The DHS is Trying to Tie US Activists to Foreign Movements — Here’s Why We Should be Skeptical 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking a new tack in its efforts to combat the leaderless and decentralized antifa movement under its Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence. The DHS is targeting purported antifa activists by linking them with Kurdish-aligned foreign movements, according to leaks published by The Nation last month. The move is unprecedented, it’s wrong, and furthermore, it’s a threat to Americans’ civil liberties.

By aligning antifa with foreign movements, the DHS is embarking on new territory, where American citizens, even those who take up arms to fight ISIS, are treated as enemy combatants.

A leaked 6 page For Official Use Only (FOUO) report from the DHS lists less than a dozen American citizens connected to groups like the YPG (People’s Protection Units), YPJ, and the Peshmerga. The report claims to link anti-fascists in the United States to a handful of American travelers who volunteered their support for the Kurdish populations in northeastern Syria.

This linkage is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the federal government has no legal authority to lump an almost entirely domestic movement in with its list of foreign terrorist organizations — a list which is quite long, but which to date excludes any American-based groups. Moreover, such a designation would seem absurd given the fact that anti-fascists have staged just one attack since 1994 that led to fatalities. (This number may have increased after the recent killing of a member of Patriot Prayer.)

Surveillance is another worry. Americans generally enjoy certain constitutional protections against undue government surveillance, but those protections all but vanish when the government can establish a connection between citizens and a foreign power. The NSA relied on the pretext of foreign connection (Americans’ communications were intercepted as the organization collected data on its foreign targets) to justify encroachments on the rights and liberties of American citizens through its  “incidental” collection of call records under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Correspondingly, when that connection is dubious, as is the case here, the civil liberties of all Americans, not just those of anti-fascists, suffer.

For example, consider Brace Belden, who completed a six-month tour fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIS in late 2016 and early 2017.

Belden risked life and limb to combat the Islamic State in Syria and succeeded in gaining attention for the YPG, regarded as one of the “most effective bulwarks against ISIS.” We should be honoring the sacrifices he made in his service to freedom. Instead, he’s been implicated in the DHS report as, essentially, a domestic terrorist. Like many of the other fighters listed in the report, Belden does not identify with any antifa group. “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of any antifa organization, ” he told The Nation.

It’s ironic that the U.S. would look to criminalize those who volunteer and put their lives at risk to fight alongside Kurdish-led forces in the middle east, given that Kurds once served as a regional ally. But last year, the U.S. abandoned its longtime ally, leaving the Kurdish population to be slaughtered by Turkish invaders. And today, the US is using freedom-fighting citizen’s affiliation with Kurdish troops as an excuse to vilify anti-fascists across the U.S.

Kurdish-led forces were an essential component of the U.S.’s fight against the Islamic State, and they served as an important counterbalance to Russia and Iran’s influence. An astonishing 11,000 Kurds have lost their lives in the fight against ISIS. The Americans who stood by them and volunteered to take up arms in this fight are better thought of as heroes rather than terrorists.

This isn’t the first time Americans have travelled to foreign countries to stand in solidarity against authoritarianism. In the 1930s, an estimated 3,000 Americans united as The Lincoln Brigade to join international forces in fighting for the democratic Second Spanish Republic against Francisco Franco’s emerging fascist regime. While the great majority of these fighters were affiliated with the far-left, even late Senator John McCain wrote candidly for The New York Times, expressing “admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.”

While many are aware of the U.S.’s efforts to root out communism domestically through measures like the House Committee on Un-American Activities, what many don’t know is how the U.S. actively engaged in intrusive measures of surveillance and employed confidential informants against members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The connection between the Americans who fought against authoritarianism as members of the Lincoln Brigade and those who continue to fight against ISIS’s sheer brutality alongside marginalized populations in Syria cannot be lost.

In an unprecedented period of dialogue on issues of race, social justice and policing, the DHS’s actions are unconscionable. Today, our nation is using the actions of a handful of brave individuals — people who have risked their lives fighting the Islamic State — to deny the rights of domestic activists. So long as the U.S. continues down this current path, American citizens will be subject to additional measures of repression, and our civil liberties will erode.

Brian Bensimon is a writer who has published works on criminal justice, surveillance, civil liberties, and the death penalty.