From my work as a former national-security prosecutor, I know that many individuals who engage in terrorism are alienated from society and are looking for something larger than themselves to find meaning in their lives. They have endured loss or unfulfilled expectations, and are looking for scapegoats. A powerful leader who speaks to their grievances can inspire them to act.
For many radical Islamist terrorists, that leader was Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric who was born and lived in the United States before moving to Yemen. Even after his 2011 death by drone strike, records of Awlaki’s sermons posted online continued to motivate young men (or mostly young men) to commit atrocities, in the Middle East and in the West as well.
Awlaki inspired a defendant who was prosecuted in my district of Eastern Michigan, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a graduate student from a prominent Nigerian family, who would become known as the “underwear bomber.” Abdulmutallab discovered Awlaki online and traveled to Yemen to meet him. Abdulmutallab agreed to conceal a bomb in his underwear on a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. Only good luck and malfunction of the bomb prevented the 285 people onboard from dying and the wreckage from falling on residents of Woodhaven, Michigan, on Christmas morning.
Other terrorists, including those who conducted deadly attacks on the Boston Marathon, Fort Hood, a military installation in Chattanooga, and a cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, also drew inspiration from the grimly charismatic Awlaki.
Awlaki inflamed tensions by pitting Muslims against Americans. “We are two opposites that will never come together,” he once said. “What they want can only be accomplished by our elimination. Therefore this is a defining battle.”
Domestic terrorists, like their international counterparts, respond to inspirational triggers. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified recently that a majority of this year’s domestic terrorism cases involving a racial motive were thought to have been tied to white-supremacist ideology. For a charismatic leader, those who subscribe to this hateful worldview need look no further than the president of the United States.
I doubt that Donald Trump’s intent is to incite violence, but even if his goal is merely to promote his political interests, by stoking racial discord he may be playing the same role for domestic terrorists as Awlaki did for international terrorists. Trump’s public remarks don’t amount to crimes, but they are irresponsible uses of the president’s bully pulpit.
The list of offensive statements is long. Trump has referred to immigrants from Mexico as “thugs” and “animals” who are part of “an invasion” of the United States. He told four congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came”—never mind that only one of the four was born outside the United States, and that all four are, of course, American citizens.
At a May rally in Florida, Trump discussed immigration, saying, “How do you stop these people? You can’t.” When someone in the crowd yelled “Shoot them,” the crowd cheered. Trump did not attempt to tamp down such talk. Instead, he encouraged it, smiling and saying, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”
Some people find these statements offensive; others find them insightful. For still others, the words apparently fuel violence. On Monday, a judge sentenced Cesar Sayoc, also known as the MAGA bomber, to 20 years in prison. Sayoc mailed 16 pipe bombs to critics of Trump before the 2018 midterm elections; his attorneys said that after being a “loner” and an “outcast,” he “found light in Donald J. Trump.”
Sayoc’s plot failed—but the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, over the weekend may also lead back, on an inspirational level, to the president’s rhetoric. Police suspect that the killer is the author of an online manifesto expressing hatred for immigrants, and Latinos in particular. Although the author wrote that he has held these beliefs since before Trump was elected, it is only now that he has acted on them.
Terrorists don’t necessarily belong to an organized group or attend meetings. In what the Department of Justice calls “crowdsourcing,” terrorists simply communicate with like-minded individuals on internet forums and social media. They share ideas and normalize one another’s behavior. If someone else is echoing deviant thoughts, the ideas sound less deviant. If that someone else is in a position of authority, like the president of the United States, the effect is more dramatic.
Domestic terrorism creates a challenge for investigators and prosecutors. Unlike in international terrorism cases, in domestic cases prosecutors are unable to use wiretaps authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to detect and disrupt plots before they occur. Use of FISA warrants is limited to agents of a foreign power. FISA’s “lone wolf” provision, permitting surveillance of individuals who are unaffiliated with an identified group, applies only to international terrorism activities. The material-support statute, which makes it a crime to provide funds or services to a designated terrorist organization, applies only to foreign organizations. These limitations came in response to abuses by the FBI and the CIA in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and were recommended by a Senate committee to prevent the kind of overreach by law enforcement that led to the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. and Vietnam War protesters. While some have called for a domestic-terrorism statute, it would need to be narrowly tailored to avoid the very problems we sought to correct.
Beyond prosecution, another way to reduce domestic terrorism is to address its causes, one of which is inflammatory rhetoric. We cannot criminalize free speech, but we can make it socially and politically unacceptable to fan the flames of division for political gain. As a society, we have used social pressure to discourage drunk driving, bullying, and uttering racial slurs. Is it too much to ask the leader of the free world to stop exploiting differences of race and national origin, to protect our national security and public safety?