FBI chief says racist extremists fueling one another, making connections overseas

FBI chief says racist extremists fueling one another, making connections overseas
© Aaron Schwartz

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday said that violent, racially motivated extremists in the U.S. are connecting with foreign extremists, with some traveling abroad to train. 

Appearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, Wray was pressed to discuss how the FBI handles domestic terrorism suspects and how it is different than foreign terrorism suspects.

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"We are starting to see racially motivated violent extremists connecting with like-minded individuals overseas online, certainly, and in some instances we have seen some folks travel overseas to train," Wray said after Rep. Lou CorreaJose (Lou) Luis CorreaCriminalization that never should have been: Cannabis Man arrested, charged with threatening to attack Muslims in Germany Gloves come off as Democrats fight for House seat in California MORE (D-Calif.) expressed concern about domestic terrorists traveling to Ukraine for training. 

A U.S. Army soldier, Jarrett William Smith, was arrested last month on federal charges for allegedly sending instructions to build bombs over social media. Smith said he was interested in joining the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary group in Ukraine.

Asked about other places possible domestic terrorists would travel, Wray said "it varies" but that some go to parts of Eastern Europe. He said that some U.S.-based neo-Nazis have connected with foreign equivalents. 

He also said many extremists are inspired by what they see overseas. 

"Probably a more prevalent phenomenon that we see right now is racially motivated violent extremists here who are inspired by what they see overseas," he said, specifically referencing shootings at a pair of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a motivator for people who have been arrested in the U.S.  

Wray pointed at the lack of structure and organization among domestic terrorists as an issue that makes it “more challenging, for example, to get human sources or undercovers inserted. If there’s no organization to insert somebody into, that’s a challenge, so that’s part of the different nature of the threat.”

Rep. Max RoseMax RoseLawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep Navy cancels training flight over NYC on 9/11 after criticism MORE (D-N.Y.) pressed Wray and other law enforcement officials during the hearing on their efforts to counter white supremacist groups as terror organizations.

“If a white nationalist organization fits the criteria of an FTO [foreign terrorist organization], as I believe these do, should we consider designating them as such so you have the broad-based authorities you currently do to fight ISIS, al Qaeda and its affiliates?” Rose asked.

Wray said that FTO designations are the responsibility of the State Department. 

The U.S. has seen a spate of racially motivated violence domestically in recent years. This year, 22 people were killed in a shooting in El Paso, Texas, that authorities said was driven by a desire to kill Hispanic people. Last year, 11 were killed in a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.  

The FBI released a report last year saying that hate crimes in 2017 had risen 17 percent from the previous year.