Brent Stirton/Getty Images
A protester inside the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

Bringing Counterterrorism Back Home

Intelligence community influencers like Bruce Hoffman want to scare American Jews into thinking that 75 million Trump voters are domestic terrorists who are targeting you

by
Lee Smith
November 11, 2021
Brent Stirton/Getty Images
A protester inside the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021Brent Stirton/Getty Images

The FBI is watching right-wing extremism very closely, says counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman. “January 6 was a wake-up call,” he told an audience of Jewish academics, writers, community leaders, and others during a recent Zoom call that I sat in on, hosted by Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. “It should add to your unease.”

As director of Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization who also taught at the International Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Hoffman’s message to worried American Jews is that they’re not scared enough. What Hoffman is trying to do is to scare American Jews into believing that Trump supporters—meaning roughly 75 million Americans, or half of the electorate—are domestic terrorists and violent white supremacists. Worst of all, according to Hoffman, is that there’s not much to be done to stop them. He recommended a service that will scrub your information from the internet. Otherwise, if the red-baseball-cap-wearing hordes come for you, you’re on your own.

Antisemitic extremists are real, and they live on both the left and the right. It was a white supremacist who killed 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. Indeed, white supremacism and right-wing antisemitism, from the Ku Klux Klan to Charles Lindbergh, are deeply embedded in American history, even if by now we’d hoped to transcend them. But are they more dangerous today than ever before in American history? It may seem so, but only if you are ignorant of that history—or pursuing an agenda that threatens to endanger American Jews, rather than protect them from harm.

So why is a man who has researched terrorism for more than four decades and worked at the higher levels of the American national security apparatus telling the Jewish community that they are helpless against millions of their own fellow citizens, who should now in fact be considered their enemies? Because Hoffman is messaging on behalf of a shameful and deeply un-American push by the Biden administration to criminalize the regime’s political opponents—an initiative in which Jews are being positioned as, and told they are hopeless to avoid being, targets.

In 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing brought new attention to white power movements in America. Terrorism experts, law enforcement officials, and journalists dug deep into their totems and catchphrases like “ZOG” (Zionist-occupied government), and their paranoid worldviews, like the conviction that black helicopters are circling the skies waiting for orders from the United Nations to invade. Academics focused on white power texts like The Turner Diaries, a favorite book of Timothy McVeigh’s. The 1978 novel tells of a struggle between a mixed-race, Jewish-dominated establishment and a white supremacist resistance movement that culminates in “the Day of the Rope” when members of Congress and others are executed for betraying the white race.

The cultural milieu that arose in response to the Oklahoma City terror attack produced one very good film, American History X, and tons of garbage takes that vied instead to cash in on liberal contempt for and fear of middle America. Journalists competed with each other for the chance to cover the white nationalism beat, on which they could churn out formulaic dispatches from the depths of white America, featuring rural decay, trucks, guns, and an encyclopedia’s worth of runic tattoos. The subject has remained popular in part because it is inherently appealing to liberals—narrow white nationalism themes serve to legitimize class snobbery and contempt for the broader underclasses, with the luster of glossy Hollywood-style villainy.

But there’s no evidence from the past 25 years to show that white nationalism has become a mass movement, never mind a force controlling one of the country’s two major political parties. When a prominent researcher of far-right terror tells the press that Jan. 6 was The Turner Diaries come to life, all it means is that academic reference points haven’t changed much over the last quarter-century, during which white nationalism has only become a movement even further out on the fringe.

Bruce Hoffman speaks at the Bipartisan Policy Center offices in Washington, D.C., 2013

Bruce Hoffman speaks at the Bipartisan Policy Center offices in Washington, D.C., 2013Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The elevation of “domestic terror” to America’s No. 1 national security concern has less to do with social reality on the margins than it does with bureaucrats and experts at the center of American power. The latter are looking for a new enemy to justify the counterterrorism budgets that are endangered by the American drawdown from the Middle East, and their professional exigencies correspond with the Biden White House’s political program.

Hoffman told his Zoom audience about the Atomwaffen Division, defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “terroristic neo-Nazi organization.” I can find no evidence that Atomwaffen or any other neo-Nazi group was involved in the Capitol Hill riots on Jan. 6. After the Zoom meeting, I wrote Hoffman’s office to ask if they had found evidence I had missed. Neither he nor his office responded to questions from Tablet.

Hoffman noted that far-right ideologues preach “accelerationism,” a doctrine that urges its adherents to encourage and foment chaos to hasten the inevitable collapse of the existing system. But in less than a year, the political party that runs the system has pushed middle-class America to the brink of despair, with rising gas and food prices, ballooning inflation, open borders, a supply chain crisis, and experimental medical treatment mandates that have hollowed out heath care facilities and fire and police departments, and may impair the combat readiness of the U.S. armed forces.

Hoffman’s attempt to blame Trump supporters for the mess created by the country’s ruling class is an aspect of an information operation designed to deflect blame for elite decision-making onto a domestic opponent that does in fact seek to remove them from power by legal means: through the vote. And that’s partly what the effort to paint Trump supporters as domestic terrorists is about—to delegitimize the legitimate opposition in the in lead-up to the 2022 midterms.

“Domestic terror” is the establishment’s campaign platform. Sure, gas is almost $5 a gallon, heating oil prices are worse than in the 1970s, and grandma may need a fourth booster shot of a vaccine whose protective properties seem a lot less important to policymakers than the money that pharmaceutical companies—now the single biggest lobbying group in Washington—are receiving from the federal government. But what will your neighbors think if you vote for domestic terrorists? And why should domestic terrorists be permitted to incite domestic terror among their domestic terrorist base by advertising or posting on Facebook?

As with every information operation that political operatives, intelligence officials, and the media have run the last several years, the goal is not simply to smear opponents, but also to obtain from the federal government political and legal instruments to wield against them. The hysterical media coverage of Jan. 6 first gave rise to a congressional committee designed to target Jan. 6 protesters, and GOP officials, as domestic terrorists. The next step, it seems, is anti-domestic terror legislation.

Hoffman has explained in interviews since Jan. 6 why he backs domestic terror statutes: “It would require the federal government to gather data and statistical information on terrorist incidents in the United States,” he said in April. In other words, it would create work for contractors, consultants, and analysts who research terror-related issues, like … Bruce Hoffman.

Further, in an appeal to the progressive left, Hoffman contends that domestic terror laws would make America more just because they would “bring greater equity to sentencing.” What he means is that Muslim supporters of designated foreign terror groups already get long prison terms—so white people involved in “domestic terror,” however that’s defined, should also get long prison terms.

The reason there is no federal statute on the books for domestic terrorism is glaringly obvious: A politicized justice system would use it to attack its political adversaries, as the Biden administration is currently doing by defining the Jan. 6 riots as an “insurrection.” Insurrection sounds serious, it’s in the Constitution, so it’s used to frame Trump supporters, even though no one has been charged with it. The push behind a domestic terror statute is to turn the deplorables into untouchables.

Bruce Hoffman’s role in all this is to keep the Jewish community in line behind the party and Biden, who the majority of American Jews voted for in 2020. And they can help sell the operation, too, for few can speak more poignantly about the age-old dangers of white power violence than the Jews.

The terrible irony of course is that Hoffman is seeking to align the American Jewish community with spy services that are using a conspiracy theory to persecute their enemies on behalf of a ruling party increasingly comfortable with using state power and censorship to enforce its will. This runs counter to the country’s central principle—that citizens have rights that must be protected against the majority and the powerful. By desecrating civil rights, this new dispensation does not seem likely to create a polity in which Jews themselves would avoid persecution for very long.

The push behind a domestic terror statute is to turn the deplorables into untouchables.

Hoffman is an intelligence community influencer, awarded by the CIA with its highest commendation for a nongovernment employee. His role in public debate is to vouch for the integrity, decency, and competence of America’s spies. For instance, in a book published months before the Sept. 11 attacks, he wrote:

It is patently clear that the U.S. intelligence community has scored a string of impressive successes over the past couple of years that proves the value and importance of this singularly vital asset in the struggle against terrorism. Proof of this may be found in the fact that Osama bin Laden and his minions have been consistently stymied for the past 26 months.

Looking back, that’s not the kind of pre-9/11 assessment a terrorism expert wants hanging around his neck or on his terrorism expert badge. But it flattered the CIA, which made him counterterrorism scholar-in-residence from 2004-06; for part of that stint he was based in Iraq.

The message the spy services want disseminated now is that the United States needs to devote the same resources to fighting domestic terror that were expended both at home and abroad during the “global war on terror.” After all, said Hoffman, the Jan. 6 protesters “achieved what Osama bin Laden failed to on September 11, 2001: a successful assault on the cherished and sacred citadel of U.S. democracy.” Or as the publicity campaign to pass domestic terror laws puts it: 1/6 is the new 9/11.

Maybe it was inevitable that the counterterrorism apparatus designed to stop foreign terrorists after 9/11 would be turned against Americans. Only a few years after terrorists brought down the towers, the George W. Bush administration unleashed the country’s massive surveillance power on U.S. citizens in ways that old school civil libertarians—a breed that still existed 20 years ago in American law schools and in publications like The New York Review of Books—found alarming. President Barack Obama made a habit of using American spy services against his domestic political opponents, from U.S. legislators critical of the Iran nuclear deal to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The obvious next step was to use government power to target the supporters of their political opponents en masse.

The global war on terror has produced such poisoned fruit because the purpose of America’s 20-year-long counterterrorism mission ceased long ago to have much to do with protecting American citizens from terrorism. Rather, it provided legal, legislative, and media cover for bureaucrats and contractors to steal from U.S. taxpayers.

No one should be surprised that, given the culture of Washington, the people who were supposed to protect Americans from terror attacks profited from their failure to do so. Robert Mueller was named FBI director a week before 9/11 and proceeded to turn what was a crime-fighting agency into a key part of the intelligence community. That enhanced its prestige on Capitol Hill, which in turn augmented its budgets. But the FBI showed that it was incapable of catching genuine terrorists when it framed innocent American Muslims for terror plots. Many of them were emotionally troubled young men who were easy prey for FBI agents and informants to manipulate and then charge with crimes hatched by the FBI itself.

When real terror attacks did occur—from Fort Hood and San Bernardino to Boston and Orlando—law enforcement officials and counterterrorism experts invented terms to justify their failures. It was hard not to notice that the vocabulary used to describe terrorists who struck American cities, towns, and military bases—like “lone-wolf” and “self-radicalized”—conveniently supported the idea that U.S. counterterrorism officials couldn’t possibly discern who among the population was plotting terrorist acts, unless the FBI and other agencies were granted even more power to spy on everyone.

The largest counterterrorism component, however, was external, as the U.S. military and various agencies went abroad to take on Islamist terror and thereby force extremists to fight far from U.S. borders. At times, it seemed that Americans were fighting terror everywhere. Between 2018-20, in fact, the United States conducted counterterrorism activities in 85 countries.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also became counterterrorism missions. The national army that American taxpayers funded in Afghanistan was not designed to protect the country’s sovereignty from neighboring states, but to take down U.S.-designated terror groups, foremost among them the Taliban. In Iraq, America’s counterterrorism mission eventually dovetailed with Obama’s regional strategy to realign U.S. interests with Iran’s. The result was that U.S. troops and spy services joined forces with Iranian-backed terror groups to target any Sunnis that pro-Iran Iraqi officials said were terrorists.

It was bad enough that foreign counterterrorism operations put America in the middle of a sectarian war on the side of Iran, the world’s largest exporter of terrorism. It also further endangered U.S. citizens at home. After all, if you’re fighting terror abroad to prevent attacks on America, it’s only logical to close U.S. borders to foreign nationals from state sponsors of terror and terror battlegrounds. Yet when Trump wanted to implement a travel ban on citizens of countries that were leading exporters of terrorism, the chorus shouting him down was led by none other than U.S. counterterrorism officials. The Pentagon complained, for instance, that withholding visas from Iraqis would anger Iraqi officials and thereby limit the ability of U.S. soldiers and spies to conduct counterterrorism missions in Iraq. In other words, the priority was not to protect Americans from terror but to keep the global gravy train rolling.

The recent airlift that imported potential terror threats from Afghanistan to the United States, to the applause of U.S. military and intelligence officers, was a clear signal that America’s wars in the Middle East are winding down. That leaves lots of people inside the Beltway wondering how they’re going to sustain the standard of living that counterterrorism provided them and their families for the past 20 years.

Reorienting the counterterrorism industry from foreign to domestic terrorists solves that problem. The Biden administration officially signaled there was work for counterterrorism experts with the June publication of the White House’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.”

Comparing 75 million Americans to dedicated cells of Islamist murderers is grotesque on its face. Hoffman suggested to the Zoom audience that Jan. 6 looked like Baghdad when he was there in 2004-05—during the deadliest years of the Iraqi insurgency, when tens of thousands of people were killed, including U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians as well as terrorists. But during the often-riotous Jan. 6 march, only one person was killed—an unarmed Trump supporter and 36-year-old Air Force veteran named Ashli Babbitt. She was shot by U.S. Capitol Police Officer Michael Byrd, who admitted on television that he pulled the trigger not knowing whether she held a weapon.

As with the phony cases that the FBI built against young American Muslims, there is mounting evidence that some of the chaos and violence that marked the Jan. 6 protest was staged by U.S. spy services. At one point during the Zoom call, Hoffman mentioned Stewart Rhodes, leader of the Oath Keepers, one of the militia groups that participated in the Capitol Hill protest. What Hoffman omitted is that while Oath Keepers members have subsequently been charged for various offenses, Rhodes conspicuously has not. As Darren Beattie has reported in his extensive investigations of the Jan. 6 protests, Rhodes directed the activities of Oath Keepers members. Ten months after what Biden called the greatest attack on American democracy since the Civil War, “insurrection” ringleader Stewart Rhodes is still free, while many of his compatriots rot in jail. Why? Beattie’s reporting goes so far as to suggest that the FBI might be protecting him and others because they’re federal informants. Even The New York Times has acknowledged that FBI informants seeded in militia groups were present at the Jan. 6 protest and in contact with their handlers.

Dozens of protesters are still being held in a Washington, D.C., jail and denied bail with their court dates repeatedly postponed, in order to give prosecutors more time to find the crimes they intend to accuse them of committing. Consider the government’s cruel and unusual treatment of 50-year-old Christopher Worrell, a stage 3 cancer patient who attended the Jan. 6 rally. In March, the FBI staged a dramatic raid of his Florida home, after he had been cooperating with authorities for two months. He was charged with a nonviolent crime, denied ball, and detained in a D.C. correctional facility, where his hand was broken in May. A federal judge ordered him released last week when he found out that the jail officials had failed to arrange treatment for his cancer or for his hand. DOJ prosecutors fought to keep Worrell in jail.

Given the nature of the narrative categorizing Trump supporters as white supremacist domestic terrorists, it’s understandable that most American Jews might be inclined to side with law enforcement officials who promise to protect their communities, schools, synagogues, and children from harm. But this community is also being used. Intelligence community influencers and activist groups working to convince American Jews to participate in a campaign of state censorship and repression are serving only their bureaucratic masters in Washington. Signing up for a role in the Biden administration’s attempt to silence, criminalize, and persecute half of the country might not make sense for a community with plenty of actual threats to worry about.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.