National Security

FBI has 1,000 open domestic terror investigations: director

Greg Nash

FBI Director Chris Wray on Wednesday told lawmakers that the bureau currently has “about 1,000” open domestic terrorism investigations, amid ongoing debate about the government’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. that left a 32-year-old woman dead.

By comparison, the bureau also has about 1,000 open cases related to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Wray told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Wray also revealed that there have been 176 arrests of domestic terror subjects in approximately the last year. He was unable to provide lawmakers with the exact number of agents working on domestic terrorism investigations.

The bureau does not specifically delineate between domestic and international terrorism in its budget, Wray said, but instead shifts agents and analysts “seamlessly between squads depending on … the particular threat assessment.”

In August, a driver plowed into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally protesting the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., killing one counter-protester and injuring others. The violence sparked bitter debate over the relative seriousness of the threat from domestic extremists compared to extremists associated with ISIS.

Government data on the number of white supremacist incidents compared to the number of Islamist attacks is scant, but some independent data suggests that the number could be as high as 2 to 1 — including both plots and attacks carried out.

The bureau does not rank the level of threat from one higher than the other, Wray said Wednesday.

“We take both of them very, very seriously,” he said. “Our focus is on violence and threats of violence against the people of this country. That’s our concern — it’s not ideology.”

Civil rights advocates for years have argued that the U.S. has a double standard when it comes to political violence, with only acts committed by Muslims labeled “terrorism.” The term is rarely applied, they say, to attacks by right-wing white extremists like Dylann Roof, who was charged with hate crimes after opening fire in a black church in South Carolina in 2015.

Attacks by white supremacists are “almost triple” those by individuals who identify with a jihadist movement, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said Wednesday.

But, she complained, although Congress has held multiple hearings on ISIS, “We have had zero hearings on the threat of domestic terrorists and the threat they pose and our response to it.”

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called on the committee to launch an investigation into white supremacist extremism in the U.S.

At least as early as this spring, the FBI has been warning of the threat from white supremacist groups.

In a May bulletin, the bureau reported that white supremacist groups were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016, “more than any other domestic extremist movement.”

The violence in Charlottesville also led to questions about the potential need for legislation codifying domestic terrorism as a prosecutable crime.

The biggest difference in how the Justice Department investigates and prosecutes domestic terror cases versus international ones, Wray said Wednesday, is that there is that “there is not a domestic terrorism offense as such” — while there is a statute prohibiting material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

Federal law defines domestic terrorism as violent acts within the U.S. “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to influence government policy or conduct.

The designation can trigger enhanced investigative powers — as well as bring what might otherwise have been a state case under federal jurisdiction — but there is no specific crime associated with the term.

For crimes that aren’t typically associated with terrorism — like shooting a group of people as opposed to hijacking a plane, for example — prosecutors typically charge individuals with terrorism only if there is an international connection. That structure is baked into federal law to avoid sweeping up ordinary criminal activity under the umbrella of terrorism. Prosecutors faced with cases of domestic terror instead rely on other charges — like hate crimes, in the case of Roof — to go after perpetrators.

“A lot of the [domestic terrorism] cases we bring, we’re able to charge under gun charges, explosive charges, all manner of other crimes,” Wray said Wednesday. “We also work a lot with state and local law enforcement who can sometimes bring straightforward, easy-to-make cases — homicide cases, things like that.”

In its May joint intelligence bulletin, the bureau warned white supremacist groups were likely to commit more violent attacks.

The white supremacist movement “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year,” the bulletin said.

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