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Domestic terrorismWhite nationalists as much of a threat to U.S. as Islamists: FBI

Published 2 October 2017

In a testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last Wednesday, FBI director Chris Wray said his agency was currently conducting “about 1,000” open domestic terrorism investigations. He said that, by comparison, the FBI also has about 1,000 open cases related to the ISIS. In its May joint intelligence bulletin, the FBI 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 FBI bulletin said.

In a testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last Wednesday, FBI director Chris Wray said his agency was currently conducting “about 1,000” open domestic terrorism investigations.

He said that, by comparison, the FBI also has about 1,000 open cases related to the ISIS.

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

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

Newsweek reports that the government has but scant information comparing the number of white supremacist attacks to the number of Islamist attacks, but that independent research by different organizations suggests that the number of white supremacist attacks and foiled plots is as high as 2 to 1 relative to Islamist attacks and foiled plots.

Wray said that the FBI does not rank the level of threat from one as higher than the other.

“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 and academic researchers have argued that the term “terrorism” has been politicized, with only acts committed by Muslims labeled “terrorism.” The term is hardly ever applied to attacks by white supremacists, sovereign citizens, and other right-wing white extremists.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) said during the Wednesday hearings that attacks by white supremacists are “almost triple” those by individuals who identify with a jihadist movement. Congress has held multiple hearings on ISIS, she complained, but “We have had zero hearings on the threat of domestic terrorists and the threat they pose and our response to it.”

Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), the former attorney general of California, urged the committee to launch an investigation into white supremacist extremism in the United States.

The Hill reports that for a few months now the FBI has highlighting the threat posed bywhite supremacist groups.

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

Wray told lawmakers on Wednesday that the biggest difference in the way the Justice Department investigates and prosecutes domestic terror cases versus international ones, 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 United States “intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or to influence government policy or conduct.

The application of the designation can open the door for 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.

Legal analysts said that for crimes which are not typically associated with terrorism — for example, shooting a group of people as opposed to hijacking a plane — prosecutors tend to charge individuals with terrorism only if they have an international connection. The Hill notes that the reason for this is to avoid, on the federal level, bringing run-of-the-mill criminal activity under the category of terrorism. Prosecutors faced with cases of domestic terror instead rely on other charges like hate crimes 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.