WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson would not explicitly say whether he would rank Islamic terrorism a bigger threat than so-called “domestic extremism.”
During a discussion Monday morning, Defense One executive editor Kevin Baron asked Johnson, “The other group that we’re hearing about lately as the extremist threat in the United States is ‘conservative extremism’ or ‘white extremism’ depending on the label — there’s this study out from Southern Poverty Law Center. Do you agree with the assertion that that is actually the bigger extremist threat in the United States?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it conservative extremism. I think that’s very unfair to conservatives actually,” responded Johnson. “It’s sick behavior. Domestic terrorism of whatever… stripe is sick behavior.”
“And we’ve created in DHS, an office for community partnerships, that is focused on countering violent extremism of a domestic nature, with a domestic agenda, versus an international terrorist agenda as well, given the nature of some of the types of domestic terrorism like Charleston, South Carolina,” he continued.
In June, White supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof, who called himself “The Last Rhodesian” in a website he ran, pleaded not guilty after confessing to the massacre. He is facing the death penalty.
Johnson said such crimes can be “more challenging for DHS just given the nature of that specific attack.”
“It is the case that domestic extremism, domestic violent extremism, of the type in Charleston… is a huge challenge. It is something that we have to address, we have to be aware of, and we have to root out,” he added.
Pundits often quote a Southern Poverty Law Center study from earlier this year to argue that “right-wing extremism” is a bigger threat than Islamic extremism. According to the study, violence from the “radical right” has surpassed that caused by “homegrown jihadists.”
Defense One’s Baron pressed Johnson again, asking him, “Yeah, but the punditry wants you to say that that’s [domestic terrorism] the bigger threat versus the Islamic terrorism… or the other one is the bigger threat. Does that rhetoric matter to you? Does that distinction matter to you?”
“I try not to get bogged down in these inside the beltway debates about terminology. The fact is that when you’re dealing with terrorist inspired attacks, you have to work with communities that are being targeted by those who want to inspire people within those communities,” replied the DHS chief. “You have to build those bridges. It is foolish to do otherwise. It is foolish in my view and counterproductive to vilify that very same community and drive them away from us. We have to work with them and that is true in, you know, multiple different contexts — whether you’re talking about something inspired by al Qaeda, the Islamic State [ISIS/ISIL], or some other form of extremism.”
A suspicious neighbor, to avoid “racial profiling,” failed to report Syed Farook, who along with his Muslim wife has been accused of killing 14 innocent people and wounding 21 others in San Bernardino, California last Wednesday.
“’See Something, Say something’ does not mean alert law enforcement to a personal profile of someone or a person’s religion or skin color or clothing,” Johnson explained. “It means awareness concerning suspicious behavior.”
“‘If You See Something, Say Something’ means say something about a pattern of behavior; a package that is in a suspicious place,” he added.
The answer to America’s fight against terrorism at home is not to vilify Muslims, declared Johnson.
“Now, more than ever, we need to work with the Muslim community,” he pointed out. “And it’s not just a monolith, it is communities across the country, to encourage them to help us help them if they see somebody traveling in the wrong direction in their own community.”
“It is the case, almost always, that when someone has self-radicalized and is turning to violence, there is somebody else that sees the signs,” he added. “And so we need to build bridges, build relationships with Muslim communities across this country and not vilify them, not drive in the exact opposite direction.”
Muslims are “people of peace,” said Johnson.
“The overwhelming, overwhelming majority of Muslims, from whatever continent, from whatever nationality, are people of peace. And their community is being targeted by the Islamic State,” he explained. “And so we need to work with them to build bridges, to heighten awareness, to help them develop the message counter to ISIL.”
The DHS secretary’s comments came during a Defense One Leadership briefing Monday morning on the war on terrorism.