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START Director to Senate: Stronger response to domestic terrorism needed

Braniff urges committee to improve data collection, embrace rehabilitation programs

William Braniff testifyingTo counter the rise of violent far-right terrorism in the U.S., the federal government should strengthen its partnerships with civilian researchers and embrace a public health approach for at-risk individuals, a University of Maryland terrorism expert told a congressional committee yesterday.

William Braniff, director of UMD’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Responses to Terrorism (START), testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs about how data can improve government resource allocation and risk mitigation regarding domestic terrorism.

“Defining, tracking and reporting data on terrorism is subject to biases, subtle pressures or even manipulation,” Braniff said. “It’s clear that domestic terrorism, specifically far-right extremism, requires greater attention and resource allocation.”

According to START data, violent far-right terrorists have been responsible for more failed and successful plots, homicides, attempts to obtain chemical or biological weapons and illicit financial schemes than international terrorists in recent decades. That activity has spiked precipitously—from fewer than five attacks in 2013 to around 35 in both 2017 and 2018.

“Violent white supremacists are the most active of the ideological groups in the United States in terms of violence by just about every empirical metric,” he said.

Braniff said the FBI has difficulty tracking dangerous individuals because its legal threshold to open an investigation is very high, and the government needs to invest in “community resilience, programs that foster non-criminal justice interventions for at-risk individuals, and programs that foster rehabilitation and reintegration of domestic extremists.”

“We need more tools in the pre-criminal space, in the civilian space,” Braniff said. “The FBI needs to know it can turn to a civilian-led intervention team. We don’t invest in that.”

Braniff was joined on the panel by Clinton Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; Robert Chesney, director of the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas Law School; and George Selim, senior vice president for national programs at the Anti-Defamation League.

Senators said the hearing was a good first step in learning what data is already available and what challenges the federal government faces. They repeatedly acknowledged the difficulties of trying to track people who are becoming radicalized without stepping on their constitutional rights.

“I am acutely aware of how (post-9/11), our policies were wrongly used to cast suspicion on entire communities,” said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich). “We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.”