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FBI: Capitol attack not 'isolated event,' domestic terrorism cases doubled in recent years

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)
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In his first major public appearance since the storming of the Capitol, FBI Director Christopher Wray characterized the attack as "domestic terrorism" and part of the evolving threat posed by ideological extremists.

Wray testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday on the origins of the Capitol insurrection while addressing allegations that the agency failed to provide adequate intelligence to law enforcement agencies who were on the ground Jan. 6.

"That attack, that siege was criminal behavior plain and simple and it's behavior that we the FBI view as domestic terrorism," Wray asserted.

The FBI continues to track down leads and identify suspects. So far, more than 270 people have been arrested and there are hundreds of investigations ongoing.

Wray warned that Jan. 6 was "not an isolated event." The problem of domestic terrorism has been "metastasizing" and "it's not going away anytime soon," he said.

During Wray's tenure as FBI director, the agency's domestic terrorism caseload has doubled to about 2,000. Racially motivated violent extremism accounts for the largest chunk of those cases, with white supremacist violence leading as the most persistent and lethal threat.

The number of white supremacist arrests has almost tripled since 2017 and in 2019, the FBI elevated racially motivated extremism to the highest-level threat priority, on par with foreign terrorist threats from groups like ISIS.

At the same time, anarchist violent extremism has also been on the rise. In 2020, amid nationwide protests, the FBI arrested more anarchist violent extremists than it had in the past three years combined.

However, on Jan. 6, anti-government militia violent extremists made up the largest portion of suspects, by far. The FBI has also identified suspects motivated by white supremacy.

Wray shot down rumors that the Capitol invasion was staged by Antifa or "fake Trump supporters." Criminal investigations turned up a number of cases of militia violent extremists, including individuals who identify with the Proud Boys of Oathkeepers, as well as white supremacists.

"We have not, to date, seen any evidence of anarchist violent extremists or people subscribing to Antifa in connection with the sixth," Wray said.


Given the FBI's growing focus on ideological extremism, lawmakers pressed the director about how the agency failed to anticipate the assault on the Capitol.

"I think the American people listening to these past ten days of hearings and knowing how much information was out there, on social media, in other fora about these thugs and riders coming to Washington...are wondering why didn't the FBI sound the alarm?" Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., pressed.

Wray said the issue highlights "one of the most challenging jobs for law enforcement" in the world of social media. "There is so much chatter often unattributed to somebody in a neatly identifiable way," he continued, describing the unimaginable volume of violent posts that analysts trawl.

"Separating out which ones are getting traction, which ones reflect intention, as opposed to aspiration, is something that we spend an enormous amount of time trying to do. Sometimes we don't have the luxury of time to make those judgments," he said.

Lawmakers asked Wray about the agency's handling of a Jan. 5 intelligence memo from the FBI's Norfolk field office warning of specific threats of violence against the Capitol and members of Congress.

The report cited social media chatter with individuals telling followers, "Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in." Adherents were told to "go there ready for war." There were posts with maps of the underground of the U.S. Capitol complex, perimeter maps and plans to bring back the wounded.

Both Capitol Police and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) acknowledged receiving the information but blamed the FBI for not flagging it as a higher priority. Despite looking prophetic in hindsight, the memo came across as "raw" and "uncorroborated" intelligence, law enforcement officials told Congress last week. As a result, agencies did not adjust their posture based on the information.

Wray defended the FBI's handling of the information. The agency disseminated the Norfolk assessment through three channels: an email to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, a command post briefing with Capitol Police and MPD and a post on the Law Enforcement Enterprise Portal.

Additionally, the FBI sent out several warnings to federal, state and local law enforcement partners warning of possible domestic terrorism and violence throughout 2020, with two intelligence directives going into the election and for the period leading into the inauguration.

As the FBI brings more charges against rioters, officials are learning more about how the attack was planned, coordinated and financed. Wray suggested that one barrier in the investigation comes from Big Tech and social media companies, which are increasingly providing users with end-to-end encryption tools that criminals use to evade law enforcement.

Terrorism "moves at the speed of social media," Wray argued. If tech companies continue in the direction of default encryption, the FBI will be in a position where "no matter how bulletproof or ironclad the legal authority, no matter how compelling the facts and circumstances no matter how horrific the crime or heartbreaking the victim, we will not be able to get access to the content we need to keep people safe."


Director Wray also waded into the contentious debate over a new domestic terrorism law, saying he would not turn down additional authorities.

Wray said the agency has had remarkable success disrupting attacks using existing law enforcement tools. "Certainly, I think you would be hard-pressed to find any FBI director who wouldn’t welcome more tools in the toolbox," he said.

So far, federal authorities have also been able to bring simple, straightforward charges against individuals involved in domestic terrorism. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, questioned whether the charges "get to the heart" of the domestic terrorism threat. For example, many of the individuals involved in the Capitol riot have been accused of assaulting federal officers, unlawful entry, theft of government property, disorderly conduct and conspiracy.

Wray was less committal on the issue of drafting a list of domestic terrorist groups. U.S. law designates specific foreign terrorist groups, like ISIS or al-Qaida, and makes it a crime to provide material support to those groups. There is no similar law for domestic terrorism. There are also no specific criminal penalties for individuals charged with domestic terrorism.

Asked if there should be a formal designation for domestic groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or even the Ku Klux Klan, Wray responded, "I think there's reasonable debate about whether or not it would really advance the needle."

Civil rights groups and civil libertarians have warned that a domestic terrorism designation would be ripe for government abuse and could impinge on the right to free association.

Former President Donald Trump promoted the idea of a domestic terrorism law over the summer to designate the far-left Antifa group and target anyone who provided the group with financial support.

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During the 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden voiced his support for a domestic terrorism law but has not pushed the issue since taking office.

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