Domestic terrorism cases being investigated by the FBI have more than doubled over the past year and a half amid “rising danger” to FBI agents and other law enforcement, Director Christopher Wray told senators at a hearing to discuss the threat landscape 20 years after 9/11.
“Before we even get to terrorism, on the cyber front, we’re now investigating over 100 different types of ransomware, each with scores of victims. And that’s on top of hundreds of other national security and criminal cyberthreats we’re working against every day. In our violent crime work, we recently arrested over 600 gang members in a single month,” Wray testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “That’s just one month. Protecting our nation’s innovation, we’re opening a new China counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours. And every day, we receive thousands of tips into our National Threat Operations Center, many of which involve imminent threats to life requiring swift action.”
The FBI director stressed that “preventing terrorist attacks remains our top priority, both now and for the foreseeable future.”
“Today, the greatest terrorist threat we face here in the U.S. is from what are, in effect, lone actors. Because they act alone and move quickly from radicalization to action, often using easily obtainable weapons against soft targets, these attackers don’t leave a lot of dots for investigators to connect, and not a lot of time in which to connect them,” Wray said.
“We continue to see individuals radicalized here at home by jihadist ideologies espoused by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, what we would call homegrown violent extremists. But we’re also countering lone domestic violent extremists radicalized by personalized grievances ranging from racial and ethnic bias to anti-government, anti-authority sentiment, to conspiracy theories.”
There is “no doubt” that the current threat landscape “is different from what it was 20 years ago, and it’ll almost certainly continue to change,” the director added. “And to stay in front of it, we’ve got to adapt too. And that’s why, over the last year and a half, the FBI has pushed even more resources to our domestic terrorism investigations.”
“Since the spring of 2020, so the past 16, 18 months or so, we’ve more than doubled our domestic terrorism caseload from about 1,000 to around 2,700 investigations,” Wray continued. “And we’ve surged personnel to match, more than doubling the number of people working that threat from a year before. But we’re also surging against threats by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and al-Shabaab.”
Without going into detail, Wray said that “just within the past couple of years, we’ve thwarted potential terrorist attacks in areas like Las Vegas, Tampa, New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Miami, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere,” but “we need to stay on the balls of our feet, relentlessly vigilant against the next plot by our adversaries and their next attempts to attack us.”
The FBI workforce has been battling threats in terms of the pandemic and a “rising danger to their own safety,” Wray said, as “over the past year we have seen a sharp and deeply disturbing uptick in violence against the law enforcement community.”
“In just the first eight months of this year, 52 law enforcement officers have been feloniously killed on the job. Just put that in context: that’s an officer murdered in this country every five days and already more than it was in all of 2020,” he said. “And, of course, that doesn’t even count all those who’ve died in the line of duty facing the other inherent dangers of the job, much less the scores of agents, officers, analysts, and other dedicated professionals who died from COVID-19.”
National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid stressed that “terrorists have proven adaptive over years of CT pressure” with ISIS “exploiting security gaps to create conditions favorable for seizing territory again” and al-Qaeda shifting to a “more geographically dispersed network of affiliates and veteran leaders across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.”
“U.S.-based homegrown violent extremists, HVEs, who are largely inspired by al-Qaeda or ISIS, will likely continue to attempt attacks because of their personal and ideological grievances, their attraction to foreign terrorist messaging, and their access to weapons and targets,” Abizaid said, while “one of the other most pressing threats to the homeland comes from domestic violent extremists, DVEs, and in particular, racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists, who often mobilize to violence, independent from direction of a formal or centralized organization.”
“Since 2015, the threat from these individuals has increased. And since 2018, we saw DVEs pose the most lethal terrorist threat inside the homeland. We assess that DVEs will continue to pose a heightened threat for years to come, in part, because many of the factors that underpin their motivations are likely to endure social polarization,” she added. “Negative perceptions about immigration, conspiracy theories promoting violence, distrust of government institutions, and biases against minority groups will likely drive some DVEs to conduct attacks this year.”
The U.S. also remains “vigilant against Iran and its agents and proxies, principally Lebanese Hezbollah, and their intent in retaliating in the United States for the January 2020 killing of former IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani.”
Asked by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) why they have seen “such a rise in racially and ethnically motivated extremism and violence in this country in recent years,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas cited “a rise in the manifestation of hate — we’ve seen the propagation of false narratives. We’ve seen an increase in anti-government sentiments, and we are very watchful of and vigilant in response to any signs of connectivity between those ideologies and acts of violence.”
“A big part of the threat that you’re asking about is the social media dimension. Some of these same people before might have been stewing away in, you know, the basement or the attic, one part of the country, and not communicating with the other,” Wray said. “But today, terrorism moves at the speed of social media. And you have the ability of lone actors disgruntled in one part of the country to spin up similar or like-minded individuals in other parts of the country and urge them into action or inspire them into action.”
“What are the FBI and DHS each doing to detect, investigate, and disrupt possible al-Qaeda attacks on the homeland amid assessments of their resurgence?” asked Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).
Wray said the FBI is “aggressively” using Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country “to engage with sources, follow up with ties between subjects that we have under investigation with individuals overseas, working with our foreign partners to put information together.”
“We’re putting a heavy focus on community outreach as the [Afghan] evacuees settle here in the United States to both, a) try to get in front of any radicalization that could occur while they’re here, but also to try to open up the lines of communication to make sure that if somebody sees something about someone in those communities, that they’ll say something to us about it,” he added.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas replied that “we continue to screen and vet individuals seeking to arrive in the United States by any means: sea, land, and air.”
“We have not relaxed our vigilance over the years. We speak very frequently about a rise in prominence of certain types of threats: the domestic violent extremists, the homegrown violent extremist,” he said. “That does not mean that that rise in prominence suggests that we have taken our eye — our focus off the prior iteration that is ever-present.”