Violent extremism motivated by racism is now a priority for the FBI “on the same footing as ISIS,” Director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
At a hearing on FBI oversight, Wray said that “we face a diverse and increasingly dangerous terrorism threat,” and “not only is the terror threat diverse, it’s unrelenting.”
“We continue to worry about international terrorism by groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, but now the threat from lone actors already here in the U.S. and inspired by those groups, the homegrown violent extremists, that threat is even more acute,” Wray said. “At the same time, we are particularly focused on domestic terrorism, especially racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.”
Just over the past several months, he added, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has “foiled synagogue bombings in Colorado, in Nevada, arrested eight members of the violent extremist group called The Base across four different states, arrested a guy down in Miami for planning ISIS-associated acts of violence — I could go on.”
Domestic terrorism and hate crimes are “at the top of the priority list” for the Bureau, Wray told lawmakers.
“There are a few things that I’ve done recently to further intensify our efforts. One, I created a few months ago a domestic terrorism and hate crimes fusion cell and the FBI to bring together the expertise of both our domestic terrorism folks and our hate crimes folks so that they’re working together to not just focus on the threats that have already happened, but to look ahead around the corner and anticipate where else we need to be,” he said.
“We have also ensured that all of our 200-plus Joint Terrorism Task Forces have domestic terrorism squarely in their sights, as another example,” Wray continued. “Last but not least, I would add that we have — I have elevated racially motivated violent extremism as a national threat priority for fiscal year ’20, which puts it on the same footing as ISIS and our homegrown violent extremist.”
The FBI director said the current “greatest threat to the homeland is certain things that cross between both the jihadist-inspired and the racially motivated violent extremist side, which is you have lone actors typically who are largely radicalized online and choose sometimes very quickly to go from despicable rhetoric to violence, choose easily accessible weapons — a car, a knife, a gun, may be an IED they can build crudely off of the Internet — and they choose soft targets,” which count as places where there are “everyday people living their everyday lives as opposed to like a government facility, so that is a restaurant, a mall, a school, a nightclub.”
That means “everything is a target,” he acknowledged, so “the challenge for law enforcement — federal, state, and local — is how are we going to act” when the time “between flash to bang is compressed, and the amount of information for a lone actor with that kind of attack is very, very, very limited.”
“So it is a real challenge. It is different from these sort of sleepers cells of the immediate post-9/11 era. We have about 1,000, probably over 1,000 homegrown violent extremist investigations as I sit here today testifying before this committee and it is in all 50 states and in all 56 of our field offices. So this threat is real, it is now and it affects communities big and small.”
Wray estimated there are currently “about 4,500-something investigators, federal, state, and local together to make sure that domestic terrorism is squarely within their sights.”
Asked what the FBI is doing to reduce the risk of active shooters, Wray noted that “in situation after situation, whether it’s the homegrown violent extremists or the racially motivated violent extremists or even just the sort of more classic school shooter, that in almost every instance, when you go back and look, there was someone, a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, a classmate, it could be anything, who saw — who knew the person well enough and saw a change in the behavior.”
“And, we say all the time, you hear that expression, if you see something, say something. Well, most of us, when we hear that, we picture the unattended backpack in the bus terminal or something, right? And, of course, we want people to say something then, too,” he said. “But, we’re really trying to push out the message that if you see something about someone that doesn’t seem right, we want you to say something. Most of the studies show that if we could get more of the American public to do that — and in some cases it requires a leap of faith in law enforcement, because they may be talking about somebody that’s very close to them — that’s the way we can ensure that some of these people get the help they need, but also more importantly, protect them from hurting other people.”
Wray said that the 2018 anti-Semitic attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh could have been even worse than the toll of 11 people killed. “One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is that but for a few completely fluke coincidences there would have been a whole bunch of kids going to, in effect, class at the top floor of that synagogue, and the death toll from that attack could have been exponentially worse — as horrifying and tragic as what actually happened was,” he said.