Homeland Agency Boosts Extremism Fight in Wake of Capitol Attack

  • Department was faulted for inadequate Jan. 6 warnings
  • New efforts focus on helping communities detect threats

The Department of Homeland Security is working “24 hours a day, seven days a week” to ensure a Jan. 6-style attack never happens again, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said ahead of the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol riot.

DHS’s counterterrorism work has been under a microscope since the insurrection, as it was one of several agencies that failed to anticipate the scale of violence. Investigations faulted the department for failing to issue a threat assessment or assign a special security designation for demonstrations planned that day.

Mayorkas, who took the helm of DHS a month later, said the agency has sharpened its counterterrorism tools to monitor more closely domestic extremism, which he called one of the greatest terrorism threats the U.S. faces.

“We in this administration have learned a great deal from what transpired before,” Mayorkas said during a virtual roundtable with reporters Tuesday.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images
FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms law enforcement officers push out supporters of defeated President Donald Trump who protested inside the Capitol on Jan, 6, 2021.

Questions remain about whether DHS’s counterterrorism and intelligence teams are equipped to handle increasing levels of domestic threats.

New Initiatives

DHS has improved information sharing with state and local partners, expanded its monitoring of social media and other public sources of information, and doled out millions in federal grants to help communities invest in threat detection and prevention, Mayorkas said. The agency also launched the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships last year to work with communities to identify early risks for extremism.

The department is trying to avoid mistakes made in earlier programs that were centered on detecting “home-grown” terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other international groups, the secretary said.

Those initiatives, which placed federal officials inside communities, proved ineffective because the agency struggled to build trust, Mayorkas said. New efforts focus instead on providing information and funding for communities to root out extremism in their midst.

DHS is also looking internally, conducting a broad review to detect potential threats within the department. Mayorkas said a report is due out soon but declined to offer a precise timeline.

The Biden administration in June unveiled a sweeping, multi-agency strategy to combat domestic terrorism by studying and sharing information about extremism, disrupting recruitment and plots, and addressing root causes of racial and religious hatred.

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Aggressive Planning

Counterterrorism coordinator John Cohen pointed to DHS’s handling of a September 2021 rally in support of Capitol riot defendants as evidence of how the department has taken lessons from Jan. 6. The department issued a heightened security designation and publicized some of its security plans in an attempt to deter potential violence, Cohen said during public remarks last month.

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“That was something that we weren’t as aggressive about over Jan. 6,” senior intelligence official Melissa Smislova said in September.

The anniversary appears likely to stay relatively calm. DHS this week said it wasn’t tracking any “specific or credible” threats related to the one-year mark.

“At the same time, we are operating at a heightened level of vigilance because we are at a heightened level of threat,” Mayorkas said Tuesday. “The threat of domestic extremists is a very grave one.”

Challenges

Some former officials have raised questions about whether DHS is up to the task, given longstanding internal strife and organizational issues.

DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, for example, charged with monitoring potential threats, has struggled to find its place within the U.S. intelligence community and suffered reputational blows during a series of Trump-era scandals.

The office’s dysfunction likely undermined DHS’s ability to anticipate threats related to the 2020 election outcome, former intelligence officer Javed Ali said late last year.

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The department also has leadership gaps. Cohen is doubling as counterterrorism coordinator and temporary head of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis. The White House hasn’t announced a nominee for a Federal Emergency Management Agency position that oversees some terrorism and security preparedness. And the department has for almost six months relied on an acting official in the role of assistant secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention.

It took the Biden administration 10 months to announce a nominee for the intelligence role, finally unveiling George W. Bush administration official Ken Wainstein as the pick in November. The Senate isn’t expected to vote on the nomination for months.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

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