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Domestic terrorism cases doubled in the past year. It could threaten midterms

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, two news items spread over the weekend. One, federal agencies warned of possible political violence at election time. And police arrested a man who entered the house of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband. Paul Pelosi was hospitalized. Michael Jensen joins us next. He leads a team on domestic radicalization for the University of Maryland's National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

Good morning.

MICHAEL JENSEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to keep this in perspective. Political violence happens. Disturbed individuals lash out. How much worse is the threat, though, than normal?

JENSEN: Yeah. We've in recent years witnessed a tremendous increase in the amount of extremism and extremism-motivated crime in the United States. So just last week, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a joint report in which the FBI noted that they did more than double the number of domestic terrorism investigations in 2021 than they did in 2020. In 2020, less than 200 individuals were arrested for domestic terrorism crimes. And in 2021, it was more than 800.

A lot of that is due to the January 6 investigation, which remains the largest domestic terrorism investigation in U.S. history. But even outside sources, like the one that we maintain at University of Maryland, has shown that in recent years, we're looking at, on average, about a 200% increase in the number of individuals being arrested for extremist crimes.

INSKEEP: You mentioned January 6. Are these mainly people who sincerely believe the lies they've been told about the election and Donald Trump's defeat in that election?

JENSEN: Some - others have known links to extremist organizations. So, of course, there's the high-profile cases of Stewart Rhodes and Enrique Tarrio, the leaders of the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys. But our research has shown that more than 300 of the defendants that are being tried in the January 6 investigation have links to known extremist organizations. So that's over, you know, a third of the individuals. That's an incredibly large number. Those individuals are motivated by more than just election denialism or the belief that the election was stolen. They have broader political goals, you know, evolving from anti-immigration, the protection of the Second Amendment or anti-authority, antigovernment views.

INSKEEP: Oh, now, this is very interesting because we know the facts here. We know that dozens of courts upheld the election results. We know that thousands of election officials from both political parties upheld the election results. But you're telling me that there are some individuals who have a specific other agenda, other political interest to push this narrative that Trump was somehow robbed?

JENSEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what we see is a real mixing of ideologies here. So it's not just election denialism or conspiracy theories around the election. That's being mixed in with antisemitic narratives. It's being mixed in with broader antigovernment goals around education policy, public health policy, immigration policy. These are groups that have been around long before January 6, and their goals predate the 2020 election. And so the election just mixes in with their broader set of goals.

INSKEEP: Where does David DePape fit into this? And I'll remind people, he is the individual has been arrested for entering the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, somehow attacking Paul Pelosi with a hammer. He was quoted saying, "where is Nancy?" He had zip ties, reportedly. And there were - a search of his internet history showed election denial and various other things. Where does he fit into what you're saying?

JENSEN: Well, what we know from his posting behavior is that he really, you know, symbolizes this mix of ideological commitment. So we know that he was posting conspiracy theories about the election, about COVID-19, but that he was also posting antisemitic statements on the platform or white supremacist statements on various platforms. So he was really mixing these extreme ideologies that apparently motivated his behavior.

But I think the - you know, the more important thing to recognize about this individual is that this is happening within the context of a tremendous increase in threats being made against public officials and our elected representatives. So the FBI has been warning since the 2020 election that they are seeing more and more of these cases of individuals threatening not only the highest-ranking elected representatives of public officials, but very low-level ones - school board members, health board members, local representatives.

INSKEEP: Are low-level election officials properly protected, do you think, in the coming days?

JENSEN: No, they aren't. You have to imagine that the average school board member or the average, you know, local county election official isn't walking around with something like the Secret Service or Marshals Service protecting them. They don't have any protection at all. And so if an individual sets their sights on one of these targets, there's not a lot stopping them from accessing these individuals. These are public individuals that have to be public in order to do their job. So they are accessible targets, but they don't have the level of protection of somebody like the president or another high-ranking official.

INSKEEP: Michael Jensen, senior researcher into domestic terrorism at the University of Maryland.

Thanks so much.

JENSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.