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How The FBI Is Responding To The Rise In Home-Grown Extremism


Federal prosecutors have charged more than 170 people so far in connection with the Capitol riot. The insurrection has increased pressure on the Biden administration to tackle domestic violent extremism. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Gregory Ehrie is no stranger to domestic terrorism in America. That's because he spent a good chunk of his FBI career investigating it.

GREGORY EHRIE: The threat of domestic terrorism certainly isn't new. It's something that the country and the bureau has been dealing with for literally its existence.

LUCAS: In recent years, domestic violent extremists, particularly white supremacists, have caused more deaths than people with links to international terrorist groups like al-Qaida. Two horrific attacks, one on a Pittsburgh synagogue and the other at an El Paso Walmart, are prime examples of the lethal nature of the homegrown far-right threat. The insurrection at the Capitol, meanwhile, points to the growing scale of the problem.

MICHAEL JENSEN: The last 4 1/2 years have been incredibly problematic in terms of how big this problem has gotten.

LUCAS: That's Michael Jensen, a terrorism researcher at the University of Maryland. He says the problem stems in part from the torrent of disinformation and conspiracy theories that proliferated on social media and were then amplified by President Trump while he was in office.

JENSEN: We potentially now are dealing with a problem of mass radicalization. So we're not talking about the case of a few people here and there that got themselves caught up in an extremist milieu and then radicalized. We're potentially talking about millions of people.

LUCAS: Jensen says there's no easy answer, but he says programs to counter extremism must factor into the equation because the country can't arrest its way out of the problem. And yet, the responsibility to prevent attacks falls in large part to the FBI. Director Christopher Wray said last year the bureau had put domestic extremists motivated by race and religion on the same threat level as international terrorism. The bureau says it has adjusted resources to be commensurate with the threat, but observers say more still needs to be shifted to the domestic side of the ledger.

One example is the FBI's domestic terrorism, or DT, section. It looks into all domestic terrorism investigations and coordinates with the FBI's field offices. Gregory Ehrie led that section from 2013 to 2015. At the time, he says, it had roughly 20 people in it. The international terrorism section, in contrast, had several hundred. Ehrie, who is now at the Anti-Defamation League, says the FBI should look at more of a balance between the two sections because of the growing threat from domestic extremists.

EHRIE: And that needs to be resourced properly, which (ph) - focusing the investigators, the analysts and putting more people on it so they can work, again, with the field to investigate and mitigate those threats.

LUCAS: He also points to the 200 or so joint terrorism task forces around the country. Over the years, they have primarily focused on jihadist extremist threats. The FBI director has said he's instructed the task forces to keep domestic terrorism, quote, "squarely within their sights." But Ehrie says not all task forces have squads dedicated to domestic terrorism. Some former officials argue that's appropriate since each task force can best assess how to use its resources. But Ehrie thinks there should be a squad dedicated to domestic terrorism on every task force because it would allow agents and analysts to develop an expertise.

EHRIE: If you did this with DT and we could dedicate those assets to it, you're going to have not only a focus and an identification of the groups that are in that region, but that bureau sharing across the country.

LUCAS: There are unique challenges that arise in investigating domestic terrorism, particularly when trying to prevent attacks before they happen.

BARBARA MCQUADE: It's a little tricky when you're in the domestic terrorism environment because, certainly, speech and association are not crimes and people have a right to do that. But you want to stop violence before it occurs.

LUCAS: Barbara McQuade oversaw both domestic and international terrorism investigations when she served as the U.S. attorney in Detroit. There has been a long-running debate about creating a new domestic terrorism statute. McQuade says that might help law enforcement because it would make it easier to open an investigation, to use wiretaps and informants and other tools to infiltrate organizations.

MCQUADE: But even with the statutes we have on the books, I think just a more fulsome focus on this threat and taking it seriously at the highest levels of government, devoting resources to it to ensure that we are disrupting acts of violence, I think, is an important first step.

LUCAS: The Trump administration largely ignored the issue. But in his first days in office, President Biden instructed the director of national intelligence to pull together a comprehensive threat assessment of domestic violent extremism, an indication that the new administration views this as a priority.

Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.