An Insider View: January 6th Coup Attempt Demonstrated the Need for Proactive Human Rights Tools and DHS Leadership
A year ago the United States experienced the most existential threat to its imperfect democracy since the Civil War. The attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th reached the kinetic stage due in great part to a leadership failure between November, 2019, and January, 2020 at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I was there.
While my career colleagues -- including those who worked with the Offices for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP), Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), and Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) -- scrambled to protect our homeland by identifying this threat, the Department’s senior leadership focused on building literal, and virtual, walls to stop immigration while downplaying the simmering threat of domestic violent extremism (DVE), specifically white nationalist extremism, and the very serious prospect of authoritarianism here in the United States.
Senior officials such as former DHS Assistant Secretary Elizbeth Neumann, who was responsible for DHS counterterrorism efforts until April 2020, along with her replacements, attempted to provide the necessary support and resources to focus on this emerging threat. Neumann and her replacements repeatedly testified and briefed Congress, advocated for additional resources, and elevated these concerns to more senior officials in the Trump Administration.
As more information demonstrated the seriousness of the violent white supremacist movement, Neumann and her replacements were ignored. More senior Trump Administration officials maintained the focus on threats posed by homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) influenced by or associated with foreign terrorist organizations. However, those officials did almost nothing to work on the systemic and societal cancer that is white nationalist extremism.
This authoritarian threat remains the most serious challenge to our democracy in generations. We know that white nationalist extremism did not start on January 6, 2021, and it will not end by using traditional law enforcement investigative and prosecutorial methods, which have historically targeted minority communities and negatively impacted human rights.
A rights-centered society-wide public health approach is necessary. Efforts by the U.S. Government, including the creation of the DHS Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (DHS CP3), are welcome signs that the government is taking this challenge seriously.
I recently spoke with Assistant Secretary Neumann who said, "I'm very pleased the Biden Administration moved quickly to issue a National Strategy to Combat Domestic Terrorism and adopt the public health prevention approach we codified in the DHS 2019 Strategic Framework to Counterterrorism. It is urgent for DHS to work with states and urban areas to rapidly scale prevention capability across our country. It will take time to build these capabilities well, and the threat is growing exponentially."
DHS CP3 leverages a public-health approach to prevention that incorporates significant measures to protect human and civil rights and privacy. The program focuses on supporting local communities through grants and technical expertise, including social media and online training and resources, to develop measures that seek prevention rather than punishment. These local prevention frameworks offer voluntary support for those at risk of falling victim to white supremacist and other violent narratives. As DHS CP3’s former acting Deputy Director, I can report that its work is a welcome departure from previous policies that focused on scrutinizing minority communities and securitizing the government’s relationship with the American Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and others.
Organizations like Human Rights First can partner with such rights-respecting initiatives to help combat this threat; countering violent extremism demands everyone’s help.
Human Rights First’s experts, including those in our Veterans for American Ideals (VFAI) program and our Innovation Lab are working to identify, interdict, and expose elements within this transnational white nationalist hate movement.
Investigative tools, developed by Human Rights First in our Innovation Lab and shared with more than forty other NGOs and media organizations, identify these actors and their narratives, networks, fundraising methods, recruitment tactics, mobilization strategies, and the trends they use to target minority communities and our democracy.
Their most dangerous digital activity no longer takes place on conventional social media but on rapidly growing far-right social media platforms and encrypted chat tools such as Telegram, Gab, Gettr, and others.
These platforms have remained largely inaccessible to the U.S. government and most of civil society -- so they cannot assess, let alone combat, this white supremacist extremist activity. In response, our Innovation Lab experts have paired our artificial intelligence-based tools with leading researchers to monitor these extremist activities across these platforms.
Our tools and experts are uncovering a dramatic rise in DVE activity as the first anniversary of the January 6th insurrection approaches. We are particularly concerned by anti-government, white nationalist groups finding support within the U.S. military, law enforcement, and veteran communities.
These movement’s recruitment is situationally specific, multi-platform, and focuses on vulnerable members of society, using their grievances to radicalize them. Extremists use rhetoric, aesthetics, issues, and format common in these communities to disguise their recruitment efforts and mask their content.
Recruitment messages prioritize action and a sense of community; manipulate concepts of civic nationalism; create an “other,” often targeting minority communities; provide justification for extrajudicial violence; and celebrate the skills and experiences of veterans, members of the military, and current or former law enforcement.
Popular social media platforms -- such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – are these extremists’ first step in providing people they are looking to recruit with content that speaks to their experiences and frustrations with the government and society.
When targets react positively, they are shepherded to more shadowy platforms, typically encrypted chat applications like Telegram. There, recruitment targets are exposed to more explicitly white supremacist violent ideology and may be vetted for affiliation with a particular extremist group.
These movements push recruits deeper into their groups’ online ecosystem by providing streams of content that isolate their targets from social ties and reputable sources of information. Core group members allude to and share illegal or violent activities and offer recruits the opportunity to get involved in them.
With involvement in real-world coordination or violence, most extremists’ engagement moves offline. From here, tracking and interdiction (even by traditional law enforcement means) becomes much more difficult, yet may signal a significant increase in their threat to our communities. It also signifies a target’s full immersion into a network.
In 1992 I took an oath as a new citizen of this nation. I was proud to become an American because of the ideals and values this nation champions. As my family settled in Appalachia, I was a teenage immigrant who experienced the welcoming spirit and generosity of my fellow Americans. I still appreciate the lifelong friendships I developed in West Virginia. In 2009, I made the decision to serve my country and took another oath as I joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I swore that I would support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I joined Human Rights First last October to help do what I recognize government alone may not be able to do: root out human rights violators and protect the democracy that my parents sacrificed so much to reach.
As an immigrant, an American by choice, and as someone who served our nation for the past twelve years, I understand that my parents’ decision allowed me to enjoy freedoms I would never have known in my country of birth: a country that was shattered by the fires of authoritarianism and hate, a nation that today has the largest number of refugees globally, a place that remains the most dangerous place on earth to live -- Syria. That is why I am especially proud to be part of an organization that is leveraging its international experience, expertise, and innovative tools to help counter this serious threat to human rights and our democracy.