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Anti-Government Extremism ‘Has Really Surged’ Since 2020, Wray Tells Senators

FBI director says law enforcement officials are seeing "an alarming number of situations in which weapons are modified to make them fully automatic."

Amid law enforcement seeing an “alarming number” of guns modified to make them fully automatic and violent extremists using “crude IEDs” based on online instructions, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee at an oversight hearing Thursday that anti-government extremism “has really surged” since 2020.

Wray noted that he just passed the five-year mark in his tenure as director, and stressed “how proud I am to serve alongside the 38,000 men and women who make up the FBI.” As of next week, Wray will have visited all 56 FBI field offices twice.

“The breadth, depth, and complexity of the threats our folks are tackling are immense,” he said, stating that in addition to domestic threats, China’s malign activities, and cyber threats “the recent Zawahiri strike reinforces the threat of foreign terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, attempting to reconstitute in Afghanistan.”

“They’re countering hate crimes, including an alarming number of threats aimed at Asian-Americans, historically black colleges and universities, religious institutions, and other public spaces across the country,” he said of the FBI workforce. “They’re ensuring the integrity of elections and working to protect the election workers who administer them.”

“The range of criminal and national security threats that we face as a nation has never been greater or more diverse, and the demands and expectations on the FBI have never been higher. Our fellow citizens look to us to protect the United States from all those threats.”

Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Wray about movement in the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. “The numbers now are 850 suspects have been arrested, but the FBI is still trying to identify more than 350 suspects believed to have committed violent acts on the Capitol grounds. That is the same number of unidentified suspects that were reported 10 months, one year and 14 months after the event,” Durbin asked. “What has made it so difficult to identify these 350 additional suspects?”

“A lot of the initial people that we were able to find and arrest and charge made themselves widely visible and easily identifiable on social media or otherwise. But there were a certain number of people who concealed themselves more effectively. And so part of it is a little more challenging to get those people identified,” Wray replied. “That’s part of it. And then, of course — I have to be a little bit careful what I say here, but we are continuing to develop some of the more complicated parts of the investigation in terms of conspiracy charges and that sort of thing. So that may also contribute to some of it.”

Wray told senators “we did not have, I think, any specific, credible intelligence that pointed to thousands of people breaching the Capitol” that day, but “one of the things that we are determined to do on our part, to make sure we can do our part to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again, is to see how we can go about developing better sources — any time in the intelligence field when there is any kind of successful attack, we make a point of trying to figure out are there better ways to develop sources, higher quality sources, etc. So we’re doing that now.”

Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked whether the FBI has “a criteria that it uses to evaluate whether information is or isn’t disinformation.”

“I think sometimes this gets lost in a lot of the public commentary: We’re not out there investigating whether or not information that we see floating around is truthful or false, in the first instance. Our focus in the malign foreign influence space, which is I think what you’re driving at, is on whether or not there’s a foreign adversary of some sort potentially trying to push the information,” Wray said. “And then from there, we look into it… there’s a process to make sure that we are approaching that information consistently and objectively. And, of course, the defensive briefings that we do, whether it’s for members of Congress, officials in the administration, businesses, universities, what have you, the whole point of the defensive briefing is to share information with the recipient to educate them so that they can make decisions about what they want to do. But again, that’s not an FBI- coordinated process, an interagency framework led by ODNI and I on that.”

Voicing concern about the rise in gun purchases “especially since the FBI is required to abandon any background check that is not completed in 88 days,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked, “What has the FBI done to ensure the background check system remains effective during this spike in sales of guns? And do you need additional resources or authorities to make sure background checks are completed effectively and efficiently?”

Wray confirmed there has been “a significant increase in volume of NICS checks … and of course with some of the recent legislation that’s been passed, I expect we’ll have even more.”

“We have surged resources to try to keep up with the volume and the demand, but we will need more,” the director continued. “Congress has already been helpful in giving us some additional resources, but my expectation is that we will continue to need more resources, not just personnel resources, but systems IT resources because the whole essence of the NICS system is taxing in terms of system upgrades and so forth. And the interconnectivity and the accessibility for our state local partners.”

Wray noted that “you might be surprised, but it’s sometimes remarkable how many convicted felons still walk into a gun store and try to buy a gun.”

During discussion about recent unrest connected to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Wray said “there are just way too many people who seem to think that that justifies engaging in violence and destruction of property and threats of violence… I feel like every day, I’m getting briefed on somebody throwing a Molotov cocktail at someone for some issue. It’s crazy.”

Wray said law enforcement officials are seeing “an alarming number of situations in which weapons are modified to make them fully automatic — and it’s almost invariably happening in the hands of somebody who is a dangerous criminal to begin with, and it’s now just even more dangerous.” The FBI is also “seeing violent extremists use crude IEDs that they can make fairly easily off of the Internet.”

Asked about the greatest domestic threat, Wray said it is “largely lone actors already here, largely radicalized online, who use easily obtainable weapons to attack soft targets, and a big chunk of those are domestic violent extremists.”

“Another big chunk of those are homegrown violent extremists inspired by ISIS and jihad, but they’re people who are already here and they have a lot in common. Of the domestic violent extremists, racially motivated violent extremism is responsible for the most lethal attacks that we’ve seen in the country over the last several years,” he said. “And of the racially motivated violent extremism, the biggest bucket is those who advocate for the superiority of the white race.”

“I will say that, over the last couple of years, another group within the domestic violent extremism bucket has really surged. And that really started in 2020, I would say, through the summer and then continuing on to the present,” Wray continued. “And that’s what we put into the category of anti-government, anti-authority, violent extremism. Sometimes there’s overlap, but it’s different. And so, that includes everything from militia violent extremism all the way to anarchist violent extremism. What they all have in common is a focus on institutions of government and law enforcement as their likely target.”

“What they want to do is tear down the government,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

“Correct,” Wray agreed.

“Support insurrections like we saw on January 6th, and they are fostered by a lot of online communication using social media, correct?” Blumenthal asked.

“Correct,” Wray replied.

“And what can be done to in effect counter the use of social media to incite that violence?” the senator asked. “And is social media big tech doing enough now?”

“Well, what can be done, I would say a couple of things: One is we are trying to encourage more people — just as they do in the physical world, we want them in the virtual world, if they see something, say something. If they see somebody expressing threats of violence, criminal activity on the Internet, we want people to reach out to law enforcement and let them know so we can prevent an attack,” Wray said. “So, we need more and more of that. You mentioned the social media companies. We do try to work with the social media companies, and there are things that they can and some of them do using violations of their terms of service to take accounts down and things like that.”

“But there is, I think, a phenomenon that we all have to recognize, which is that the social media industry, you know, enjoys the ability to amplify and connect people. And there’s good things that come with that and there are bad things that come with that. And I think we would all be in a better place the more of those companies can take more responsibility for misuse, abuse of their platforms.”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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