Skip to main content

The DOJ Is Finally Bridging the Gap Between Online Radicalization and Domestic Terrorism

The choice to treat the El Paso, Texas, shooting as domestic terrorism opens up law enforcement's ability to investigate 8chan and the sites where extremism finds a home.
Protesters wave placards against President Donald Trump during a Rise and Resist Against White Supremacy demonstration inside the Grand Central Station in New York on September 18th, 2017.

Protesters wave placards against President Donald Trump during a Rise and Resist Against White Supremacy demonstration inside the Grand Central Station in New York on September 18th, 2017.

The El Paso, Texas, mass shooting that left 20 dead on Saturday may actually spell the end for one of white nationalism's greatest resources: the online radicalization of potential domestic terrorists.

Almost immediately before he opened fire at a Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall, the 21-year-old shooter posted a crazed, hate-filled manifesto to the online message board 8chan that's become "a megaphone for mass shooters, and a recruiting platform for violent white nationalists" in recent years, as the New York Times put it. Both the Poway, California, synagogue and Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooters announced their respective hate-driven rampages on 8chan as well. In the aftermath of the El Paso shooting, even the site's founder Fredrick Brennan urged Jim Watkins, an Army veteran and the site's current proprietor, to shut the entire operation down despite its ostensible commitment to "free speech."

The El Paso massacre may be the end of the free speech defense. On Sunday, federal authorities announced that they are not just charging the El Paso suspect with federal hate crimes as they did with the Poway shooter, but with domestic terrorism as well. The decision doesn't just suggest the Department of Justice (DOJ) is reconsidering whether online forums for white nationalism are a threat worth pursuing at the federal level; by applying "domestic terrorism" to El Paso, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is also actively pushing boundaries of "association" beyond explicit membership.

As I previously reported, "domestic terrorism" isn't a criminal act itself, but a categorization that provides the DOJ with broad powers to investigate not only an individual suspect, but also any group they might be affiliated with. Domestic incidents are investigated and prosecuted as arson, murder, and illegal ownership of firearms and explosives, and so forth on the state and local level; the FBI only gets involved when there's a national terror threat tied to a discrete and distinct organization, and those tend to be internationally based, like al Qaeda and ISIS.

As a result, the FBI has been reluctant to deem racist attacks "domestic terrorism," especially those where the connections to a formal organization are vaguely defined. Indeed, the FBI didn't label Dylann Roof—the white supremacist who, radicalized online, killed nine African-American worshippers at a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015—a "domestic terrorist," despite the fact he detailed a desire to spark a "race war" in his own online manifesto in an alarming precursor to the El Paso gunman. The FBI knows the rise of the Internet has fueled a dramatic rise in domestic terrorism threats in recent years, but can't do a thing about it for a simple reason: Posting vile things on 8chan, or any Internet forum, is technically free expression.

This has been explicit FBI doctrine up until very recently. Testifying before the House Committee on Homeland Security just three months before the El Paso massacre, FBI counterterrorism chief Michale McGarrity stated that, while there were currently more than 850 open domestic terror investigations, the agency "does not investigate mere association with groups or movements." Indeed, officials from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security warned lawmakers that they "could not prosecute a white supremacist simply for the ideology or an online manifesto," the Associated Press reported. "There must be intent to harm or harass."

"In line with our mission to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States, no FBI investigation can be opened solely on the basis of First Amendment-protected activity," McGarrity stated, referencing the online radicalization of the gunman behind the murder of 50 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. "In order to predicate a domestic terrorism investigation of an individual, the FBI must have information that the individual is perpetuating violent, criminal actions in furtherance of an ideology."

The FBI has been on this track for months: Indeed, when McGarrity testified in May, he said that the "increasingly global nature of the threat has enabled violent extremists to engage other likeminded individuals without having to join organized groups." Later that month, an FBI intelligence bulletin, obtained by Yahoo News and published just one week before the El Paso shooting, indicated that the conspiracy theories themselves are a substantial domestic terror threat insofar as "anti-government, identity-based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely encourage the targeting of specific people, places and organizations" for potential violence.

This is a coup in terms of getting at the roots of modern right-wing extremism in America. As an article on Slate points out, hate speech has always found a foothold in the unmoderated commons of the Internet, from the days of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Don Black establishing Stormfront in 1996, to today with newcomers like the Daily Stormer turning radicalization into a science for the social media era. But arguably, 8chan is an observable breeding ground for inciting "imminent lawless action" that's represented the outer limits of free speech in America for a half-century—one that, despite it's distributed and unorganized nature, constitutes a force quantifiable as "domestic terrorism" and therefore mandates a stronger investigatory response.

Ideas aren't dangerous; ideas that are wholly rooted in incitement and violence are, however, and the FBI knows it. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23rd, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers that the agency had conducted some 100 arrests on domestic terrorism charges, with the majority of the racially motivated plots fueled by white supremacist ideology. And while there are certainly arguments against this expansion of the "domestic terror" label—Antifa, itself a product of the distributed Internet age, could find itself labeled a domestic terror group despite its relative lack of violence compared to right-wing extremism—the FBI may finally have the right tools to take a more muscular and realistic approach to the distributed, stochastic nature of white supremacist plots in the age of Internet hatred.