The horrific mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., is raising questions about whether President Barack Obama is prepared to launch the kind of effort against extremist groups that the government launched against the Ku Klux Klan in an earlier era.
Tracking homegrown extremist groups was an emphasis after the 1993 Waco siege and the Oklahoma City bombing two years later. But after Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI has shifted its focus to international terrorism.
“The allocation of resources across different forms of terrorism has been skewed towards jihadi terrorism,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks right-wing extremist groups. “The government has allowed the threat of other forms of terrorism to take a back seat.”
Like Ku Klux Klan lynchings of the past, the Charleston shooting appears designed to not just to kill individuals but to create terror among African-Americans.
Sen. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a longtime civil rights activist, said the federal government is going to have to do more to infiltrate extremist groups. Clyburn brought up the example of efforts against the Klan in the 1960s and 1970s.
“These groups cannot be allowed to continue to float around, they’re ratcheting things up. People have been ignoring this stuff and now all of a sudden nine people are dead,” Clyburn said.
Dylann Roof, who is charged with killing nine African-Americans at a prayer meeting, cited the white supremacist group Council for Conservative Citizens in his purported online “manifesto.”
The Department of Homeland Security issued a report in 2009 warning of a growing threat from right-wing extremism. But the report drew criticism from conservatives and veterans groups who said it unfairly singled out returning military veterans as possible recruits.
The analyst who wrote the report, Daryl Johnson, said his domestic terrorism team was disbanded and he left the agency.
Johnson, who now does consulting work, said in an interview that he rates the DHS efforts on homegrown extremist groups as “poor, not serious.”
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about whether it intended to beef up its efforts against homegrown extremist groups in the wake of the Charleston shootings.
S.Y. Lee, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said: “Recent events call for increased vigilance in homeland security. DHS routinely shares information with our state, local, federal and international law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security partners, and continually evaluates the level of protection we provide at federal facilities.”
Lee also encouraged the public to report “any suspicious activity in their communities to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.”
Radical Islamist groups are often what captures the public’s attention. But far more of the law enforcement agencies surveyed last year reported that anti-government extremism is a top threat in their jurisdictions (74 percent to 39 percent) than Islamist radicalism.
They cited extremists like neo-Nazis, “sovereign citizen” groups and militias, said Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina who co-authored the study.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who worked as an undercover agent in neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, said the FBI should improve its tracking of violent incidents committed by U.S. extremists instead of relying on outside organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
But German said more aggressive surveillance of extremist groups is not the answer. In fact, the theory that extremists are more dangerous and should be monitored simply because of their views is flawed, he said.
“If you look at mass shootings, the vast majority of the shooters have no ideological bent,” German said. “Ideology is not necessarily the motive with this kind of mass violence.”
German said that “more is not always better” when it comes to intelligence activities by law enforcement agencies.
“The flaw in logic that has driven a lot of the abusive police intelligence activities is the idea that if a person commits a violent act on behalf of a particular ideology, then anyone who shares that view should be under surveillance as the next terrorist,” he said.
Shawn Alexander, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Kansas, said he would like to see the Justice Department “follow the money” and track financing of right-wing extremist groups.
But Alexander said the most important thing Obama could do may be speaking out about race in America, although he’s drawn criticism in the past when he’s attempted to broach the subject.
“This is a moment where he could speak frankly about it and that could have an impact,” Alexander said. “But the question I think we have to ask ourselves is, will the nation allow him to do it?”
As members of Congress ended their work week and prepared to fly to Charleston for Friday’s funeral service, some lawmakers had wish lists for what Congress and the White House could do to help prevent such tragedies.
“First of all, we have to bury our dead and get this tragic event closed, and then we have to look at the future,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “We’re beginning now to get the attention of a lot of white Americans who’ve been on the sidelines on the issue of racial justice. They’re now engaged. If there’s anything positive from this horrific tragedy, it’s the fact that it’s awakening good people who’ve been silent.”
Butterfield said Obama needs to “frontally” address poverty in the United States. “We’ve got to redirect federal dollars into persistent poverty communities.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said, “We have to go back to the conversation about gun control, no ifs, ands or buts.”
Marisa Taylor and Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.