Sifting Domestic Terrorism from Hate Crime and Homegrown Violent Extremism

Sifting Domestic Terrorism from Hate Crime
and Homegrown Violent Extremism

Updated January 15, 2021
In light of the violence related to events over recent years, including the 2017 protests in Charlottesville,
VA, 2020 protests
across the nation related to policing practices and police-community relations, and
2021 security breach
of the U.S. Capitol, 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 certain types of individuals whose
unlawful actions are at least partly ideologically motivated.

Domestic Terrorism
Domestic terrorism differs from other criminal activity in key ways. Importantly, unlike most offenders—
who may be driven by self-centered motives—domestic terrorists are driven by a cause or ideology. The
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the agency with lead responsibility for terrorism investigations at
the federal level, generally relies on two definitions of domestic terrorism. First, the Code of Federal
characterizes terrorism as including “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons
or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in
furtherance of political or social objectives.” Second, 18 U.S.C. §2331(5) more narrowly defines domestic
as occurring primarily within U.S. territorial jurisdiction, and involves
(A) ... acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or
of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…
Domestic terrorists are widely divergent, 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. Expression
of these ideas—minus the commission of crimes—may involve constitutionally protected activity.
The FBI safeguards against cases focused solely on constitutionally protected activities. All FBI
investigations must 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 FBI conceptualizes domestic terrorism in terms of threats, not groups or ideas. In September 2020,

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FBI Director Wray stated in congressional testimony that “regardless of the specific ideology involved,
the FBI requires that all domestic terrorism investigations be predicated based on activity intended to
further a political or social goal, wholly or in part involving force, coercion, or violence, in violation of
federal law.”
Hate Crime
Among other things, current federal law defines hate crimes to include conduct involving bodily injury in
which certain jurisdictional prerequisites are met and 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 former 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. The line may
sometimes be blurry, and some cases may be investigated as both a hate crime and an act of domestic
terrorism. This suggests that sorting domestic terrorism from hate crimes may depend on the 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.
While an individual’s actions may be consistent with the definition of domestic terrorism, domestic
terrorism is not a chargeable offense on its own. There is no federal criminal statute that establishes
criminal penalties solely for domestic terrorism, although it may be an element of other federal crimes or
provide an enhanced sentence. Unlike domestic terrorism, there are federal criminal statutes that allow
individuals to be charged with hate crimes and that establish penalties for individuals convicted of hate
The Charlottesville Case
James Fields pled guilty to federal hate crimes related to his driving a car into a crowd of counter-
protesters, killing one and injuring dozens more in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017. The DOJ public
description of the sentencing of Fields
exemplifies how difficult it may be to characterize acts as hate
crimes or domestic terrorism, or distinguish between them. In describing Fields’ crimes and sentence,
DOJ characterized his actions as both domestic terrorism and hate crimes.
Homegrown Violent Extremism
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have popularized the phrase homegrown violent
extremist (HVE). Unlike domestic extremists or terrorists, HVEs are motivated by the ideologies of
foreign terrorist organizations. 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.
Similarly, DHS and the FBI distinguish HVEs from domestic violent extremists (DVEs), who are not
directed or inspired by foreign terrorist goals but support achieving political or social goals at least in part
through unlawful force or violence. DHS asserts that DVEs present the “most persistent and lethal threat”
to the homeland. The FBI made a similar assessment, stating that “trends may shift, but the underlying
drivers for domestic violent extremism—such as perceptions of government or law enforcement
overreach, sociopolitical conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and reactions to

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legislative actions—remain constant.” According to Director Wray, the top DVE threat is from those the
FBI identifies as racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists.

Author Information

Lisa N. Sacco

Analyst in Illicit Drugs and Crime Policy

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