The director of the FBI considers racially motivated domestic extremists such as white supremacists the “top threat” facing Americans, as the nation continues to learn more about such people who perpetrated the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol last month.
“The top threat we face from [domestic violent extremists] continues to be those we identify as Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists (RMVEs), specifically those who advocate for the superiority of the white race,” FBI director Christopher Wray testified before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The FBI has formally elevated the threat from white supremacist groups to its top priority level, alongside Isis and its network of homegrown terrorists, Mr Wray said.
To quantify the rise of domestic terrorism in the US, Mr Wray divulged that the FBI is currently working through roughly 2,000 domestic terrorism cases. At a March 2019 congressional hearing, he said at the time that number was around 850 ongoing cases.
Notably, Mr Wray did not place “Antifa” on that same level, despite the committee’s Republican ranking member, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, spending most of his opening statement railing against the left-wing and anti-government extremist group’s violent actions amid racial justice protests in the summer of 2020.
Democratic chairman Dick Durbin of Illinois sought to pre-empt such “false equivalency” in his own opening statement: “We need to be abundantly clear that the white supremacists and other extremists are the most significant domestic terrorism threat facing the United States today,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security has also labelled white supremacist violence the biggest domestic terrorism threat facing the nation.
In response to a question from Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont on Tuesday, Mr Wray denied that the previous administration’s focus on stamping out left-wing extremism diverted FBI resources away from combating right-wing violence.
“We did not receive direction to nor did we separate or divert resources away from tackling racially motivated violent extremism — white — over to anarchist violent extremism or anything along those lines,” Mr Wray said. “In fact ... I elevated racially motivated extremism, the vast majority of which is what you would call white supremacist violence, to our highest threat priority, where it has stayed.”
The FBI director continued: “That drives resources, that drives the collection requirements for all of our field offices. And I think the results speak for themselves. We have significantly grown the number of investigations and arrests in the category that you're asking about. It was up to 1,400 by the end of last year, and it’s up to about 2,000 now, which is double where it was, the pace, when I started this job.”
Five people, including US Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, died amid the chaos of the 6 January Capitol insurrection. Two other USCP officers subsequently took their own lives.
Federal authorities have made hundreds of arrests on members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on the day of the riot.
“Certainly the Capitol attack involved violent extremists,” Mr Wray testified on Tuesday, noting that they come from a “variety of backgrounds”.
The ranks of the Capitol rioters include “quite a number of … militia violent extremists”, he said, mentioning the dozens of arrested men who have been connected to right-wing extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.
The FBI has also arrested several “racial” extremists, Mr Wray said, people who were “specifically advocating for the superiority of the white race”.
Mr Wray rejected conspiracy theories — promoted by Republican Senate Judiciary member Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and others — that the Capitol riot was a false flag operation precipitated by “fake Trump protesters” and other malign actors not associated with the overwhelming pro-Trump sentiment of the march on the legislature that day.
Mr Durbin asked the FBI director point-blank on Tuesday whether there were fake Trump protesters who stormed the Capitol.
“We have not seen evidence of that at this stage, sir,” Mr Wray said.