FBI has finally recognized far-right domestic terrorism as a top-tier threat
That recent spate of FBI arrests of violent neo-Nazis planning acts of terrorism is apparently not a fluke: The agency, according to its director, now recognizes far-right extremists as the leading threat of domestic terrorism in the United States, and has adjusted its enforcement work accordingly.
Appearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s oversight panel this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray explained that he had placed “racially motivated violent extremists” at the agency’s highest threat level, comparable to that assigned to terrorism by Islamic State actors.
“We’re particularly focused on domestic terrorism, especially racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists,” Wray told the committee. “Not only is the terror threat diverse, it’s unrelenting.”
In a written statement given to the committee, Wray explained, “Trends may shift, but the underlying drivers for domestic violent extremism—such as perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, socio-political conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions—remain constant.”
Wray added, “The top threat we face from domestic violent extremists stems from those we now identify as racially/ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs). RMVEs were the primary source of ideologically-motivated lethal incidents and violence in 2018 and 2019, and have been considered the most lethal of all domestic extremism movements since 2001.”
Much of his time in the Wednesday hearing was devoted to responding to Republican committee members who were not even remotely interested in the issue of right-wing terrorism; rather, they were focused on questioning Wray about whether the FBI had handled the 2016 investigations into Donald Trump’s campaign connections to Russian operatives. Wray deflected most of those questions by affirming, as he had previously, that the FBI concurred with the report from the Department of Justice inspector general's office that found that, while there was some inappropriate mishandling of documents, the surveillance was fully justified.
The FBI director answered questions related to his stated purpose for appearing before the committee—namely, addressing questions about domestic terrorism—more fully, explaining in detail the nature of the shift in agency priorities. “We have directed all of our joint terrorism task forces to have domestic terrorism squarely within their sights,” he said. “We have created the domestic terrorism-hate crimes fusion cell to ensure that we are bringing not just the counterterrorism resources, but on the criminal investigative division side are civil-rights enforcement folks lashed up with the domestic terrorism folks. I’ve elevated, recently, right-wing violent extremism to a national threat priority to the same bandwidth with ISIS.”
Wray also explained that “lone wolf” terrorists are the bureau’s primary concern. “We had about the same number of arrests in the last fiscal year on both fronts. But in either case, I would say that for us, we assess that the 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. They choose easily accessible weapons—a car, a knife, a gun, maybe an ID they can build crudely off of the Internet—and they choose soft targets. And that threat, that is what we assess is the biggest threat to the homeland right now.”
Wray’s statement further explained that “lone offender attacks, primarily shootings” have “served as the dominant lethal mode for domestic violent extremist attacks. More deaths were caused by domestic violent extremists than international terrorists in recent years.”