WASHINGTON (CN) – Radical ideologies like white supremacy are spreading faster thanks to social media while violence from domestic terrorism has outpaced attacks linked to Islamic extremism, a group of senior law enforcement officials told Congress on Wednesday.
Testifying before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Michael McGarrity, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, said of the roughly 850 domestic terrorism investigations currently open, about half are rooted in anti-government and anti-authority ideology, while at least 40% are racially motivated.
“The majority of those cases identified as racially motivated involve those who support superiority of the white race,” McGarrity said Wednesday.
When the Committee on Homeland Security was first formed a little over a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, its focus was primarily on international terrorist threats but the threat landscape changed over time.
“There is a domestic terrorism threat that is persistent and it is notably on the rise,” McGarrity said. “But now there is an evolution: we still have al-Qaida and ISIS but in the last four to five years, homegrown violence and extremist threats have increased because [people] can more easily get on the internet and self-radicalize.”
Any ideology can be found on the internet, he added, and it isn’t hard for a person to justify their own violent behavior when it takes little effort to confirm their own bias online.
Brian Murphy, principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, said Wednesday the department has had to readjust how it identifies threats and how threats manifest themselves into violence specifically because of the internet’s ability to amplify a message quickly.
“Lone actors from these movements pose the greatest threat because of their ability to remain undetected by law enforcement,” Murphy said.
A person can spew hateful ideas on social media, for example, but never have to interact face-to-face with a real person or engage in any kind of genuine “conspiratorial” behavior to push their agenda.
The department currently has 2,000 counter terrorism agents employed, but only 250 are focused on domestic terrorism issues in particular. The Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council works with the Justice Department, FBI and Homeland Security to train federal, state and local officials on how to process domestic terrorist threats, hoaxes, hate crimes and more.
Prevention is the chief priority, the officials told Congress.
But despite the advisory council, the U.S. still does not have a domestic terrorism statute on the books. Instead, the Justice Department relies on tangentially related statutes to prosecute domestic terrorists.
“We don’t differentiate between a domestic terrorism attack we’re trying to stop or an international terrorism attack. It’s a terrorist attack we’re trying to stop,” McGarrity said.
But this lack of nuance in the law means it is harder to understand just how pervasive violent ideologies are, which can complicate the government’s ability to track extremist bias or deter it.
Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., expressed frustration with the lack of information made available to the public and to the committee directly, and asked officials why the FBI has abandoned its monthly briefings to the committee on both foreign and domestic threats as well as counterintelligence matters.
“Two weeks ago, a domestic terrorist attacked a synagogue in San Diego, killing one woman; in February, a former Coast Guard lieutenant was indicted after planning an attack on prominent Democratic politicians. Last October, there was an attack on the Tree of Life synagogue [in Pittsburgh] and that same month, [admitted mail bomber Cesar Sayoc] sent pipe bombs all across the country,” Thompson said.
The chairman noted there have been more arrests of extremists in the last two years than ever before and nearly all of the extremism-related murders in the country were committed by right-wing domestic terrorists.
The uptick in violence has led Thompson to propose legislation that would require the federal government to regularly report data on domestic terrorism.
While clearer statutes and better reporting on domestic terrorism could do much to improve long-term law enforcement capabilities and deterrents, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said the onus also fell on agencies to recognize the influence and importance of a nation’s “bully pulpit.”
“If the bully pulpit is used for good, can it be far-reaching?” Jackson Lee asked the officials.
All agreed it could. But right now, it is not being used that way, Jackson Lee said.
“The president of the United States has not done enough to deal with quashing the rising acceleration of domestic terrorism and hate in this country. He has a very important responsibility, heads the government, gives guidance to the DOJ and there hasn’t been enough done. In fact, we see, in the last decade, it’s become an increasing concern,” she said.
Last year, domestic extremists killed 50 people in the U.S., a sharp increase from 37 killed in 2017.
Contentious or even repugnant language may be legal or considered free speech, but as Representative Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., noted Wednesday, that water can grow murky quickly.
For example, Clarke said, manifestos published online by white supremacists may be considered protected speech, but those manifestos are often used as launch pads for more violent operations.
Brad Wiegmann, deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, said while he could understand the congresswoman’s frustration, the criminal codes are clear.
“We need more than a statement. We need a statement that specifically indicates a threat of violence. There is a process,” Wiegmann said.