There are currently the same number of open investigations into foreign terrorists as there are into domestic violent extremists affiliated with white supremacists, anti-government and other groups, the newly-appointed FBI director has told lawmakers
Director Christopher Wray said the bureau currently has “about 1,000 open domestic-terrorism investigations,” and “about 1,000 open related to ISIS investigations,” during his first testimony at the Senate Homeland Security Committee Wednesday.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) questioned if the FBI has been prioritizing investigations into terror groups affiliated with the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) over investigations into domestic terrorists.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that there have been three times as many terror attacks committed by “far right violent extremists” than those affiliated with international terrorist groups since September 11, 2001.
The report found that from September 12, 2001, through the end of 2016, “far right violent extremists,” committed 62 terror attacks in the US, resulting in 106 fatalities, according to statistics from the US Extremist Crime Database (ECDB). During the same period, radical Islamist terrorists committed 23 attacks in the US, killing 119 people.
Activities of “far left-wing violent extremist groups did not result in any fatalities during this period,” the GAO report said.
McCaskill argued that while “the fatalities are almost equal,” there has not been the same response from the FBI or lawmakers to crack down on the domestic terrorism threat.
“We’ve had multiple hearing on the threat of ISIS as it relates to Homeland Security. We’ve had zero hearings about the threat of domestic terrorists and the threat they pose in our country and our response to it,” McCaskill said.
“We take both of them very, very seriously,” Wray disagreed. “Our focus is on violence and threats of violence against the people of this country,” he told the committee. “It’s not ideology or anything else. It’s the danger and violence and threat toward people in this country.”
Wray added that there have been 176 arrests for domestic terrorism in the past 11 to 12 months.
“I can assure you that it’s a top, top priority for us,” Wray said.
The FBI director said investigations into white supremacists are handled in a “similar” way to cases involving foreign terrorists. However, he added that the FBI does have more tools available to charge foreign terrorists.
“There is not a domestic terrorism offense as such ‒ like there is a material support to foreign terrorism provision. Of course, there are certain tools, investigative tools, like FISA, only available for foreign offenses,” Wray said.
The director assured the committee that the FBI is just as effective in charging foreign and domestic terrorists, even if it has to invoke different laws to do so. Sometimes the best charge may not be terrorism, he said.
“There may be reasons why it’s simple, easier, quicker, less resource intensive, and you can still get a long sentence with some of the other offenses,” Wray testified. “So, even though you might not see them from your end as a domestic terrorism charge, they are very much domestic terrorism cases that are just being brought under other criminal offenses.”
He said he has not heard any his team complain about being restricted from going after domestic terrorists.
“We have brought neo-Nazi cases and will continue to bring them when we have the elements of the offense. And I have not been hearing from my folks that they have felt hamstrung in that space,” Wray said. “But, as I have said, we could always use more tools in that toolbox to be effective as possible.”