The FBI now considers threats posed by white supremacists and other racist extremists to be a top investigative priority for the agency, FBI Director Christopher Wray said as he explained his agency’s counterterrorism strategy on Wednesday.
“Racially motivated violent extremism” has been elevated to “a national threat priority” for the fiscal year 2020, Wray told the House Judiciary Committee, saying that “puts it on the same footing as ISIS and homegrown violent extremists” inspired by foreign terrorist groups.
Over 2018 and 2019, domestic terrorists motivated by racial or religious hatred were “the primary source of ideologically motivated lethal incidents and violence,” the director said. They have also been considered the most deadly of all domestic extremism movements since 2001, he said.
A majority of hate-based attacks in recent years have been “fueled by some type of white supremacy,” Wray said.
White supremacist attacks have indeed been on the rise globally, and some of the country’s most deadly mass shootings in recent years have been carried out by extremists motivated by race or religion. The gunman who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year had posted a manifesto online praising white supremacist ideals. The mass shooter at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart who left 22 dead and more than 20 wounded back in August also wrote a manifesto. His railed against immigrants.
Though the FBI identifies white supremacist extremism as a threat on par with foreign-born terrorism, the federal government has a hard time classifying racist extremists as domestic terrorists, and rarely prosecutes them as such. According to federal law, “domestic terrorism” can’t be prosecuted as a stand-alone crime ― it is defined, but no criminal penalties are associated with its definition.
After Dylann Roof opened fire on a black church in South Carolina in 2015, he was charged with hate crimes ― 33 of them ― for killing nine parishioners. Roof, a young white man, grew to hate black people through the internet. Similarly, Robert Bowers was charged with hate crimes for killing 11 people inside a Pennsylvania synagogue in 2018.
The way domestic terrorism is treated differently than international terrorism has also come under scrutiny, and some lawmakers and FBI agents agree there should be a law making it easier to charge domestic extremists as terrorists. Others fear that such a law could be used to go after civil liberties groups such as Black Lives Matter or environmental organizations, and argue the government has enough tools to prosecute extremists without needing to call them terrorists.
Labels aside, the threat they pose is not going away anytime soon thanks to the internet, which allows for at-home self-radicalization. A relatively new division within the FBI, the Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell, created last year, aims “to combat the threat at home” by ensuring “seamless information sharing,” Wray said.