Biden Pledged to Combat Domestic Terror. That’s Not Enough

Payton Genedron, an 18-year old accused of murdering 10 people in Buffalo last May 14, was first questioned and reinterrogated by police last May. It was the end of Gendron’s senior year of high school, a time marked by pandemic isolation and boredom during which he had begun obsessively browsing extremist, violent, white supremacist forums. Asked in an economics class assignment, “What do you plan to do when you retire?” he had written, “murder/suicide,” triggering a mental health evaluation and an interview with New York state police. The teenager laughed at the comment and was eventually released.

“It was not a joke,” Gendron wrote eight months later on the popular app Discord, according to chat logs reviewed by TIME. “I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.” Over the following months, Gendron openly discussed his plans for the attack and detailed his growing anger at the belief that the white race was being pushed to the brink of extinction on his Discord channel. “I was thinking of a personal attack against the replacers at this point, and I had watched the Christchurch mass shooting a few weeks previously and began reading up on his motives,” he wrote. Thanks to the light police interest in his increasingly extremist plans, he wrote, “I am still able to purchase guns.”

The online radicalization that preceded Gendron’s attack is a textbook case of the rising threat posed by racially-motivated domestic extremists that the Biden administration has vowed to combat. It also shows that the U.S. government from the White House to the local police officers is still ill-equipped for countering homegrown extremism with devastating results. Experts believe that Gendron’s case shows how the resources exist to stop and intervene, yet they are not being applied. “The Buffalo shooting was fundamentally preventable,” says Elizabeth Neumann, who until 2020 led the DHS office that oversees responses to violent extremism. This means that similar attacks are certain to follow.

These problems extend from the top down. Schools and local police still consider warning signs mental health issues, instead of being alert for any red flags that might indicate someone has become radicalized by extremist ideologies. Programs by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which train law enforcement and community groups to identify and investigate these links, are still very much in their infancy. Domestic terrorist attacks have been called out as politically motivated efforts to suppress free speech. This is especially true since Jan. 6, when the insurrection broke out. And although Biden promised to “work for a domestic terrorism law” during his 2020 campaign, his Administration has so far declined to back bipartisan efforts for such new legislation.

It’s not exactly surprising: constitutional protections for gun rights, free speech and assembly make law enforcement skittish about digging into far-right rhetoric. The U.S. government established a global intelligence system to safeguard the nation from Islamist terror attacks. However, these lessons and tools cannot be applied to extremists if they’re American. The domestic threat is still growing. Right-wing extremists in Buffalo have now killed 10 people, while jihadist terrorists have claimed 107 lives since 9/11. This data was compiled and analyzed by New America.

In recent years, however, the Justice Department struggled to provide law enforcement resources that could keep pace with the growing number federal investigations into violent domestic extremeists. Neumann states that there are numerous local programs with proven results and waiting to get help before radicalization turns into violence. “It’s just words and policy papers if we don’t actually fund the plans to actually prevent it,” she says. Complex attacks have been launched by far-right extremists for years, from Oklahoma City to Charlottesville and Pittsburgh to Poway to El Paso or Buffalo. “It’s sad that it takes an attack, but let this be a wake-up call,” she tells TIME. “This is not 2001, where we’re wondering why radicalization happens: we have plenty of evidence, plenty of science, plenty of practical experience to know how to stop this—but it does take time to build.”

Continue reading: ‘They’re Fighting Blind.’ side the Biden Administration’s Uphill Battle Against Far-Right Extremism

In He was only a day into his new office.,The President Joe Biden ordered U.S. Security agencies to prioritise domestic terroristic acts and allocated millions of dollars federally to fight it. The effort was met with many difficulties. While far-right-wing extremism can be a serious problem around the world, it’s most prevalent in America, where there are more firearms per capita than any other country and an epidemic of mass killings. The American commitment to freedom of speech and restrictions on law enforcement makes it difficult to combat disaggregated movements, which exist largely in cyberspace.

“White supremacy is a poison,” Biden said Tuesday, standing before mourners and residents in Buffalo. “It’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes.” He said the grocery store shooting rampage was an act of “domestic terrorism,” emphasizing that racist ideology increasingly imperils Americans’ everyday lives.

The president may be willing to call the Buffalo massacre “terrorism,” but his Justice Department, noticeably, is not. Under federal law, domestic terrorism itself is not a crime, political speech—no matter how hateful—is protected, and any attempt to expand federal investigative tools into Americans’ lives is likely to be met with political backlash from the right and left alike.

In a conference call over the weekend with Buffalo community leaders, FBI Director Christopher Wray offered his condolences to the victims, but carefully constructed the words he used to describe the “despicable” shooting. “I want to be clear, for my part, from everything we know, this was a targeted attack, a hate crime, and an act of racially motivated violent extremism,” he said.

Former officials claim this resistance is hindering efforts to prioritize domestic extremism. “When it’s a community of people that you’re targeting, it becomes terrorism at that point… this guy even wrote a manifesto outlining his beliefs,” says Daryl Johnson, a former DHS senior analyst who authored a 2009 report warning of the rise of right-wing extremism in the U.S. “We need to get over this stereotype that terrorism is al-Qaeda. When you call it terrorism, in the minds of Americans that ratchets up the level of seriousness.” The inconsistent categorization of hate crimes also means it makes it more difficult to keep accurate statistics of domestic terror incidents, he says.

This rigid language is indicative of the legal terms U.S. law enforcement officers must use in order to prosecute domestic terrorists without a federal statute. These include vandalism, hate crimes and firearms offences. During his 2020 campaign, Biden had promised to “work for a domestic terrorism law,” but his administration has so far proven reluctant to publicly back several bipartisan efforts to write such new legislation. After the January 6, 2021 insurrection at U.S. Capitol, one such bill, the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act had bipartisan support. Republicans, on the other hand, have reacted against the bill in recent months.

The White House says it’s not categorically against new legislation, but is reticent for now. “We want to be careful if we do end up endorsing any legislative proposals,” a senior administration official told TIME. “Our view has been, we have to get to work addressing a threat that’s not going to sit and wait for the legislative process to move forward.”

Administration is working to achieve aDomestic extremism: A strategy under the existing authorities. A new group of domestic terrorist lawyers was recently created by the Justice Department. According to the FBI, its domestic terrorist caseload has more than doubled from approximately 1,000 to nearly 2,700 last year. In June, the White House released its first ever U.S. domestic terrorist strategy. It included plans to collaborate with other law enforcement officers across the country in order to recognize domestic terrorism signs.

DHS has labeled domestic violent extremism as a “national priority area.” The decision resulted in $77 million in federal grants being allocated toward state and local programs that try to prevent those who flirt with extremist views from joining militant groups or committing violent acts. The Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention program (TVTP), which aids local communities in combating extremist threats, also provided $20 million.

Search for Common Ground was one of the recipients. This non-profit organization, which has traditionally dealt with extremism in Africa and Middle East, opened an office in America in 2021 to meet demand. Under a $949,338 grant, they are working with a faith-based organization to ensure extremist propaganda doesn’t take root in Tarrant County located in north-central Texas. “Religious leaders were concerned about the conspiracy theories, racism, anti-Semitism, and so on, that they’re starting to see in their congregations,” said American University professor Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, which is a sub-recipient of the grant.

Ryan Greer, an ex-DHS employee who studies extremism at Anti-Defamation League, says programs like these are vital but must be extended. “Much more must be done,” he said. “Whether the administration is cautious that Congress will not be aligned on the need to do more, or whether other threats have taken priority, the momentum since announcing the national strategy seems to have slowed and the requests from the administration to Congress for things like grant funding to support the priorities outlined in the strategy have been modest.”

Since the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget was created, TVTP funding has been flat at $20 millions. Biden requested $20 million for next year’s fiscal year. “The administration clearly prioritizes the issue, but we need to hear more from them on what they are doing and whether they are open to doing more,” Greer says.

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Send an email to W.J. Hennigan at and Vera Bergengruen at


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