The Need for a Federal Statute To Combat Domestic Terrorism

Civil Rights Policy Brief #180 | By: Rod Maggay | January 20, 2022

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Policy Summary

On January 11, 2022 Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has decided to create a new specialized domestic terrorism unit “to augment our existing approach” and “to ensure that these cases are properly handled and effectively coordinated” across the country. Previously, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Security Division (NSD) did not have a group or unit dedicated to only domestic terrorism cases.

The National Security Division of the Department of Justice is comprised of seven sections and offices. The Division has the Counterterrorism Section, Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, Foreign Investment Review Section and the Office of Intelligence. Additionally, it has the Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism, Law and Policy Office and an Executive Office. Previously, attorneys in the Counterterrorism Section handled both international and domestic terrorism cases with a majority of the cases being international terrorism cases. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

In June 2021, the Biden Administration released a national strategy paper titled National Strategy For Countering Domestic Terrorism. The paper proposed four pillars that contained strategy goals to combat the rise of domestic terrorism incidents in the United States. The pillars were [1] understanding and sharing domestic terror related information, [2] preventing domestic terrorism recruitment and mobilization, [3] disrupting and deterring domestic terror activity and [4] confronting long term contributors to domestic terrorism. The national strategy was well – received as a broad all – encompassing plan to combat domestic terror in the United States but the plan lacked some details on how domestic terror investigations and prosecutions would work.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee helped to fill in some of the details. In his testimony, he recounted how his division’s domestic terrorism investigative caseload had doubled since 2020, which were followed by violent and deadly attacks in El Paso, Texas, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Charleston, South Carolina in recent years. Because attorneys from the Counterterrorism Section were handling both international and domestic terror prosecutions the Section simply became overwhelmed when domestic terror incidents began to rise. The creation of this new unit to specialize in domestic terror incidents is intended to help lighten the load of current attorneys to focus on international terror incidents and allow the new unit to focus specifically on homegrown threats within the United States.


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However, there is one missing piece to the puzzle that stands in the way of allowing domestic terror prosecutions to go forward. Federal law does not have a specific statute that addresses domestic terrorism incidents. There are only laws against international terrorism incidents which would not be applicable in cases against domestic defendants. 

The FBI Agents Association has even come out in support of a separate domestic terrorism statute to be enacted. Previously, a “terrorism enhancement” charge was one way prosecutors were able to attach increased penalties to underlying crimes if it was connected to a domestic terror incident. This allowed prosecutors to seek more severe penalties instead of simply charging a domestic terror defendant with a simple trespass or assault. As an illustration, many charges levied against many of the defendants in the January 6th riot are not being charged with a “terrorism enhancement” charge. This will likely result in minor punishments based on only trespass and assault despite extreme politically based violent actions by many of the defendants. 


Greater punishments could be had against more of the defendants if only there was a federal domestic terrorism statute. While the unit created by Assistant Attorney General Olsen is exactly what is needed to counter the increase in domestic terror incidents, a federal statute is the one thing that would help the new unit effectively and efficiently address these homegrown dangers. LEARN MORELEARN MORELEARN MORE

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact

Engagement Resources​

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White House – Fact Sheet – info sheet on President Biden’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.

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Department of Homeland Security – Fact Sheet – infopage on DHS actions to combat domestic violent extremism.

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