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As far-right rhetoric spikes, gauging what's an actual threat is difficult

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

An armed man was killed last week after trying to storm the FBI field office in Cincinnati. Federal prosecutors charged another man in Pennsylvania yesterday after he posted violent threats against FBI agents online. And U.S. authorities are now warning of an increase in threats to federal law enforcement after last week's court-authorized search of former President Trump's Florida home. But assessing which threats are credible and being able to respond to them is challenging. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins us now. Hi, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Odette, what can you tell us about the level and volume of threats that we are seeing right now?

YOUSEF: Well, we're seeing lots of calls to violence, particularly on alt-tech social platforms like Gab, Truth Social and Telegram. You know, the volume this time isn't at the level it was in the lead up to January 6, but some are saying that it feels similar. You know, we've seen these calls for civil war before, but now people are saying it's here and it's time to act. I think what's notable now, Juana, is the specificity of the targets. You know, people are calling out the FBI, the FBI agents involved in the search by name and even their family members.

And it's worth noting that there is a history of anti-government movements and mistrust of the FBI among certain extremist pockets in the U.S. But the degree to which these views have now been taken up by a much larger portion of Americans is what's causing concern. So it's not, you know, domestic extremists in the way that we've thought about them before. It's more like what we saw last week in Cincinnati, you know, someone who seemingly self-radicalized and who appears to have acted on his own.

SUMMERS: OK. So where then does that leave law enforcement in assessing what is a threat and what is not?

YOUSEF: So this is where things are tricky. First, it's just impossible to continually track the huge volume of posts across platforms. But there are also some other factors that make this particular domestic threat difficult to stop. One of them is that law enforcement today pretty much has to act instantaneously on a tip in order to stop a suspected attack from happening. Here's Donell Harvin from the RAND Corporation. He's the former chief of homeland security and intelligence for Washington, D.C.

DONELL HARVIN: There is often a brief period of time between radicalization and mobilization of violence that law enforcement has an opportunity to interdict that individual. And that brief moment is such a small window. We've seen where people go from radicalization to mobilization of violence very, very quickly.

YOUSEF: And Harvin points to last week's attempt in Cincinnati, where there was only a day or two between the individual's suspected online posts that indicated he was preparing for violence and when he actually attempted the attack. And that's really not much, given the legal requirements for law enforcement to get involved.

SUMMERS: And what are those legal requirements? Can you say a little bit more about that?

YOUSEF: Yes. This is probably the biggest hurdle that we're seeing in the countering-extremism world today, Juana. You know, for context, you have to remember that much of that infrastructure was built in response to 9/11, where the idea was to interdict plots by foreign entities or people who are influenced by them. You know, today attention is on the heightened threat from domestic extremists. And you just can't use those same tools because Americans enjoy certain free speech and due process rights under the Constitution. So what that means is that in order to initiate surveillance or an investigation, law enforcement needs to be able to provide evidence of a credible and specific threat to get the authorization they need - so details like when and where an attack might happen. And often, Juana, those details just aren't there.

SUMMERS: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.