WASHINGTON — FBI Director Christopher A. Wray assured Congress last month that his agents were aggressively combating domestic terror threats from a broad array of extremist groups.
“The FBI, working with our state and local law enforcement partners,” he said, “is all over this.”
But the bureau is now scrambling to investigate domestic terrorism on two fronts — a mass shooting in Gilroy, Calif., followed days later by a far more deadly attack in El Paso — that appears to undercut Wray’s assertions and raise questions about whether the FBI is doing enough to identify and stop murderous plots by home-grown fanatics with no ties to foreign terrorist organizations.
Some former law enforcement officials and Democratic lawmakers contend federal agencies have been caught flat-footed by a surge in mass shootings by white supremacists and other extremists targeting minorities, immigrants and religious groups.
Indeed, the gunman who killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso on Aug. 3 pushed the total number of victims slain in domestic right-wing terrorism since 2002 to 109. That’s more than the 104 people killed on U.S. soil by zealots linked to al-Qaida or other foreign Islamist groups, the chief FBI focus since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The FBI has been slow to react to this, to realign resources,” said Daryl Johnson, a former Homeland Security analyst who wrote a controversial 2009 memo warning of the rise of right-wing extremism, sparking a political backlash. His unit was later disbanded and the department’s work on violent right-wing extremism was halted.
“This problem is growing,” added Johnson, who recently published “Hateland,” a book on the threat. “This is a persistent problem that needs to be addressed.”
By any measure, the dangers posed by domestic terrorists have been building for years.
The FBI arrested 115 domestic terrorism suspects in fiscal 2018 and appears on pace to arrest as many this year. The vast majority, agents said, are driven by racist and anti-government ideology.
A senior FBI counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters in May, said the bureau had recorded a “significant” rise in cases involving “racially motivated extremism” since last fall. He declined to provide specifics, or attribute what might be behind the spike.
Overall, FBI agents have arrested more suspects in domestic terrorism investigations in the last three years than in probes with an international nexis — 355 people versus 310. The FBI did not provide a breakdown of charges lodged against the suspects, or the status of their cases.
The FBI currently has about 850 open investigations into domestic terrorism, officials said, although that tally is down slightly from last year.
Outside experts said the FBI needs to do a better job of infiltrating extremist groups and identifying so-called lone wolves, such as the alleged El Paso gunman, who told police he became self-radicalized after reading and posting racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic screeds on social media and the internet.
Just as al-Qaida increasingly relied on sympathizers and supporters acting independently to launch attacks around the globe, right-wing zealots are increasingly acting on their own after reading hate-filled material online. That has made investigations far tougher.
“If they keep to themselves, how do you uncover that?” asked Joseph Persichini Jr., a former top FBI agent. “Most of these recent gunmen, if not all of them, are very independent.”
The FBI has a checkered past of infiltrating civil rights organizations, black community groups and civil liberties organizations in the 1960s, among other abuses. It now is far more careful to stay inside the law as it investigates national security threats.
FBI agents, for example, face restrictions on opening investigations into domestic organizations, even those appearing to threaten racial or religious groups, because the U.S. Constitution protects free speech and gun ownership.
“Our focus is on the violence,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23. The FBI doesn’t “investigate ideology, no matter how repugnant. We investigate violence. And any extremist ideology, when it turns to violence.”
Former agents said that can make domestic extremism more difficult to tackle than threats linked to Islamic State, which is deemed a foreign terrorist organization and thus a clear target for law enforcement.
Justice Department rules govern the conduct of investigations that might involve free speech rights. Agents can’t launch an inquiry into a white supremacist for spewing racist bile — the suspect must first commit a crime, such as plotting an attack, officials said.
“People do have the right to say certain things,” said Tom Baker, a former top FBI official. “When they advocate violence or commit another crime, that is where it steps over the line. We don’t want the FBI intruding into the political process or policing speech.”
The suspect in the El Paso shooting, for example, told investigators he came to his racist views on his own, largely by reading online screeds, and hadn’t joined or been influenced by any group, a law enforcement official said.
Patrick Crusius, who is being held without bail in the case, had posted an online manifesto shortly before the shooting that said he was acting in response to the Hispanic “invasion” of the United States. He told police that he targeted Mexicans, authorities said.
Suspects sometimes amass a buffet of radical beliefs, which can complicate attributing an attack to a specific ideology. The FBI is conducting a domestic terrorism investigation into the shooting that left four people, including the gunman, dead on July 28 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, but agents are still unsure of the assailant’s motives.
They said the gunman, 19-year-old Santino William Legan, was exploring competing violent ideologies and had lists of other potential targets, including religious organizations, courthouses, federal buildings and political institutions involving both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The FBI is also assisting in the investigation of the shooting that killed nine people on Aug. 4 in Dayton, Ohio, hours after the El Paso massacre. The FBI is not yet treating the case as an act of domestic terrorism because it is unclear if the shooter, who was killed, had a political or ideological motive.
Still, it can be difficult to assess how well the FBI is confronting domestic terrorism because it has released scant information about its investigations or its assessments.
It has refused to release detailed statistics on its caseload, even the number of racially motivated suspects it is investigating, despite FBI officials saying such cases represent about 40% of its 850 investigations. Lawmakers are also pressing the FBI to produce an annual report on domestic terrorism.
“We have not seen the intensity and focus on where the problem really is — right-wing radical terrorism,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson is also critical of the Department of Homeland Security’s decision to shift resources away from countering anti-government and white supremacist groups.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said he is seeking more resources from Congress to battle white supremacism and domestic terrorism. “We need to invest more — no question,” McAleenan said on “CBS This Morning,” adding he felt his department was responding aggressively to the threat.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wants leaders at the FBI and Department of Justice to speak out more forcefully about right-wing extremism, but said they may fear being rebuked by President Trump. He and other Democrats argue that Trump’s racist tweets and comments have encouraged far-right groups to come out of the shadows.
“This is politically fraught,” Schiff said. “They would look like they were criticizing the president’s rallies, speeches and Twitter feed.”
The FBI director and top Justice Department officials, including Attorney General William Barr, insist they take domestic extremist groups extremely seriously. “We very aggressively treat domestic terrorism as a priority,” Wray told the Senate committee.