WASHINGTON — Less than a week before three lone gunmen began cutting bloody swaths through three American cities, FBI Director Christopher Wray sounded a prescient alarm of the growing threat within.
Wray described the troubling risk posed by domestic violent extremism, animated by racial tension, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other domestic unrest as now nearly on par with the once all-consuming threat posed by international terrorism.
“The FBI is most concerned about lone offender attacks, primarily shootings, as they have served as the dominant lethal mode for domestic violent extremist attacks,” Wray told a Senate panel.
“We anticipate law enforcement, racial minorities and the U.S. government will continue to be significant targets for many domestic violent extremists.”
The FBI director’s warning came on the heels of an unusual appeal by the Secret Service, which last month requested the the public’s assistance in an effort to thwart future attacks by lone assailants.
An agency review of mass attacks in 2018, found that in more than three-quarters of the cases, the attackers engaged in suspicious or alarming communications that posed potential safety concerns to family members and others.
“Because these acts are usually planned over a period of time, and the attackers often elicit concern for the people around them, there exists an opportunity to stop these incidents before they occur,” the agency concluded.
Just as 9/11 opened the nation’s eyes to the peril posed by international terror, the nearly-weekly examples of gun violence highlights a gathering storm led by untethered extremists inside a country riven by racial and political discord.
The Saturday massacre in El Paso, Texas, which left 20 dead and 26 others wounded, closely followed by a deadly attack in Dayton, Ohio, dramatically underscored a crisis that the nation is struggling to confront.
“My emphasis is based on the body count, and given the numbers we’re seeing now it has to inform the response,” said former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, who helped oversee the deadly 2013 Boston Marathon bombing investigation, whose plotters were motivated in part by Islamic extremism.
“You have to prepare for emerging threats. In the 1980s, it was sexual assault; in the 1990s, it was the drug epidemic,” the commissioner said, referring to the periods immediately before post-9/11 spotlight moved to international terrorism.
“We evolve from issue to issue. We have to change our focus.”
Perhaps, most striking of the fast-moving weekend developments, was law enforcement’s acknowledgement that investigators were reviewing the Texas massacre as a potential hate crime because of the gunman’s possible connection to a racist screed posted on social media just before the attack, spewing open disdain for Hispanics.
Emmerson Buie, chief of the FBI’s El Paso office, confirmed Saturday that federal authorities had initiated a hate crime and domestic terrorism review that will run parallel with a state murder investigation.
John Bash, the region’s chief federal prosecutor, said the shooting appeared to be designed to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” fueling the pursuit of domestic terrorism charges. The charges, Bash warned, could carry the death penalty, putting the full weight of the federal government behind the El Paso inquiry into the alleged shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas.
Yet well before the spasm of weekend violence, lawmakers and law enforcement officials had been expressing deep concerns for a long-simmering threat.
In May 2017, a joint bulletin issued by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security specifically highlighted the risk posed by white supremacist extremists, detailing 49 deaths in 26 attacks between 2000 and 2016.
The numbers represented “more than any other domestic extremist movement,” according the FBI-DHS bulletin.
“We are in a very tense moment in American history on race,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told the FBI director just two weeks ago, as Wray outlined the current threat. “As serious as we take foreign inspired terrorism, there is domestic terrorism underway in the name of race that is as threatening in some respects as foreign terrorism.”
Wray said that while home-grown extremists inspired by international terror groups and global jihadists remain the “greatest terror threat to the homeland, that does not mean that we don’t take domestic terrorism extremely seriously.
The FBI director went on to list some of the more stunning recent attacks, including the April attack on a Poway, Calif., synagogue that left one dead; the 2018 Pittsburgh, Pa., synagogue assault that killed 11; and the 2015 Charleston, S.C., church shooting that left nine dead.
Both synagogue shootings involved suspects who allegedly espoused anti-Semitic views before or during the attacks. The 2015 Charleston assault was carried out by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, who has since been convicted and sentenced to death.
Wray has asserted that the FBI was moving aggressively against such extremists.
Make no mistake, the FBI working with our state and local law enforcement partners, is all over this,” Wray said.
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