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Wray: Lone Actors’ ‘Purity of Radical Ideology’ Giving Way to ‘Weird Hodgepodge’ of Beliefs Behind Attacks

"We're having more and more challenges trying to unpack what are often sort of incoherent belief systems, combined with kind of personal grievances."

FBI Director Christopher Wray said recent mass shootings underscore the increasing threat from lone actors who may be difficult to detect and stop in the planning phases and may ascribe to a “weird hodgepodge” of ideologies rather than commit acts of violence in furtherance of a defined extremist movement.

“The range of criminal, cyber, and counterintelligence threats we face as a nation has never been greater or more diverse, and the demands and expectations placed on the FBI have never been higher,” Wray told the Senate Appropriations on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies during a Wednesday hearing to discuss the FBI’s budget request.

The May 14 attack on a Buffalo grocery store and May 24 mass shooting at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, “reinforce what we in the FBI have been so concerned about for so long, and that is the threat of lone actors who look to attack regular everyday people going about their regular everyday lives.”

“And, in fact, it’s that threat that we continue to be most concerned about here in the homeland,” he added, noting that while he doesn’t want to get ahead of investigations probing the motives of recent attacks “we’ve got to continue to stay laser-focused on our efforts to counter violence motivated by hate and extremism.”

“Even on the international terrorism side, we are seeing homegrown violent extremists inspired by groups like ISIS, like al-Qaeda, acting alone or in small groups and leaving fewer dots to connect and less time in which to connect them,” Wray continued. “And countering fast-moving threats like these requires a team approach, so we’ve requested an enhancement not just for additional investigators, but also support personnel to help us perform the important outreach and partnership building that is so essential to countering this threat.”

Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen (R-N.H.) asked the director if he had statistics reflecting an increase in the rate of crimes committed by lone actors who indiscriminately attack people they don’t know. “And do we have any idea, any research into what is motivating those kinds of lone individuals?” she asked.

Wray said he couldn’t quote statistics at that moment, but stressed that the FBI has “been highlighting this threat, the lone actors — or, effectively, lone actors — using readily accessible weapons attacking what is often referred to as soft targets.”

“As to what motivates them, that’s all over the map. I mean, it’s everything from the racially motivated violent extremists to different sorts of anarchists and militia violent extremists to homegrown violent extremists, which is a term we use to sort of distinguish people who are here already in the U.S. but who are inspired by foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS, like al-Qaeda,” he said. “And then, increasingly, we’re seeing people with this kind of weird hodgepodge blend of ideologies. The old-school world of kind of people with some purity of radical ideology then turning to violence is often giving way to people who have kind of a jumble of mixed-up ideas. And, you know, we’ve seen cases where somebody one month is saying they’re an ISIS supporter, and then the next month they say they’re a white supremacist.”

“We had a case in Minneapolis where a bunch of guys that described themselves as Boogaloo Boys then ended up deciding to provide material support to Hamas. I look at the El Paso shooter in the Walmart there. And if you look at his so-called manifesto, it’s all over the place. So we’re having more and more challenges trying to unpack what are often sort of incoherent belief systems, combined with kind of personal grievances.”

Wray said the FBI’s domestic terrorism caseload really began climbing “over the last few years — and this really started, I would say, in summer of 2019, and kind of has just continued since then — we have, I think, more than doubled our domestic terrorism caseload.”

“I think we’re now up to about 2,700 domestic terrorism investigations. They cover the waterfront of different types,” he added. “We have also created a domestic terrorism hate crimes fusion cell to bring both of those kinds of expertise together. And we’ve had some very significant plots disrupted using those efforts.”

“We have our Joint Terrorism Task Forces in all 56 field offices. That’s about 4,400 or so investigators. They’re working on it. But I will also say in our budget request before the subcommittee, we are asking for more resources for domestic terrorism. That’s separate and apart from any legislative effort, just in our FY23 budget request.”

Wray explained to senators that “increasingly in the domestic terrorism space, much like in other criminal arenas, the terrorists are reverting to use of technology that makes it harder and harder to connect the dots.”

The FBI has “in the short run had to sort of surge resources to handle that domestic terrorism caseload,” while keeping after “any of these other threats, the traditional violent crime threat that I hear about from chiefs and sheriffs all the time, the international terrorism threat that has absolutely not gone away.”

“That had slightly abated during COVID, the foreign terrorist threat, but especially in the wake of the withdrawal in Afghanistan, I think we, the FBI, are going to have a bigger and bigger role on the foreign terrorist threat,” Wray noted.

“So, partly, our budget request is designed to make sure that the sort of duct-tape approach that we’ve been using for the last 18 months to two years is not the way we have to continue going forward. So we can have a longer-standing commitment to the domestic terrorism load.”

“Would you agree that the sources of domestic terrorism include groups and ideologies on the left, on the right, from overseas such as ISIS?” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked the director. “In other words, there’s not just one ideological source of domestic terrorism, is there?”

“Certainly, when we look at domestic terrorism, we focus on the violence, and we’re sort ideology agnostic, if you will. And the domestic terrorism threat we see covers the waterfront from people — we don’t use terms like left and right, but we see the racially motivated violent extremists. We see militia violence and anarchist violence. We see people with this kind of salad bar of ideologies that don’t fit into any category,” Wray replied. “And then, of course, we tend to bucket it under the international terrorism side, the ISIS- inspired folks who are here. They’re not sent here by ISIS, but they’re here and they’re radicalized online.”

“That’s a huge category. And the plot that we disrupted that was talked about earlier involving the attempt to kill former President Bush is a good example of that threat. So, I think — I understand the focus on ideology, but for us, the focus has to be on the violence to make sure that we’re not getting — we’re not missing something in that regard.”

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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