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A New York lawmaker wants to treat white supremacists like foreign jihadists. Is this the solution, or a new war on terror?

BROOKLYN — If all else were to fail in his fight against the threat of domestic terrorism, Rep. Max Rose offered an unconventional plan to protect the Brooklynites who had come to hear him speak at a Jewish community center: He’d stand on guard duty at their places of worship himself. 

“Right in front of your church, and your mosque, or your synagogue,” the Army combat veteran said. 

“I’ll do it,” Rose told the people who came out to this low-slung stretch of Ocean Parkway, where mosques and synagogues sit next to auto repair shops and fast food joints. “I’m a scary-looking dude, right?”

Short and bald, with eyes that fold into an intense interrogatory squint, the first-term congressman representing Staten Island and a narrow wedge of Brooklyn looks more like an outside linebacker than a first-term legislator. 

The first Jewish lawmaker to represent Staten Island — and the first Democrat elected by the Republican redoubt in a decade — Rose has recently emerged as a leading proponent of treating white supremacists no differently than law enforcement treats foreign terrorists. 

Rose wants the federal government to recognize that white nationalist groups like the Rise Above Movement and the Atomwaffen Division are as serious threats to American citizens as the Islamic State or al-Qaida. The FBI has also acknowledged that threat, recently deeming homegrown extremists a “national threat priority.”

For national-security-minded Democrats like Rose, however, the response to the threat has not been commensurate with its size. “This is extensive, it is global, it is frightening and it is not something we can afford to ignore,” says Rose, who in recent months has emerged as one of Washington’s most ardent supporters of expanded domestic terror statutes. He is among a growing number of Democrats who want the federal government to do a better job of identifying, tracking and ultimately prosecuting domestic terrorists. 

Rose has two significant proposals. One, which would require congressional endorsement, requires the Department of Homeland Security to perform a “threat assessment” on foreign terror groups, which often have ties to domestic ones. While that may seem like a relatively minor point, it would represent a major advancement over the current state of affairs. The bill recently advanced out of the relevant committee.

Rose’s other proposal calls on the State Department to label transnational white extremist groups as foreign terrorist organizations. Such a label would effectively criminalize Americans’ ability to interact in any way with white extremists outside the United States, much in the same way that it is illegal to join or support the Islamic State. The State Department could make that designation on its own, without needing congressional approval. But it would need to justify adding groups to its terror list.

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., speaks at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on Jan. 2. Behind him, from left, are fellow Democratic Reps. Grace Meng, Eliot Engel and Gregory Meeks. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., speaks at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on Jan. 2. Behind him, from left, are fellow Democratic Reps. Grace Meng, Eliot Engel and Gregory Meeks. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

“Max Rose is right,” says Jason Blazakis, a terrorism expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a former top official at the State Department. Blazakis says it is appropriate to treat white nationalist groups as transnational syndicates, a model that runs counter to the “lone wolf” mythology long associated with white supremacist violence. “Rose is asking the right question,” he adds.

Blazakis also agrees with Rose’s proposal to conduct formal assessments of these groups, arguing that federal departments like State and Treasury will be “stuck” in their dealings with race-motivated terrorists until the nation’s intelligence agencies are able to more freely collect the information that could lead those departments to levy sanctions or restrictions.

“The collection agencies need to spend more of their resources” on domestic terror, Blazakis says, pointing to the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Defense Information Agency in particular. Threat assessments may not be the stuff of Jason Bourne thrillers, but they can keep Americans safe. (Blazakis later clarified that he would never want the CIA to engage in domestic surveillance, only to include white extremists in the work the agency does abroad.)

To underscore the threat of this global movement, Rose points to the relatively recent advent of the Base, a white supremacist group founded by an American living in Russia. “The Base” happens to be what “al-Qaida” translates to in English. And although the group’s founder appears to be based in Russia, his adherents have been arrested in Wisconsin and Georgia. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Base touts “international locations including Australia, Canada and South Africa,” as well as “cells” in 10 U.S. states, from California to Minnesota to New Hampshire.

“There’s a global movement here,” Rose says.

The issue is also personal for Rose, a descendant of Eastern European Jews, who grew up in the brownstone-lined Park Slope section of Brooklyn. He attended the prestigious Poly Prep Country Day private school, then went north to Connecticut to just-as-prestigious Wesleyan University. Then he did something that most people with prestigious educations do not do: He joined the Army.

“When you grow up Jewish in New York City, you think everyone’s Jewish,” Rose said. That changed in basic training. “And for the first time, you are the first Jew that someone’s met.”

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Rose served in the Army for five years and deployed to Afghanistan, where he was wounded by a roadside bomb. He left active service in 2013 with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and is now a captain in the Army National Guard.

Rose won his first political race in 2018, defeating Rep. Dan Donovan, who was the lone Republican to represent New York City in Washington. The victory made Rose the first-ever Jewish representative for Staten Island, whose members of Congress have tended to be Catholic. He was also a Democrat from a heavily Republican district that Donald Trump won easily in 2016.

Global issues are something of a departure for Rose, who in his first year as a House member hewed to the classic constituent-services model that has worked well for so many New Yorkers serving in D.C. A typical Max Rose press release touts his work on a new garage at a Brooklyn veterans’ hospital or on a proposed seawall for Staten Island. 

Yet in a way, his crusade against white nationalists is in keeping with that keep-it-local sensibility. Rose in part represents one of the largest Yemeni populations in the United States, as well as many observant Jews. With their respective hijabs and black coats, both groups can easily be identified by those who might want to do them harm. And Rose thinks far too little is being done to protect vulnerable, visible populations like the ones in his district. 

“We have to stop talking about free speech,” he says, an allusion to the First Amendment rights that white supremacists frequently invoke, as do the civil libertarians who may loathe racism but worry about threats to the Constitution. That unlikely nexus once provided a classic headline about the American Civil Liberties Union in the Onion, a satirical newspaper: “ACLU Defends Nazis’ Right to Burn Down ACLU Headquarters.”

For terrorism experts, legitimate civil liberties concerns should not conceal the magnitude of the threat. “We are not talking about freedoms given to us by the Constitution,” says Ali Soufan, the terrorism expert who, when he was at the FBI, sounded the alarm about Islamic fundamentalists ahead of the Sept. 11 attacks. Now he is working with Rose, issuing similar warnings about white extremists.

Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan during an interview in New York City in 2018. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
Former FBI Agent Ali Soufan during an interview in New York City in 2018. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)
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Some believe that such warnings are excessive and counterproductive, because federal law enforcement already knows how to identify and contain white supremacists. Among them is Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a national security fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“They are imagining a gap that doesn’t exist,” he says of legislators like Rose and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who has called for a domestic terrorism law.

German says suggestions of an inadequate federal response to domestic terrorism are “ridiculous.”

German is the co-author of a 2018 report titled “Wrong Priorities in Fighting Terrorism.” There, and in other writings, he has noted that a domestic terrorism statute does exist and that it applies to 51 violations of the U.S. criminal code.

“I think it’s a mistake,” agrees another domestic terrorism expert, who requested anonymity because the not-for-profit organization he works for has not taken a public position on any of Rose’s proposals. “I see no evidence our problem is fundamentally related to the lack of investigatory powers.” 

He adds that “the most important caution is to protect the Constitution” and that federal law enforcement is perfectly capable of breaking up terror plots. As evidence, he alludes to last November’s arrest of 13 Atomwaffen Division members. “I need an FBI that does its job,” the expert says. 

Arguments about domestic terrorism can easily descend into legalistic parsing; for Rose, the matter is more immediate. “People are afraid to go outside with their kippah,” he says, referencing traditional Jewish headwear. “People are afraid to speak Hebrew in public. People are afraid to go to synagogue.”

Given the rising rate of hate crimes in the United States, and the fear those crimes have engendered in people like Rose’s constituents, it is difficult to argue against the federal government’s doing more, with better tools at hand.

“I disagree they have everything they need. They need a better law,” says Blazakis, the Middlebury terrorism expert. He likes the Schiff plan because it would include oversight from a civil liberties board. “It matters in terms of the sentencing, it matters in terms of the symbolism,” Blazakis says, arguing that the world needs to see the United States treating white supremacists as harshly as it has treated Islamic radicals.

“If you’re brown in America,” Blazakis says, “you’re more likely to be labeled a terrorist than if you’re white.” That’s the case even as the fatalities inflicted by white supremacists have surpassed those of terrorists inspired by a warped vision of Islam.

The remedy Rose has proposed is to treat any American white nationalist group that associates with similar groups abroad as a foreign terrorist organization. The list of those organizations, which is kept by the State Department, now has 69 members and includes the likes of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Real Irish Republican Army. The designation gives federal law enforcement broad powers to investigate those who provide material support to such groups, but the list mostly comprises jihadist organizations.

That creates a glaring loophole for someone like Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard officer from Maryland who stockpiled a veritable arsenal that he hoped to use in the service of killing members of Congress, justices of the Supreme Court and media figures. Hasson was inspired by Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian white nationalist who killed 77 people in Oslo and on an island summer camp in 2011. Breivik, in turn, had been inspired by Islamophobic groups in the United States, including ACT for America and the benign-sounding Center for Security Policy. Both are labeled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Even though federal prosecutors branded Hasson a “domestic terrorist” in the court filings, that designation did not come with an attendant charge and was therefore only a rhetorical flourish. The charges against him involved possession of drugs and guns, and those were regarded as light enough, on their own merits, for the court to order his release. Prosecutors successfully fought that order, and Hasson was eventually sentenced to a 13-year-term. 

Even so, the fact that his desire to commit what would have been an act of terrorism played no role in his sentencing suggested to many that something was amiss. Blazakis believes that if there were a domestic terror statute, Hasson would have faced a much longer prison term.

A photo of firearms and ammunition that belonged to Christopher Paul Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant. (Maryland U.S. District Attorney's Office via AP)
A photo of firearms and ammunition that belonged to Christopher Paul Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant. (Maryland U.S. District Attorney’s Office via AP)

A number of lawmakers, including Schiff, have called for Congress to ratify a full-blown domestic terror statute, but that seems unlikely with the House bitterly divided and the Republican-controlled Senate still reeling from the president’s impeachment trial. More likely is the far more modest Rose “threat assessment” measure, which staffers in his office say Democratic leaders will eventually bring to the House floor. 

But Rose’s appeal to expand the government list of terrorist organizations to white supremacists wouldn’t need lengthy congressional deliberations. If the State Department decides to open its terror list to white nationalist groups, it would shift resources and expand legal authorities that cover foreign organizations like the Islamic State to groups like the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi group based in Ukraine that Rose argues is a terrorist organization. If it were formally designated as such, American organizations like the Rise Above Movement and the Atomwaffen Division, both of which have ties to the Azov Battalion, could then be charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization.

As things stand, however, white supremacists in the United States with counterparts in Germany and Russia, among many other countries, must violate some existing criminal statute before the U.S. government can do anything.

“They are terrorists through and through,” Rose says of white supremacists. “We just haven’t had the courage to label them as such.” For its part, the State Department would not say what it thinks of Rose’s proposal. “We don’t discuss deliberations or the potential deliberations of our designations process,” an official there told Yahoo News.

Not everyone believes that such labeling is a good idea. Trump has already threatened to designate antifa, the occasionally violent black-clad progressives, a terrorist organization. German, the Brennan Center fellow, points to the terrorism statute being used, in one instance, against an American student who sent socks to a friend in Afghanistan who was affiliated with al-Qaida. 

As a warning about the dangers of Rose’s approach, German also highlighted the case of Peyton Pruitt, a mentally disabled Alabama man who was ensnared in an FBI undercover operation. Pruitt, who has an IQ of 51, was accused of helping ISIS. “He functions at the level of an 8-year-old child,” Esquire wrote of Pruitt. “He’s never lived on his own, has never had a job, and can’t tie his own shoes.” Shortly after the Esquire article was published, Pruitt was released from jail.

House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism Co-Chairman Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y. during a hearing on "meeting the challenge of white nationalist terrorism at home and abroad" on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism Co-Chairman Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y. during a hearing on “meeting the challenge of white nationalist terrorism at home and abroad” on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Rose does not share these concerns. Staffers in his Washington office acknowledge that they envision white supremacists potentially placed on the federal terrorist watch list, which already includes more than a million people and faces legal challenges pertaining to its constitutional grounds. 

Yet even as civil libertarians worry about the U.S. government potentially spying on Americans and curbing their First Amendment right to association, others think tougher measures against homegrown extremism are overdue. White supremacists “are now where the jihadis were in the early ’90s and the late ’80s,” says Soufan, the former FBI terrorism expert. Now an independent security consultant, Soufan says Ukraine is the new Afghanistan, serving as a similar proving ground for white nationalists that the latter country served for jihadis like Osama bin Laden.

In a recent joint op-ed in the New York Times, Rose and Soufan called on the State Department to formally label white supremacist groups as foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs. Without such a designation, Rose and Soufan argued, “law enforcement cannot utilize the most effective tools to protect the country.” Unlike other measures addressing white nationalism, this one would not need congressional endorsement, just a sign-off from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his bureau of counterterrorism.

Rose previously asked the State Department to include white hate groups on the list in an Oct. 16, 2019, letter. Signed by 39 other Democrats, the letter noted that James Alex Fields, who killed counterprotester Heather Heyer with his car during the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., belonged to an organization that had links to National Action, a British hate group that has already been branded a terrorist organization by Scotland Yard, though not by the United States.

“Terrorism is terrorism,” the letter said, arguing that white nationalist groups formed, in the words of national security expert Rita Katz, “a global terrorist network, linked together via online safe havens much like ISIS.” The links are not always explicit, but they are strong enough to belie the notion of “lone wolf” attackers motivated by inner demons. The manifesto of the shooter who slaughtered 49 people inside two Christchurch, New Zealand, mosques showed clear evidence of ideological cross-pollination with like-minded fanatics in Europe and the United States.

The State Department responded with a short letter that acknowledged the dangers posed by “racially and ethnically motivated terrorism” but refused to say anything about the designations Rose had asked for.

Flowers and tributes are hung on the fence of the Botanic Gardens on March 17, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 49 people were killed following shooting attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Flowers and tributes are hung on the fence of the Botanic Gardens on March 17, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 49 people were killed following shooting attacks on two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Staffers in Rose’s office say the State Department was “pretty disinterested in this” and “brushed it off.” But instead of dropping the effort, Rose is redoubling it, motivated by the conviction that he can, in the words of one staffer, “publicly shame this roadblock out of existence.” 

The State Department would not answer questions about Rose’s letter to Pompeo. As for the Justice Department, which oversees terrorism-related prosecutions, an official there said that “we feel we have adequate laws to prosecute and bring to justice those that commit acts of violence that are labeled ‘domestic terrorism.’”

Experts also believe that simply talking about the white supremacist threat will help the public understand how serious that threat is. On the floor of the House, Rose recently invited a rabbi who survived the Holocaust to say the opening prayer, and back home he reassured his constituents that he will find a way to keep them safe. “This is not a fight I’m gonna give up,” Rose said at the community meeting in Brooklyn, which he hosted to help constituents apply for federal security grants. 

There were religious Jews in the audience, as well as religious Muslims, Russian-Americans and African-Americans, reflecting the rich diversity of Rose’s district, but also the scope of fear that white extremists have engendered. On the whole, however, the district is Republican and white. As one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the House, Rose has had to show his right-leaning constituents that he can work with Trump, even as he had to show his Democratic colleagues that he is very much one of them. In December, he was one of just a handful of Democrats to attend the White House signing of an executive order condemning anti-Semitism on college campuses. 

And while others correlate the rise of white nationalism to the rise of Trump, Rose pointedly declines to do so. “If you begin this conversation, and end it, by blaming the president’s language, you actually don’t do the severity of this problem any justice whatsoever,” Rose says. He believes the problem of white nationalism predates Trump and will outlast him. 

He is also willing to call out members of his own party. When fellow first-termer Rep. Ilhan Omar — one of two Muslim women new to Congress — made what some thought was an anti-Semitic comment, Rose criticized her for it. But after she apologized, he was quick to call her a “friend.” For good measure, he added that Republicans were “chickens***” for failing to confront anti-Semitism in their own ranks.

“I don’t care about politics when it comes to this issue,” he says of criticizing Omar. “I do not care about politics when it comes to confronting hate.” As if to prove that very point, he recently worked with Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — the other Muslim woman in Congress — on an attempt to repeal Trump’s ban on travelers from majority-Muslim countries.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn, right, speaks, as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. listens, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington in 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn, right, speaks, as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. listens, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington in 2019. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Omar, for her part, wants to make sure Rose doesn’t forget Muslims in his fight against domestic terrorists. “If our efforts to fight terrorism don’t take into account threats against the Muslim community, then we are not fighting domestic terrorism. Instances of physical violence and threats against the Muslim community skyrocketed when Trump was elected,” she told Yahoo News.

Meanwhile, back home, Rose is about to face a difficult reelection campaign. Trump has already endorsed his Republican challenger, Nicole Malliotakis, a Staten Island native who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of New York three years ago.

There are probably easier, more vote-friendly issues than white nationalism for Rose to take up ahead of November’s election, but he vows to persist. “No matter what is said about me, online or to my face, no matter what,” he says, “I’m not giving up this fight.”

This article has been updated with the State Department’s response to Rose’s letter about terrorist designations for white extremist groups.

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