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Counterterrorism researchers say they lack the data to prevent future violence

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One year ago, the Biden administration launched the first national plan to counter domestic extremism. It aims to address what top national security officials say is one of the most significant threats to the country. That threat earned renewed focus only a few weeks ago, when a white gunman shot 10 Black people in a racist attack at a Buffalo grocery store. He has now been charged with a federal hate crime. But even with heightened federal attention on the issue, lawmakers and counterterrorism experts say they lack a critical component - data. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us now. Good morning, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So officials are saying they lack data. What exactly is missing?

YOUSEF: Well, Rachel, before I can answer that, let me give you some context. Last week, at least two Senate committees held hearings focusing on domestic extremism and what can be done to prevent another tragic attack like what happened in Buffalo. But what emerged was a really deep partisan divide over how law enforcement should identify and go after threats. You know, Republicans were largely pushing back against focusing exclusively on white supremacist violence, suggesting that it's just as bad from actors on the far left. And it seems that this disagreement might be overcome if they could just agree on the numbers, you know, but lawmakers on both sides complained that they haven't been getting the numbers. They're supposed to get, you know, annual reports on domestic terrorism from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Those reports have been delayed. And when I contacted those agencies, neither explained the delays or said when the latest report would come out.

MARTIN: But haven't we heard both the FBI and Homeland Security point to the threat from white supremacists as a priority?

YOUSEF: Yes. You know, DHS officials have said white supremacist extremists are the most persistent and lethal threat in the U.S. The FBI says most of their caseload when it comes to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism involves white supremacy. But one of the issues is that the FBI has changed how they categorize the data. During the Trump era, the agency collapsed classifications of political or ideological motivators of domestic terrorism from roughly a dozen down to just five, and one of those is racially or ethnically motivated violence. But, Rachel, that means that you're now rolling together, you know, both white supremacists and violent Black supremacists into a single category.

MARTIN: OK. So explain why that matters.

YOUSEF: Well, counterterrorism experts like Michael German say that this leaves federal agencies with tremendous discretion over where they direct their resources. He's with the Brennan Center for Justice. And here's some of his congressional testimony from last week.

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MICHAEL GERMAN: I think Portland, Ore., is a good example, where the federal government charged almost a hundred people during the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. But groups from outside of Oregon were traveling in far-right militant groups, like the Proud Boys, were coming into Oregon and instigating violence and committing violence on the street with very little law enforcement interference.

YOUSEF: And German said that, in turn, allowed the Proud Boys to continue building their network and organization, Rachel, ultimately to lay the groundwork for their involvement in the January 6 attack at the Capitol. And even though violent white supremacists currently present the most lethal and persistent domestic terrorism threat, you know, that threat changes over time. And so having consistent and timely data can allow federal agencies to be more nimble and accountable when it comes to responding to the evolving threat.

MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef. She covers domestic extremism. Thank you so much, Odette.

YOUSEF: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.