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Racially-motivated violent extremists elevated to "national threat priority," FBI director says

The FBI has elevated its assessment of the threat posed by racially motivated violent extremists in the U.S. to a "national threat priority" for fiscal year 2020, FBI director Christopher Wray said Wednesday. He said the FBI is placing the risk of violence from such groups "on the same footing" as threats posed to the country by foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS and its sympathizers.

"Not only is the terror threat diverse — it's unrelenting," Wray said at an oversight hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

Racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, or domestic terrorists motivated by racial or religious hatred, make up a "huge chunk" of the FBI's domestic terrorism investigations, Wray said in statements before the Senate Homeland Security Committee last November. The majority of those attacks are "fueled by some type of white supremacy," he said.

Wednesday, Wray said combating domestic terrorism and its "close cousin," hate crimes, are at the "top of the priority list" for the FBI.

His statements indicate the FBI is just as concerned about racially-motivated violent extremists, including white supremacists, as it is about the threat posed by homegrown violent extremists inspired by foreign terrorist organizations. Wray said both pose a grave threat because the perpetrators are often "lone actors," self-radicalized online, who often look to attack "soft targets" such as public gatherings, retail locations or houses of worship

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In many cases, perpetrators can move quickly from rhetoric to violence, Wray said.

"They choose easily accessible weapons — a car, a knife, a gun, maybe an IED they can build crudely off the internet — and they choose soft targets," Wray said. "That threat is what we assess is the biggest threat to the homeland right now."

Racially-motivated violent extremists were the primary source of ideologically-motivated violence in 2018 and 2019 and have been considered the most lethal of all domestic extremists since 2001, Wray said in a statement Wednesday. 

The FBI and Department of  Homeland Security have evolved on the issue of threats posed by domestic extremists over the last year or so, reports CBS News' Jeff Pegues, and federal law enforcement officials have faced criticism that they've been sluggish in their response to the increased risk posed by white supremacists and other racially-motivated violent extremists. The public message from federal law enforcement has changed as the threats have intensified. 

In March of 2019, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen insisted Islamist militants such as al-Qaida and ISIS, and those inspired by them in the U.S., remained the country's "primary terrorist threat," but said the department was focused on all kinds of violent extremism.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Trump mentioned the fight against "radical Islamic terrorism" but not the terror threat fueled by other forms of hate.

Wray spoke Wednesday in response to questions about how the FBI is "proactively" responding to an increase in hate-motivated crimes. Anti-Semitic hate crimes have surged in cities across the country including New York, and hate crime murders reached a record high in 2018, the most recent year for which federal data is available. FBI data shows hate crimes overall were down just slightly in 2018 following three years of increases. That year saw the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, when 11 worshipers were slain at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

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Wray cited the Domestic Terrorism-Hate Crimes Fusion Cell, which he launched in spring of 2019, to share information and resources between FBI criminal investigation and terrorism divisions. The fusion cell "brings together the expertise of both our domestic terrorism and our hate crime folks, so they're working together to not just focus on the threats that have already happened, but to look ahead, around the corner, and anticipate where else we need to be," Wray said.

Wray also said he's instructed the FBI's more than 200 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which work with state and local law enforcement around the country, "to have domestic terrorism squarely in their sights."
 
Speaking last November, Wray said the FBI netted about 107 domestic terrorism arrests in fiscal year 2019, on par with the number of international terrorism arrests. On Wednesday, Wray said Joint Terrorism Task Forces have arrested eight suspected members of "The Base," which the FBI has called a neo-Nazi group, in four states, and foiled synagogue bombing plots in Nevada and Colorado.

Justice Department sources have told Pegues to expect more federal arrests targeting white supremacists, including those with ties to "nationalist" organizations in Europe, Ukraine and Russia.

– CBS News' Jeff Pegues contributed reporting.

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