Grave Threats? and How the FBI Created a Terrorist.

The US suffers from a more serious form of terrorism about which  have less interest: from the Right (there is small-scale terrorism from the Left, which the police actively pursue). Conservatives actively work to block efforts to protect us from them. Should there be a major attack, we should assign responsibility accordingly.

The data clearly suggests a larger message: that domestic terrorism is among the least of the many threats to America — and one that our security services vigilantly cover — although detecting attacks in advance is an unrealistic goal (without a precrime unit). We have experienced many periods of low grade terrorism since the 19th century anarchists (in 1920 they almost blew the NYSE off the map). We’ll experience more in the future. Let’s not over-react.

For More Information

See the website of U Mayland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, and the SPLC’s comprehensive list of domestic terrorist plots and serious incidents since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about terrorism, especially these posts about lone wolf terrorists — super-empowered villains: Empowered individuals — and super-empowered ones! and Who will find the key to power: America or the Middle East’s jihadists?

Also see these about the potential for violence from the Right: What are the odds of violence from the Right in America? and The Oath Keepers want to give America its own Freikorps!



3 thoughts on “Should we panic at the many warnings about domestic terrorism?”

  1. I saw a “sovereign citizen” with his own license plate driving around, and he was black, not what I expected. I asked my friend, officer friendly, how come he can get away with that. It turns out S C are experts in lawfare. If the cops bother them they will go down to the courthouse and file some crazy worded lawsuit. The FBI told the local police to leave SC’s alone. gotta respect that.

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