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Former National Security Officials Call For A Stronger Focus On Domestic Terrorism


I'm David Greene in El Paso, Texas, where the death toll from this weekend's shooting has risen to 22. This is a community clearly grappling with how to respond to a tragedy but also a community that doesn't want this act of violence to define them. And a lot of people are also thinking about gun control in their own ways. In a steamy outdoor plaza in downtown El Paso yesterday, I met Carrie Matthews (ph). She lives in nearby Las Cruces, and she makes steel deliveries to construction sites here often. Matthews' family and friends love guns. Her son was sport shooting at the county fair just last week. Matthews said she doesn't think everyone should get to own a gun, and she says that something has to change.

CARRIE MATTHEWS: I think gun control in a form is going to have to happen.

GREENE: So your son is 16.


GREENE: OK. And you two haven't talked about this yet.


GREENE: How do you think you'll approach this as a mom?

MATTHEWS: It'll be more of the devastation of loss of life. I have not talked about it. We haven't even thought about it yet. So it will be something we'll have to breach, for sure. 'Cause it is sad, and it could have been anybody we knew or loved, and we were fortunate we didn't know anyone.

GREENE: Are you worried at all about him growing up in a time in the United States where this is happening...

MATTHEWS: Mortified.

GREENE: ...So often?

MATTHEWS: I guess I would say I'm happy he can, hopefully, protect himself if something did arise.

GREENE: What do you mean, protect himself?

MATTHEWS: I mean, if someone were to break into our home, he probably would react.

GREENE: With a gun? Or...

MATTHEWS: He very well may.

GREENE: You feel safer knowing that your son could have a gun in the house to protect him against...

MATTHEWS: Absolutely. I do.

GREENE: I'm just wondering, like, if there's someone who doesn't understand gun ownership at all - might live in a place where it's just not common - and is thinking, like, why does anyone ever need to own any type of gun, ever, if you sat down with that person, where would you start the conversation?

MATTHEWS: If you don't feel comfortable with a gun, then you don't need one. But definitely, I recommend everybody go take some sort of gun safety course. Do you need an AR - AK-47? No. Do I? No. But do we need rifles and shot - I mean, I'm an advocate for hunting. I mean, we have to hunt. And if - they can't take all that away.

So you need to go sit in and see what it's really about. I would be equally as open to go hear what they have to say, as well, if they're completely staunch negative against it. I mean, everybody's got a reason.

GREENE: That's one voice there from here in El Paso. Now, President Trump is expected here in this city tomorrow. Yesterday, the president made his first formal remarks since the shootings here and in Dayton, Ohio.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.

GREENE: Police believe the suspect in the shooting here in El Paso had posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online, and this is being investigated as domestic terrorism. And a group of former senior directors for counterterrorism at the National Security Council is calling for the government to treat domestic terrorism as a priority. One of the authors, Javed Ali, signed on to this statement and joins me now. Good morning.

JAVED ALI: Good morning, David. Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time. You worked in counterterrorism under President Trump, so you had an inside look at this. Is this president committed to defeating the ideology of white supremacy, as he said yesterday?

ALI: Well, that's a great question. And as it relates to the administration's posture on domestic terrorism and far-right extremism as a subset of this broader aspect of domestic terrorism, I would point people to the 2018 counterterrorism strategy that the administration put out. Now, when I got to the National Security Council in early 2017, that was a initiative that we wanted to generate to get that document out as sort of the road map or the document that tells the American public sort of what the administration's thinking is on counterterrorism. And we had long debates about how much we would discuss the domestic terrorism part of it.

Now, when I left a year later, the document still wasn't completed. But when it did get published in October 2018, there are two references to the administration's attempts, at least on paper, or in the document, to do more. And so that to me seems to suggest that at least from a strategic perspective or a rhetorical perspective, there should be more effort. But, you know, how much actual effort has gone in over the past year and a half - beyond the FBI, sort of the traditional owner of this domestic terrorism problem in the United States, or the federal government - that's, I think, something that needs to be explored further.

GREENE: Because there have been accusations that this administration has directed resources away from combating domestic terrorism. Do you know anything about that? Could that be true? Would it surprise you?

ALI: There were - there was an effort to downsize or rescope an activity in the Department of Homeland Security that was focused on combating violent ideology, whether - in various manifestations, whether on the far right or Islamic extremist. So was that a smart decision in light of what's happened over the past year or so? But I will say even if that program were still active right now, it would not be the panacea to the problem that we're facing. So it was a positive effort, but that in of itself wouldn't have provided all the sort of solutions to combat this further.

GREENE: Some of the president's critics have suggested that if this had been done in the name of Islamic extremism that the massacre here in El Paso - and not white nationalist extremism - his response would have been very different. Can you reflect on that?

ALI: Well, harkening back to my own experience in counterterrorism over the past 20 years, if we had had a spate of incidents like this that we've seen recently that would have been inspired or the attackers would have claimed they were motivated by ISIS, or al-Qaida or other foreign international terrorist groups, I suspect our response as a government and as a nation would be much different and much more powerful, in sort of the way we came together after 9/11. That doesn't appear to be happening yet. But hopefully in the aftermath of the tragedies that we're seeing, that there will be more action.

GREENE: Javed Ali was a senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council under President Trump. Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

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

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.