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Ex-DHS chief Napolitano: Violent domestic extremism is the ‘most serious’ threat to U.S. security

By: - July 13, 2022 4:08 pm

A person holds a banner referring to the Qanon conspiracy theory stands next to a man wearing a patch for the Three Percenters, an antigovernment militia group, during a far-right rally on Aug. 17, 2019 in Portland, Ore. Photo by Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that domestic violent extremism driven by political violence is the “most serious homeland security challenge we are facing today.”

“The issue of violent domestic extremism has grown and metastasized,” Napolitano, who was Arizona governor before leading DHS in the Obama administration, said during a panel discussion hosted by Protect Democracy, a non-profit that aims to “sound the alarm” on issues of authoritarianism. 


Napolitano and other speakers talked broadly about the growing issue of domestic extremist groups in the United States that have seen a boom to membership, even as the number of groups diminish. 

In Arizona, directly following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat, researchers found that the state saw a major increase in the number of people seeking out militias and conspiracy theories such as QAnon

Napolitano stressed Wednesday the role that social media plays in the radicalization of many people, citing testimony that Stephen Ayres gave the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection Tuesday. Ayres said once he got off social media, he was able to see through the baseless election fraud claims being spread by Donald Trump and others — claims that motivated him to storm the Capitol to block the peaceful transfer of power. 

“He has only now taken the blinders off to see that he was fed a trough of misinformation and disinformation,” Napolitano said. 

Rachel Brown, the executive director of Over Zero, a group aimed at preventing identity-based violence, said that an increase in inflammatory rhetoric and politicians mainstreaming both the rhetoric and the groups spreading it has helped contribute to the rise in political violence and domestic extremism. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Year in Hate report detailed how white nationalism had entered mainstream discourse in 2021. Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers and Congressman Paul Gosar both helped contribute to mainstreaming the ideals and key players in the white nationalism stage, according to the report

“The legal framework is very rigid and the bar is very high to even open an investigation,” Javed Ali, a former FBI senior counterterrorism intelligence officer and a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, said about investigating extremism, adding that a person can’t be investigated solely because of their extreme ideology. 

“There are people who are very deliberately getting right up to that line and knowing where they can’t cross it,” Ali said. “I think the FBI is having a challenge on domestic terrorism.” 

According to the University of Arkansas’ Terrorism Research Center, less than half of all racially motivated homicides result in hate crime charges. Approximately 40% of all homicides targeting a victim because of their race, ethnicity or immigrant status resulted in a hate crime charge and only 44% of all homicides targeting Black victims resulted in a hate crime charge, according to the research. 

In Arizona, extremist thought is continuing to be pervasive, according to researchers. 

Tech startup Moonshot CVE partnered with the Anti-Defamation League to research white supremacist search trends in the United States and found that Arizona ranked No. 3 in highest per capita searches and number one when it came to antisemitic search terms. 

Arizona far exceeded the national average in its searches for antisemitic terminology, websites and messages, according to the research. 

“There is a lot more to be done,” Brown said about the work to curb the tide of extremism nationally. 

Both Ali and Napolitano said that people who are aware of someone who may pose a threat or making threats to “see something, say something,” harkening back to the post 9/11 anti-terrorism days. 

“I know that makes people uncomfortable to a degree,” Ali said.


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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.