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DOJ National Security Division Adding New Domestic Terrorism Unit as Extremist Threat Grows

Racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists are most likely to conduct mass casualty attacks against civilians, FBI tells senators.

The Justice Department’s National Security Division is adding a dedicated domestic terrorism unit as attacks, threats, and associated cases continue to grow, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

“The threat posed by domestic terrorism is on the rise,” Olsen said. “The number of FBI investigations over the past two years, since March 2020, has more than doubled.”

More than 725 individuals have been arrested and charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, including more than 325 defendants charged with felonies, and Olsen said DOJ will “continue to methodically gather and review the evidence, and we will follow the facts wherever they lead.”

“The attacks in recent years underscore the threat that domestic terrorism continues to pose to our citizens, to law enforcement officers, to public officials, and to our democratic institutions,” he added. “Based on the assessment of the intelligence community, we face an elevated threat from domestic violent extremists, that is individuals in the United States who seek to commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of domestic, social, or political goals.”

“Domestic violent extremists are often motivated by a mix of ideologies and personal grievances. We’ve seen a growing threat from those who are motivated by racial animus, as well as those who ascribe to extremist, anti-government, and anti-authority ideologies. At the same time, we remain vigilant to the persistent and dynamic threat from international terrorist groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.”

The National Security Division, which is led by Olsen, includes a team of counterterrorism attorneys who can aid with prosecuting cases with a nexus to domestic terrorism. “In addition, I have decided to establish a domestic terrorism unit to augment our existing approach,” he told senators. “This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure that these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country.”

Executive Assistant Director of the FBI National Security Branch Jill Sanborn stressed that “the greatest terrorism threat facing the United States today remains that posed by lone actors or small cells who typically radicalize online and look to use easily accessible weapons to attack soft targets.”

“When evaluating the current domestic terrorism threat, we assess that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists advocating for the superiority of the white race and anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, specifically militia violent extremists, present the most lethal threat,” Sanborn said. “Racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists are most likely to conduct mass casualty attacks against civilians, and militia violent extremists typically target law enforcement and government personnel and facilities. In 2021, domestic violent extremists conducted four attacks which resulted in the deaths of 13 individuals.”

“Many domestic violent extremists also plotted to conduct attacks due to personalized grievances, including anger at government responses to COVID-19, immigration policies, and perceived election fraud,” she continued. “Looking forward, we assess domestic violent extremists’ reactions to sociopolitical events and conditions will continue to drive the threat of violence in 2022. Additionally, as we head into 2022, we assess racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists will continue to pose the most serious threats.”

Accordingly, the FBI has prioritized the anti-government or anti-authority violent extremist threat “to be commensurate with the threat posed by homegrown violent extremism, ISIS, and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism.”

“The FBI holds sacred the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment freedoms,” Sanborn said. “But make no mistake — when protected free speech turns into criminal threats or action, the FBI will actively pursue the individuals behind them.”

Asked about how disinformation and misinformation can impact recruitment and mobilization to violent domestic extremism, Olsen replied that “there’s no doubt that the misinformation, disinformation, false narratives the Intelligence Community has assessed are available online to violent extremists, again, whether that’s domestic violent extremists or those who may be influenced by international terrorist groups.”

“And the internet and the availability of social media can be an accelerant to an individual’s movement… from simply being susceptible to those messages to being further radicalized and eventually to being mobilized to violence,” he added. “And we’ve seen this same pattern occur in both the international terrorism context when it comes to ISIS and their propaganda, as we’ve seen on the domestic violent extremist side with regard to domestic political and social influences. So, it’s a significant problem.”

“Bottom line is violent extremist material on the internet reaches those vulnerable to recruitment, and so we’re concerned about that on the ‘misinformation,'” Sanborn said. “We know our adversaries would do whatever they could to include misinformation to sow discord.”

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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