The Threat Within


Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government and federal law enforcement agencies have equated terrorism with Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other international extremist groups. As a result, many Americans have come to view terrorism as a uniquely Muslim phenomenon.

In the past week, news coverage has focused on horrific massacres at two New Zealand mosques, where 50 people were killed by a white supremacist. But these were only the latest in a long series of attacks that have gained international attention since the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when another white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman. In a single month last year, a Donald Trump supporter sent pipe bombs to Democratic Party leaders and critics of the president, and a man walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and gunned down 11 worshippers in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. In the wake of these violent acts, the conversation about terrorism in the United States has slowly shifted to domestic extremists.

“The Threat Within” examines how the arbitrary nature of federal terrorism prosecutions has warped our understanding of ideologically inspired violence in the United States.

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An Intercept analysis of federal prosecutions since 9/11 found that the Justice Department has routinely declined to bring terrorism charges against right-wing extremists, even when their alleged crimes appear to have met the legal definition of domestic terrorism: ideologically motivated acts that are harmful to human life and intended to intimidate civilians, influence policy, or change government conduct. According to The Intercept’s review, the Justice Department applied anti-terrorism laws against only 34 of the 268 right-wing extremists prosecuted for such crimes in federal court since 9/11. In the same period, they used those laws against more than 500 alleged international terrorists. The double standard also shows up in the Justice Department’s use of the powerful material support law. More than 400 international terrorism defendants have faced material support charges since 9/11, but prosecutors have used the law in only one domestic terrorism case in the same time frame.

Current and former Justice Department officials have increasingly argued for a new federal domestic terrorism statute to help them better respond to right-wing threats. But the problem isn’t any lack of legal authority to go after such extremists; it’s that the government has allowed its biases to influence how it chooses which crimes to prosecute as terrorism and which offenders merit that emotionally charged label. Today, the Justice Department and the FBI are continuing their long history of exaggerating threats from radical environmentalists and other left-wing actors, even creating new extremist ideologies, such as “black identity extremism,” out of whole cloth. The Intercept’s analysis of 70 federal prosecutions of so-called eco-terrorists since 9/11, for instance, found that although the majority of defendants were not charged under anti-terrorism laws, they were repeatedly called terrorists by the Justice Department in public statements and internal communications — a designation that channeled resources into investigations of their crimes and, in some cases, increased the severity of their punishments. Meanwhile, prosecutors charged 17 defendants under an anti-terrorism law written with the help of industry that was designed exclusively to target animal rights activists.

What is abundantly clear from our analysis of this data is that terrorism is a political construct. “The Threat Within” demonstrates that what critics of the Patriot Act predicted has come to pass: The country’s anti-terrorism laws have been used disproportionately to punish people whose political views are unpopular or perceived as foreign.


The Intercept’s reporting for this series was informed by the collection and analysis of data for federal prosecutions of domestic extremists since 9/11. Contributing writer Trevor Aaronson and researcher Margot Williams examined hundreds of prosecutions to identify crimes that appear to have met the Patriot Act definition of domestic terrorism: “acts dangerous to human life” intended to intimidate civilians or influence government in the service of a domestic extremist ideology. A second analysis, of federal prosecutions of radical environmentalists and animal rights activists, included cases that were prosecuted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act or its precursor, or described publicly by the Justice Department as domestic terrorism. The Intercept’s data can be downloaded for analysis from GitHub.

In compiling data of federal prosecutions, Aaronson and Williams relied primarily on U.S. District Court records. They also reviewed and incorporated data from similar lists of domestic terrorism defendants and cases produced by the Congressional Research Service, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina, J.J. MacNab of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, Jesse Norris of the State University of New York at Fredonia, and Will Potter of the University of Michigan.

In addition, as part of this project, The Intercept analyzed an internal Justice Department database called the Legal Information Office Network System, or LIONS, which stores case data, including offense types, prosecutors assigned, and charges filed. Federal prosecutors label cases according to so-called indicators, one of which is “domestic terrorism.” The LIONS data reveals cases that the Justice Department views internally as domestic terrorism. While the Justice Department makes LIONS data publicly available, it does so only after removing defendant names and docket numbers, making detailed analysis impossible on its own. Akil Harris, a senior research engineer at The Intercept, was able to identify 752 defendants whose cases were marked by prosecutors as involving domestic terrorism; he did so by linking the LIONS database to the Federal Judicial Center’s Integrated Database, which contains defendant names and docket numbers. Harris was then able to match cases in LIONS with cases in the FJC database, giving journalists and researchers at The Intercept a unique window into how prosecutors classify terrorism cases within the Justice Department.