GARFIELD, NJ - Domestic terrorism is on the rise in the United States, and according to a roundtable discussion hosted by Representative  Bill Pascrell (D-NJ-9), right wing extremist groups, and their sympathizers, pose a serious threat to the public, as well a formidable challenge to local law enforcement.

During his time in office Pascrell has repeatedly condemned terror attempts against minority groups and called for increased awareness of domestic terror groups, becoming one of the leading spokespeople in regard to the threat white supremacists and other domestic terror groups present.

On Tuesday, Pascrell, along with Governor Phil Murphy and former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, held a roundtable discussion before a standing room only crowd at the VFW hall in Garfield that included members of law enforcement, elected officials, and religious leaders, in an effort  to educate the public about the problem, win their support for possible solutions, and help them identify potential threats before they erupt into violence.

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“Let’s not mince words: Right-wing domestic extremism is on the rise and needs more attention,” said Pascrell, an original  member of the House Homeland Security Committee. “It is a primary threat to our every-day security and all levels of government must be united to defeat it.’

Experts, including those from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, usually divide terrorists into two broad categories, those that originate overseas, and those that are homegrown.

Johnson said that while the United States had done a remarkable job in degrading threats from overseas, domestic terrorism remains a huge challenge with most of the burden falling on the shoulders of local law enforcement.

“The military can’t deal with this,” he said. “This has to be handled by the community.”

FBI and other experts further subdivide domestic terrorists into four categories: Those affiliated with the extreme left, those affiliated with the extreme right, radicalized people associated with extremist religious groups, and others. 

FBI statistics show that while the nation has seen terroristic activity for generation, from anarchists in the early 1900s to radical revolutionaries in the 1960s and 1970s, domestic terrorism over the last few decades has been predominately carried out by people or groups aligned with an extreme right wing agenda.

But these agendas vary from person to person, some are anti-government, others anti-tax, while still others are bigots. But all appear to pose a potential danger to the public, according to the FBI.

In 2018, right wing extremists were blamed for 49 of the 50 murders associated with domestic terrorism. 

Anti-Semitic incidents during the same period rose by 57 percent, although these are attributed to radicals on both the right and the left.

Murphy said the profile for most right-wing terrorists is well recognizable, with those perpetrating the violence being generally male, loners, living at home with their parents, and often self-radicalized by seeking social media sites that support his twisted agenda.

During the last decade, experts say, radical groups from overseas have used social media to train and recruit inside the United States. This is also true for right wing extremist groups who recruit vulnerable people using the same techniques.

“They train people to do violence,” Pascrell said.

Murphy, however, said there is no easy solution to the problem. The police can’t be everywhere and so it takes a village to deal with these people, friends, and family must recognize the signs and report them before the person turns to violence.

“’See something, say something’ works,” Murphy said.

Although Pascrell blamed President Donald Trump for inspiring these “hate groups,” experts elsewhere paint a much more complex picture.

Trump, according to numerous media reports, does not consider domestic terrorists a problem and so has diverted resources to foreign threats instead.

This may be one of the reasons Trump failed to follow up on a 2009 report that indicated a rising threat-level among right wing extremist groups.

Pascrell said the 2009 report was a warning and should have been more aggressively pursued as it might have prevented the increased presence of white national groups. Ignoring the report was a huge mistake, Pascrell said.

The report was released to President Obama just after he took office but was not acted upon. Pascrell claims some Republicans and some right wing talk radio hosts intimidated the Obama Administration into failing to act.

One of the leading critics of the report was GOP Rep Michael Pompeo who currently serves as head of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Pompeo claimed the report was designed to divert attention away from foreign terrorist threats. 

The report was extremely controversial even among Democrats,  and drew criticism from the U.S. Attorney General and the head of Homeland Security because it, among other flaws, they said, often failed to distinguish between legal activities by right wing groups such as hosting rallies and distributing flyers, protected by the First Amendment, and more violent behavior.

The Obama Administration was also concerned about an overreaction similar to that which some say happened under the Clinton Administration that many say ultimately fed the paranoia of these groups’ individuals. The FBI at the time already reported an increase interest in extreme right-wing websites, and that these groups were using the election of the first African American president as a recruiting tool to attract closeted bigots to their cause. Several key Obama staff said the report posed serious civil liberty issues, especially in regard to freedom of speech.

Despite concerns at the time, those in the White House did not sit on their hands, but instead established programs to help support community efforts to recognize and help counter potential domestic terrorists. 

While Trump did eventually shut down one of the most effective of these programs his actions occurred only after community partners were seen to have abandoned it in response to the president’s travel ban on Muslim countries. Those involved, apparently,  believed that the Trump Administration would not work with them to deal with domestic terrorism issue.

All hope is not lost when it comes to the current situation, however, the speakers said on Tuesday. New Jersey, which Murphy called one of the most ethnically and racially diverse states in the nation, has numerous resources to help support local efforts.

Among the federal resources available is the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program which provides financial support for the security of community centers and places of worship for all religious groups. Pascrell, a supporter of that grant program, said that New Jersey has received about $8 million in federal funding to help these institutions to upgrade security.

The state also has a Department of Homeland Security which oversees possible threats. 

Johnson said, however, one of the big issues is the access to guns from unstable individuals.

“We must keep those guns out of their hands,” he said.

Murphy said “red flag” laws work. These allow the state to seize guns from individuals who are suspected of being a potential threat.

“There is an appeal process,” Murphy said. “But in the meantime, this could avert a possible situation.”

Pascrell, Murphy, and Johnson said the best defense against domestic terrorist is an alert public.

“We need to combat this,” Murphy said. “We can’t allow these groups to normalize this behavior. We must be vigilant and report potential threats.”