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UNO center helps develop Biden administration's strategy to combat domestic terrorism
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UNO center helps develop Biden administration's strategy to combat domestic terrorism

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White nationalists pose the greatest threat, says the Justice Department which may recommend passage of ‘domestic terror’ law.

The Biden administration has announced a strategy to combat the threat of domestic terrorism, a plan developed with the help of a new counterterrorism program headquartered at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The new strategy, released Tuesday, comes more than five months after a mob of insurgents loyal to then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was voting to certify Joe Biden’s presidential win.

“Domestic terrorism — driven by hate, bigotry and other forms of extremism — is a stain on the soul of America,” Biden said in a statement. “It goes against everything our country strives for, and it poses a direct challenge to our national security, democracy and unity.”

The announcement underscores a Justice Department decision to make combating domestic terrorism a top priority. The department’s proposed 2022 budget includes $100 million to be used for analysts, investigators and prosecutors related to domestic terrorism.

Gina Ligon headshot

Gina Ligon, director of UNO’s National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education

Academics from UNO’s year-old National Counterterrorism Innovation Technology and Education Center joined in the working groups that drew up the strategy, said Gina Ligon, the center’s director. The center was established at UNO last year with a $36.5 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security. It includes more than 50 academics at universities across the country.

“This is the very first strategy that any presidential administration has had on domestic terrorism,” Ligon said.

It builds on four “pillars” or core elements:

* Improved analysis and information sharing by government agencies involving intelligence on domestic terror threats.

* Preventing recruitment and mobilization to violence by domestic terror groups.

* Disrupting and deterring domestic terrorism activity, including from “insider” threats.

* Confronting long-term contributors to domestic terrorism, such as racism and bigotry.

The strategy lays out broad goals that will be filled in with specific policies and structures in the months ahead, Ligon said.

“(The strategy) is not just words. Its existence will free up resources,” she said. The key to the strategy is that it is focused not on a specific political ideology, Ligon said, but rather on a propensity for violence.

After years of focus on recruitment by Islamist terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has brought renewed focus on the domestic terror threat.

A recent report from the Director of National Intelligence identified white supremacist groups and anti-government militias as posing the highest risk among domestic terrorist groups.

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Actually, he said, it has deep roots in American society.

Many people remember the April 19, 1995, bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, perpetrated by two anti-government extremists.

But, Simi said, not everyone recalls the wave of terror that followed: the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, and the bombings of two abortion clinics.

And Eric Harris, the mastermind of the 1999 Columbine High School killing spree, was influenced by extremist ideology.

“We experienced a massive wave of terrorism that wasn’t always recognized,” Simi said.

Ligon and Simi said the strategy recognizes the difference between espousing extremist ideas, which is broadly permitted under the First Amendment, and extremist violence, which is not.

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The key, he added, is to prevent people with extremist ideas from turning to violent acts.

“The strategy does emphasize prevention,” Simi said.

The best people to do that are friends and family, who he said are typically in a position to notice behavior in people who may be turning toward violence.

Ligon said NCITE expects to expand training for community groups in spotting and defusing extremism before it turns violent.

“There’s going to be a lot more training at the local level,” she said.

“This puts a pinpoint on what we should focus on.”

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This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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