Domestic Terrorism Appears to Be Reemerging as a Priority at the Department of Justice
Jerome P. Bjelopera, Specialist in Organized Crime and Terrorism (firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-0622)
August 15, 2014 (IN10137)
In June 2014, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the reestablishment of its Domestic
Terrorism Executive Committee, which had been defunct for several years. The committee includes DOJ
leaders and is "co-chaired by a member of the U.S. Attorney community, the [DOJ] National Security
Division, and the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]." It is designed to "coordinate closely with U.S.
Attorneys and other key public safety officials across the country to promote information-sharing and
ensure an effective, responsive, and organized joint effort." The reestablishment suggests that officials
are raising the profile of domestic terrorism as an issue within DOJ after more than a decade of
heightened focus on both foreign terrorist organizations and homegrown individuals inspired by violent
jihadist groups based abroad. The amplification of this issue by DOJ may be of interest to
congressional policy makers.
Framing the Threat
Domestic terrorists are a widely divergent lot, drawing from many philosophies and worldviews to
justify their illegal acts. They can be motivated to commit crimes in the name of ideas such as animal
rights, white supremacy, anti-government beliefs, and opposition to abortion, for example. Importantly,
the expression of these worldviews—minus the commission of crimes—involves constitutionally
protected activity. As such, individuals and movements openly and legally espousing such beliefs
distance themselves from terrorists who use the ideas to justify their own criminal actions.
From the perspective of federal law enforcement, the FBI safeguards against cases focused solely on
constitutionally protected activities. All FBI investigations have to be conducted for an authorized
national security, criminal, or foreign intelligence collection purpose. Investigations may not solely
monitor the exercise of First Amendment rights. DOJ and the FBI visualize domestic terrorism in terms
of threats, not named or designated groups or actors (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Who Are Domestic Terrorists?
Source: CRS graphic derived from information in Department of Justice,
Counterterrorism White Paper, June 22, 2006, p. 59; Federal Bureau of
Investigation, "Domestic Terrorism in the Post-9/11 Era," September 7,
2009; Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of
Investigation, Joint Intelligence Bulletin, "Use of Small Arms: Examining
Lone Shooters and Small-Unit Tactics," August 16, 2011, p. 3.
The original committee was created after Timothy McVeigh triggered a bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah
Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 500
others. The committee stopped meeting after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, as DOJ
refocused its attention on Al Qaeda and other foreign terrorist threats. It is unclear exactly what
prompted the reestablishment of the coordinating body in June.
While there is no publicly available list of domestic terrorist incidents (foiled plots or attacks) kept by
the U.S. government, making it especially challenging for anyone trying to develop a sense of this
particularly diverse threat, one source suggests that domestic terrorism features prominently among
the concerns of state, local, and tribal (SLT) police. The threat posed by sovereign citizen extremists
was the top counterterrorism concern voiced by SLT police in a 2013-2014 survey, displacing "Islamic
extremists/jihadists," the top concern highlighted in a similar study conducted seven years earlier.
The FBI defines the sovereign citizen movement as "anti-government extremists who believe that even
though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or 'sovereign' from the United States.
As a result, they do not accept any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor
vehicle departments, or law enforcement." However, simply holding these views is not a criminal act,
and some movement adherents solely exercise their beliefs via constitutionally protected activities.
For the most part, the sovereign citizen movement is diffuse and includes few organized groups. The
FBI suggests that sovereigns "operate as individuals without established leadership and only come
together in loosely affiliated groups to train, help each other with paperwork [critical to some of their
schemes], or socialize and talk about their ideology." The movement involves leaders who proselytize,
often via in-person seminars. Such leaders encourage followers to believe in a conspiracy theory in
which the legitimate federal government has been replaced by a government designed to take away
the rights of ordinary citizens. By ignoring all sorts of laws, avoiding taxes, disregarding permit
requirements, and destroying government-issued identification documents, some sovereign citizens
have tried to cut formal ties with what they perceive as an illegitimate regime. Other sovereigns have
filed court documents stating that they are not U.S. citizens. They have also created bogus financial
documents to harass or defraud their enemies. Sovereign citizens have in some instances created
fictitious entities and used fake currency, passports, license plates, and driver licenses.
In a few recent cases, avowed sovereign citizens have been involved in violent altercations with law
enforcement officers. One of the more publicized attacks occurred in May 2010. Two self-professed
sovereign citizens were involved in a violent confrontation with West Memphis, TN, police officers.
During a traffic stop, Joe Kane fired an AK-47 rifle and killed two officers. Kane and his father, Jerry,
fled the scene. Law enforcement sighted their vehicle in a nearby parking lot 90 minutes later. The duo
died in the ensuing shootout, which also wounded two more officers. The FBI had investigated Jerry
Kane for several years before the murders, reportedly suspecting his involvement in fraudulent financial
schemes, but he was not charged as a result of the FBI's investigation.