FBI warns violent ‘domestic terrorism’ growing in US

Published March 4, 2021
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. — AP
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. — AP

WASHINGTON: FBI Director Christopher Wray bluntly labeled the January riot at the US Capitol as domestic terrorism on Tuesday and warned of a rapidly growing threat of homegrown violent extremism that law enforcement is scrambling to confront through thousands of investigations.

Wray also defended to lawmakers his own agency’s handling of an intelligence report that warned of the prospect for violence on Jan 6. And he firmly rejected false claims advanced by some Republicans that anti-Trump groups had organised the deadly riot that began when a violent mob stormed the building as Congress was gathering to certify results of the presidential election.

Wray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his first before Congress since the insurrection, was one in a series of hearings centered on the law enforcement response to the Capitol insurrection. Lawmakers pressed him not only about possible intelligence and communication failures ahead of the riot but also about the threat of violence from white supremacists, militias and other extremists that the FBI says it is prioritising with the same urgency as the menace of international terrorism organisations.

"Jan 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasising across the country for a long time now and its not going away anytime soon," Wray told lawmakers. "At the FBI, we’ve been sounding the alarm on it for a number of years now."

The violence at the Capitol made clear that a law enforcement agency that remade itself after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks to deal with international terrorism is now labouring to address homegrown violence by white Americans. President Joe Biden’s administration has tasked his national intelligence director to work with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to assess the threat. And in applying the domestic terrorism label to conduct inside the Capitol, Wray sought to make clear to senators that he was clear-eyed about the scope and urgency of the problem.

In quantifying the scale of the FBI’s work, Wray said the number of domestic terrorism investigations has increased from around 1,000 when he became director in 2017 to roughly 1,400 at the end of last year to about 2,000 now. The number of arrests of white supremacists and other racially motivated extremists has almost tripled, he said.

Many of the senators’ questions on Tuesday centered on the FBI’s handling of a Jan 5 report from its Norfolk, Virginia, field office that warned of online posts foreshadowing a war in Washington the following day. Capitol Police leaders have said they were unaware of the report at the time, and the former chief of the department has said he received no intelligence from the FBI that would have led him to anticipate the sort of violence that besieged them on the 6th. Five people died that day, including a Capitol Police officer and a woman who was shot as she tried to climb through a smashed window into the House chamber with lawmakers still inside.

Wray said the report was disseminated through the FBI's joint terrorism task force, discussed at a command post in Washington and posted on an internet portal available to other law enforcement agencies.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2021

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