The Department of Homeland Security is considering monitoring the travel of domestic extremists and expanding its use of the No Fly List, law enforcement sources told POLITICO.
The discussions are part of the Biden administration’s strategy of treating domestic terror as a national security threat, and not just a law enforcement problem. They’re also part of broader conversations in government about how to use tools developed for the Global War on Terror to combat domestic extremism. And, if past is prologue, the approach could prove politically contentious.
The department could begin analyzing the travel patterns of suspected domestic extremists, monitor flights they book on short notice and search their luggage for weapons, a senior law enforcement official told POLITICO. There have also been discussions about putting suspected domestic violent extremists — a category that includes white supremacists — on the FBI’s No Fly List, the official said. When suspected extremists travel internationally, officials may be more likely to question them before they pass through customs and to search their phones and laptops.
A second law enforcement official told POLITICO that conversations about monitoring domestic extremists’ travel have involved multiple federal agencies at the interagency level, including the FBI.
“Domestic violent extremism poses the most lethal, persistent terrorism-related threat to our homeland today," a DHS spokesperson said in response to a request for comment. "DHS is committed to improving security and is reviewing options for enhancing screening and vetting protocols and travel pattern analyses, consistent with privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.”
The FBI declined to comment.
Officials at DHS are interested in international travel connected to the kind of ideologically motivated terrorism that inspired the Capitol insurrection, the official added, and may increase this focus. An unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment released earlier this month highlighted the intelligence community’s interest in domestic extremists’ international travel.
Previous DHS efforts to combat domestic terror have generated volcanic political opposition. Early in the Obama administration, DHS intelligence analyst Daryl Johnson wrote a paper warning about the growing far right threat. Congressional Republicans were incensed, and Obama’s then-Homeland Security chief withdrew the report. That episode had a chilling effect at DHS, signaling that analysts scrutinized the threat at their own peril.
Top DHS leaders now want to reverse that dynamic. In his confirmation hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called domestic terror “one of the greatest threats that we face currently on our homeland.”
The discussions, which are not final, are part of DHS’s efforts to dramatically increase its work to prevent domestic terror. On January 7, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) — the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security — called on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the FBI to use the no-fly list to keep suspected perpetrators of the January 6 attack from boarding planes.
The week after January 6, a top FBI official said the Bureau was “actively looking at” adding the names of Capitol attackers to the No Fly List. And the week before Inauguration Day, the head of the TSA said the agency was working “to ensure those who may pose a threat to our aviation sector undergo enhanced screening or are prevented from boarding an aircraft.” His statement did not mention the No Fly List.
According to the officials who spoke to POLITICO, conversations about domestic extremism and the No Fly List aren’t just limited to people who attacked the Capitol on January 6.
The threat from domestic terrorists has grown in recent years, and — per the Center for Strategic and International Studies — white supremacists were responsible for two thirds of all terror plots and attacks in 2020. But the Trump White House largely downplayed the threat from white supremacists as the president instead tweeted ceaselessly about Antifa. The Trump national counterterrorism strategy — a 2018 document — only mentioned the threat in two brief paragraphs. And DHS officials who tried to combat the problem under Trump told POLITICO last year that a barrage of crises within the administration hampered their ability to get much done.
Elizabeth Neumann, who worked on domestic terror prevention at DHS under Trump, previously told POLITICO that National Security Council staff tried to work on the issue in an organized way — but without much progress.
“[W]hen you have chaos all around you, it’s really hard to do process stuff,” she said.
Instead, the Trump administration stressed its concerns about far-left agitators. Trump tweeted that he planned to designate Antifa as a terrorist group — a move that would have been legally impossible. And a state law enforcement official told POLITICO in the final months of the Trump administration that DHS intelligence products overemphasized the threat from the left while under-emphasizing the threat from the right.
On January 6, far right domestic extremists ransacked the Capitol Building — a catastrophe that better intelligence could have prevented.
Federal law enforcement officials are now trying to figure out how to prevent future attacks, and discussing how to scrutinize domestic extremists’ travel in a more organized and deliberate way. DHS was founded in the wake of 9/11 as part of efforts to prevent future terror attacks. Its components — including the TSA and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — specialize in aviation security and already have broad access to Americans’ travel information.
One challenge that DHS and FBI officials are weighing is how to distinguish between people traveling to exercise their Constitutional rights — by attending a protest, for instance — and those traveling to commit crimes. Those same challenges materialized in the efforts by national security officials to prevent foreign terrorism.
Some of those efforts are deeply controversial. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil rights groups have long lambasted the feds’ use of the secretive No Fly List. Americans on the list don’t have the right to know why exactly they’re on it, and it can be difficult or impossible to get removed once they’re there. The ACLU has called it “an indefinite Kafkaesque nightmare.”
Groups advocating for American Muslims have participated in multiple lawsuits to remove people’s names from the list. They scored an incremental win related to travel restrictions at the Supreme Court last December. The justices voted unanimously to let three Muslim men sue FBI agents who promised to help get them off the No Fly List if they aided Bureau surveillance of other Muslims. That case, Tanzin v. Tanvir, is ongoing.
Federal efforts to stop terrorists from traveling have even ensnared lawmakers. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy famously said he was stopped and interrogated multiple times at airports, and the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis said he was held up more than 35 times in one year, per CNN.
Details of the FBI list are scant. In 2016, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said fewer than 1,000 U.S. persons are on it. If the DHS and FBI talks reach fruition, that number could grow.