What The Biden Admin’s Countering Domestic Terrorism Plan Is Missing
Dr. Jessica White is a Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Her expertise encompasses countering terrorism and violent extremism policy and programming, as well as gender mainstreaming strategies. Before completing her PhD, she spent six years as an intelligence analyst in the United States Navy.
The new National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism released by the White House last month seems to be a significant step in the right direction. Overall, the very creation of the Strategy signifies that the US government is committed to addressing an array of ideologies – prominently including white supremacist and anti-government ideologies from the radical right – as serious domestic threats to US national security.
The Strategy emphasizes the goal of addressing the underlying dynamics of the long-term threat of violence in the US and sets out the need for a multi-agency and multi-stakeholder approach – including contributions from across a spectrum of government organizations, social media companies, civil society organizations, local communities and others, as well the cooperation of foreign partners where the ideologies have a transnational reach.
These are all positive acknowledgments of what the research has been saying about prevention and countering strategies for violent extremism and terrorism. The Strategy even goes so far as to acknowledge past inconsistencies and failures on the part of government and law enforcement in this arena. However, inevitably, there are still some gaps in the Strategy and areas in need of further definition for effective approaches.
While the Strategy includes a relatively nuanced assessment of the challenges, there is a significant gap in regard to its inclusion of gender in the needed response. The Strategy mentions violence against women and girls alongside other categories of those who have often been at the receiving end of hate speech and violent extremism, including racial, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQI+ individuals and others. Also, under Pillar One, it mentions that ‘specialized areas and types of analysis, including ways in which gender-motivated violence can have implications for domestic terrorist threats’ are needed sometimes for better understanding of the threat. However, this leaves the Strategy’s inclusion of gender largely localized to misogyny and still treats it as a ‘specialist’ category of analysis.
Ultimately, while analysis of misogyny and expectations of toxic masculinity as a driver of domestic terrorism is essential, the need for inclusion of a gender lens runs much deeper than just this category. To meaningfully increase understanding of domestic terrorism and the extremist ideologies which lead to acts of violence, a gender lens is essential across all categories of analysis and response. As researchers have emphasized, gender applies to all individuals and use of a gender lens ensures that the gendered dynamics are considered from why people get involved in violent extremism and terrorism, to the roles that they take in these groups and networks, to the ways in which they can be disengaged from them. Following are some examples for each pillar of where a gender lens can improve understanding and effectiveness.
Under Pillar One, research around how and why all individuals become radicalized to violence needs to be underpinned with a gendered understanding of the processes and narratives used and even the locations used to draw them in. Beyond that, the ideologies themselves need to be understood from a gendered perspective, in order to truly account for how expectations of what it means to be a man or woman and the associated pressures in these contexts drives participation and potential acts of violence.
Programming under Pillar Two needs to be designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated with a gender lens. This is important to ensure that programming both accounts for all individuals in the prevention and countering of violent extremism in a way that is aware of the gendered nature of the roles that they play, while not stereotyping them or excluding them in gendered ways from the responses.
When thinking about Pillar Three, the investigatory processes, risk assessment tools and legal measures being considered need to be adapted to include a gendered lens. For example, risk assessment tools need to account for gendered differences in individual experiences and how these might drive participation in violence. Legal prosecutions need to be equipped to account for the differences and similarities between male and female participation in violent crimes – not demonizing the violence of women for contravening stereotypical norm expectations of peacefulness, but also not undervaluing or disregarding their active participation and agency in recruitment, mobilization, and acts of violence.
Finally, in Pillar Four, when thinking about the need to ratchet back the polarization of politics and address the long-term ‘underlying factors’, including racism and other challenges, it needs to be remembered that all of these biases are intersecting. While discrimination may happen because an individual is, for example, African American, this is often also intersecting with bias based on the gender of that individual (with males often seen as more threatening), etc. These intersecting identities and discriminations are present with every individual and gender needs to be remembered in the assessment of how to address and reduce the extreme narratives and perspectives that have taken hold in the public discourse and political spaces in the US, both online and offline.
The Biden administration has made good progress in acknowledging the growing threat of domestic terrorism – highlighting particularly the impacts of white supremacist and anti-government ideologies, while emphasizing that the definition itself is not limited to any particular set of ideologies. However, more research and analysis are needed to investigate how current threats fit into traditional counter-terrorism structures and how programming will have to be adapted to effectively address these various forms of extremism.
As part of the journey that the Strategy sets out, there was a chance to put gender at the forefront and to emphasize the need for a gender lens across the pillars. Unfortunately, this chance was missed. Thus, there needs to be course correct to include gender perspective across implementation of the new strategy as it moves forward, in order to ensure its effectiveness.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.