Extremist groups motivated by a range of U.S.-born philosophies
present a "clear and present danger," John Carlin, the Justice
Department's chief of national security, told Reuters in an
interview. “Based on recent reports and the cases we are seeing, it
seems like we’re in a heightened environment.”
Over the past year, the Justice Department has brought charges
against domestic extremist suspects accused of attempting to bomb
U.S. military bases, kill police officers and fire bomb a school and
other buildings in a predominantly Muslim town in New York state.
But federal prosecutors tackling domestic extremists still lack an
important legal tool they have used extensively in dozens of
prosecutions against Islamic State-inspired suspects: a law that
prohibits supporting designated terrorist groups.
Carlin and other Justice Department officials declined to say if
they would ask Congress for a comparable domestic extremist statute,
or comment on what other changes they might pursue to toughen the
fight against anti-government extremists.
The U.S. State Department designates international terrorist
organizations to which it is illegal to provide "material support."
No domestic groups have that designation, helping to create a
disparity in charges faced by international extremist suspects
compared to domestic ones.
A Reuters analysis of more than 100 federal cases found that
domestic terrorism suspects collectively have faced less severe
charges than those accused of acting on behalf of Islamic State
since prosecutors began targeting that group in early 2014.
Over the past two years, 27 defendants have been charged with
plotting or inciting attacks within the United States in the name of
Islamic State. They have faced charges that carried a median prison
sentence of 53 years - half of the defendants faced more, and half
In the same period, 27 adherents of U.S.-based anti-government
ideologies have been charged with similar activity. They faced
charges that carried a median prison sentence of 20 years.
Carlin said his counter-terrorism team, including a recently hired
counsel, is taking a “thoughtful look at the nature and scope of the
domestic terrorism threat” and helping to analyze “potential legal
improvements and enhancements to better combat those threats.”
The counsel, who was appointed last October and has not been named
publicly, will identify cases being prosecuted at the state level
that “could arguably meet the federal definition of domestic
terrorism," a Justice Department official said.
That would give the department a direct role in more domestic
Recognizing that domestic threats were “rapidly evolving, and had
the potential to grow,” the department in March 2015 rated
disrupting such terrorists as a key component of its broader
counter-terrorism efforts, officials said.
THE THREAT PENDULUM
The Justice Department aggressively pursued domestic extremists
after Timothy McVeigh bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in
1995, killing 168 people.
The government shifted its focus to international terrorism after al
Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.
But in recent years anti-government activists, like those who
occupied a wildlife preserve in eastern Oregon last month, have
As law enforcement experts confront domestic militia groups,
"sovereign citizens" who do not recognize government authority, and
other anti-government extremists, they also face a heightened threat
from Islamic extremists like the couple who carried out the Dec. 2
shootings in San Bernardino, California.
"A new development we're seeing is that when it comes to ISIL
investigations, the flash-to-bang time from radicalization to action
appears to be happening faster than with other types of terrorists,"
said Michael Steinbach, the head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism
As a result, government agents are quick to investigate people who
appear sympathetic toward Islamic State, current and former
officials say. But some say the government has been overzealous in
its pursuit of Islamic State suspects.
[to top of second column]
Similar actions by extremist suspects have yielded sharply disparate
Eight Islamic State-related defendants have been
sentenced so far, to prison terms that range from three to 20 years,
the Reuters review found. Over the same period, 18 domestic
extremists have been sentenced to terms from one day to 12 years.
Prosecutors say Harlem Suarez, 23, of Key West, Florida, tried to
buy a bomb last year from an undercover FBI agent as he plotted
attacks on behalf of Islamic State. He faces a possible sentence of
life in prison and has pleaded not guilty.
Michael Sibley, 67, left two unexploded pipe bombs and a Koran in a
park in Roswell, Georgia in 2014 in what he later told police was an
attempt to highlight the danger of Islamic terrorism. He pleaded
guilty and faces a maximum of five years in prison.
"A different standard is being applied to Muslims than to other
people," said Daryl Johnson, a former counterterrorism expert at the
Department of Homeland Security who now works as a law enforcement
Steinbach said that the FBI can never open up any type of
investigation “just on the basis of race, creed, or religion,”
But he added that federal agents are "spring-loaded" to open
investigations into Americans who support groups on the State
Department list of designated terrorist organizations.
The maximum penalty for supporting one of these groups has been
raised from 10 years to 20 years in prison since 2001.
It has been applied in 58 of the government's 79 Islamic State cases
since 2014 against defendants who engaged in a wide range of
activity, from traveling to Syria to fight alongside Islamic State
to raising money for a friend who wished to do so.
Judges usually issue sentences below the maximum, but some charges
trigger sentencing "enhancements" that raise the baseline sentence a
judge can issue – and the material support charge raises it more
Domestic groups enjoy greater constitutional protections because
being a member of those groups, no matter how extreme their
rhetoric, is not a crime.
Prosecutors can bring “material support” terrorism charges against
defendants who aren't linked to groups on the State Department's
list, but they have only done so twice against non-jihadist suspects
since the law was enacted in 1994. The law, which prohibits
supporting people who have been deemed to be terrorists by their
actions, carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
Current and former federal prosecutors say they rarely consider that
statute in domestic terrorism cases because it is often hard to
convince a jury that someone who is not affiliated with a foreign
group can be guilty of terrorism.
William Wilmoth, a former federal prosecutor who invoked that law in
a 1996 case against a West Virginia militia member, said he was
surprised to hear that it isn't used more often.
"These guys have every right to have off-center political views," he
said. "But when they made affirmative steps to blow up an actual
federal facility... we thought it was an important place for us to
go and prosecute."
(Reporting by Julia Harte, Julia Edwards and Andy Sullivan; editing
by Stuart Grudgings)
[© 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2016 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.