President Donald Tump’s May 31 Tweeted intention to designate “Antifa” as a terrorist organization is neither “crazy” nor “unconstitutional,” as many corporate media outlets accuse.
The Trump administration’s foreshadowing signal of intent did not come with quite enough information to support snap politically motivated judgements like these. Based on what we know so far, though, it seems likely that Trump is considering a Foreign Terrorist Designation for Antifa-affiliated cells and groups. Rather than “crazy” or illegal, this idea might make for a prudent homeland security choice.
I say this knowing there are two ways to designate terrorist organizations, one for domestic groups and another for foreign terrorist groups. Most people don’t know this, but the Obama administration – in early 2016 – already used the domestic terrorism designation process on Antifa and its “anarchist extremist” adherents. That’s why it is reasonable to deduce that Trump is considering the other much more punitive one, the Foreign Terrorist Designation used for ISIS and Al Qaeda.
If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is, short of more information from the White House. So bear with me a bit as I explain how to think about Trump’s small hint of future intention.
Two Separate and Unequal Terrorism Designation Systems to Understand
The United States currently uses two very different, often conflated, designation systems – one for domestic terrorist groups like Black Hebrew Israelites and another for international terrorist groups like ISIS. Each provides for very different treatments of the groups designated under them. I’ll start with the one that hardly anyone knows about, for domestic groups like those that self-identify with the Antifa ideology of violent anarchism, communism, and anti-establishmentarianism.
That designation process is derived from Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act, which gave homeland security agencies and the FBI a definition of “domestic terrorism” centered on the idea that their illegal activities may result in death and occur entirely inside the United States, entirely absent of foreign influence. This absence of foreign influence becomes important later. Stay with me.
All this designation does is allow DHS and the FBI to internally designate domestic groups and movements, as a kind of legal cover, so that the agencies can prioritize them for intelligence collection and investigation within the lanes of civil rights and civil liberties protections provided for regular political groups. In short, this kind of non-public designation allows the FBI and DHS to surveil certain groups and movement types that reach a higher threshold of probability that their illegal activities might result in death inside the U.S.
According to exclusive 2017 reporting by Politico’s Josh Meyer, the Obama administration designated Antifa-motivated “anarchist extremist” groups under this system. It appears to have happened in the Spring of 2016, when small Antifa-groups began conducting violent anti-Trump riots across the country and homeland security authorities feared they might attack that year’s political convention, based on Meyer’s review of internal DHS intelligence assessments and interviews with state and federal intelligence officials. The Politico reporter reviewed one 2016 joint FBI-DHS intelligence assessment blamed anarchist extremist groups like Redneck Revolt, the Red Guards and By Any Means Necessary as “primary instigators of violence at public rallies” against police, government, and political institutions.
“A whole bunch of them have been deemed dangerous enough to be placed on U.S. terrorism watch lists,” one government official was quoted saying.
The domestic terror designation appears to have been a prescient decision for the Obama administration because self-described Antifa groups like these and others unnamed attacked across the nation with gusto for many months after the election too, continuing episodically to the present day.
In fact, observers today should expect FBI arrests of Antifa anarchist extremists based on intelligence collected over the last few years, thanks to Obama’s 2016 domestic terrorist designation, after all this latest convulsion is over.
Antifa acolyte Connor Betts, 24, killed nine people and wounded 27 more in a firearms attack on a crowded street in Dayton, Ohio. His social media showed he was intensely affiliated with Antifa ideology, once advocating “Kill every fascist” in a Tweet on the anniversary of the violent Charlottesville clashes and following prominent Antifa activist social media accounts.
Also in 2019, Seattle police had to kill another Antifa ideology adherent, Willem Van Spronsen, after he attacked an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, carrying an AR-15-style rifle. He set fire to a building owned by the detention center, then placed flares strategically — including underneath a 500-gallon propane tank — ignited his own car so it would explode, and threw molotov cocktails at nearby buildings.
Of course, we don’t know yet if Trump was aware that his predecessor had already designated Antifa anarchist extremist groups as domestic terrorists warranting surveillance and intelligence collection activity. But it’s a safe bet he probably does and is, instead, contemplating a Foreign Terrorist Designation like those reserved for Al Qaeda and ISIS.
The FTO designation would allow for a truly mighty crackdown on organized Antifa-motivated groups even though a legal hill must be climbed. That hill, though, may not be very steep.
Designating Antifa ‘Anarchist Extremist’ groups as Foreign Terrorist Organizations
This more commonly known international terrorist designation system requires a six-step designation process through the U.S. State Department that must determine that a U.S.-based group or person are primarily influenced by foreign groups or individuals. Designation under this system opens a big toolkit of surveillance, investigative action, and punishments not available in the other system I described for domestic groups designated under the USA Patriot Act.
But Myer’s 2017 report in Politico revealed that the FBI and homeland security back then strongly suspected Antifa groups were internationalizing.
By the spring of 2016, the groups had become so aggressive, including armed attacks, that federal officials launched a “global investigation” with the help of the U.S. intelligence community, Meyers reported.
Its purpose was to determine whether U.S.-based anarchists might start committing terrorist bombings like their counterparts in foreign groups in Greece, Italy and Mexico, with help and direction from Antifa groups abroad. Some of the Antifa activists have even gone overseas to train and fight with fellow anarchists from various foreign countries, including two Turkey-based groups fighting the Islamic State, the Politico report stated.
The result of this 2017 global investigation of foreign Antifa group connections is unclear. I spoke to Meyers this week and asked if he knew what might have become of the “global investigation.” He said he never heard.
More information beyond a presidential Tweet is, of course, necessary for a proper assessment of where the Trump administration might be going with this.
But his signal about designating U.S.-based domestic terrorist groups as foreign ones is not only sane and potentially doable but comes with very recent precedent about which no one on the political left complained or even acknowledged. In April, the administration successfully designated Russian white supremacists called The Base as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The group maintains dangerous right-wing cells inside the United States, all connected and internationalized.
If Trump’s administration is going down this route, that would make for good homeland security.
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