Sifting Domestic Terrorism from Hate Crime and Homegrown Violent Extremism

In light of the violence related to protests in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017, policymakers may be interested in how the concepts of domestic terrorism, hate crime, and homegrown violent extremism compare with one another. They are fairly distinct ideas that federal law enforcement agencies use to categorize key types of criminals whose illegal activities are at least partly ideologically motivated. Specifically, these terms may be part of public discussion regarding a widely reported incident involving James Alex Fields, who according to witnesses drove his car into a group of people protesting a rally featuring white supremacists in Charlottesville on August 12. Fields allegedly killed 1 person and injured 19 others. The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the incident, presumably pursuing possible hate crime charges. Additionally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has publicly stated that terrorism investigators are involved in investigating the incident, ostensibly exploring the possibility of characterizing it as an act of domestic terrorism rather than a hate crime.

Domestic Terrorism

Domestic terrorism cases differ from ordinary criminal activity in key ways. Most importantly, unlike ordinary criminals—who are often driven by self-centered motives such as profit and tend to opportunistically seek easy prey—domestic terrorists are driven by a cause or ideology. If the motives involved eventually align with the definition laid out in 18 U.S.C. §2331(5), presumably the case becomes a domestic terrorist investigation.

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has defined domestic terrorism as "acts of violence that [violate] the criminal laws of the United States or any state, committed by individuals or groups without any foreign direction, and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, or influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States."

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, environmental rights, white supremacy, anti-government beliefs, and anarchism, 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.

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. Finally, the Department of Justice and the FBI conceptualize domestic terrorism in terms of threats, not named or designated groups or actors.

Hate Crime

Current federal law defines hate crimes to include any crime against either person or property in which the offender intentionally selects the victim because of the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation. Hate crimes may appear to involve ideological issues. However, as described by one FBI official, a "hate crime" "generally involve[s] acts of personal malice directed at individuals" and is missing the broader motivations driving acts of domestic terrorism. For investigators, distinguishing between "personal malice" and ideologically motivated actions may be difficult in specific cases. This suggests that sorting domestic terrorism from hate crimes depends on the degree of a suspect's intent. Did the suspect articulate an ideology, belong to a domestic terrorist group, or follow an extremist movement? The grey area between domestic terrorism and hate crime suggests that in some instances, suspects with links to domestic terrorist movements or ideologies supporting domestic terrorism may be charged with hate crimes. It is unclear to what extent this influences how the government understands the threat posed by extremist movements that hold racist beliefs. If some individuals of this ilk commit crimes against police or judges, for example, is the government more apt to label this activity as terrorism while individuals sharing these same racist motivations but targeting ordinary citizens based on race, religion, disability, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation are charged with hate crimes?

The Harpham Case

The FBI's public description of the case of confessed would-be bomber Kevin Harpham exemplifies how difficult it may be to characterize acts as domestic terrorism. Initially the FBI viewed the case as domestic terrorism. In 2011, Harpham, allegedly motivated by white supremacist ideology, left a bomb—which never detonated—along the route of a parade in Spokane, WA, honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI's Northwest Joint Terrorism Task Force led the investigation. In prepared public remarks framing the "current state of the terrorism threat" from April 2011, the then-FBI assistant director for the Counterterrorism Division noted that Harpham's case was one of "several recent domestic terrorism incidents [that] demonstrate the scope of the threat." Harpham eventually pled guilty to committing a federal hate crime and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. Thereafter, the bureau described the case as the successful prevention of a "horrific hate crime."

Homegrown Violent Extremism

The FBI and DHS have popularized the phrase "homegrown violent extremist" (HVE). It divides domestic terrorists from U.S.-based terrorists motivated by the ideologies of foreign terrorist organizations. Reportedly, according to DHS and the FBI, an HVE is "a person of any citizenship who has lived and/or operated primarily in the United States or its territories who advocates, is engaged in, or is preparing to engage in ideologically-motivated terrorist activities (including providing support to terrorism) in furtherance of political or social objectives promoted by a foreign terrorist organization, but is acting independently of direction by a foreign terrorist organization." They also assert that an HVE is not a domestic terrorist—these are two distinct categories of terrorist actors.

Figure 1. Who Are Domestic Terrorists?

Source: CRS graphic derived from information in https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/hate_crimes/overview; https://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/animal-rights-extremism-and-ecoterrorism; Department of Justice, Counterterrorism White Paper; https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2009/september/domterror_090709.