Federal law enforcement and homeland security officials warned about the growing threat of domestic terrorism at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday.
“The prevalent trend of Americans driven by violent extremist ideologies or personal grievances” to commit racially and ethnically motivated attacks has become “one of the most significant emergent threats” to national security, said acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.
“We see domestic terrorism as [a] persistent, evolving threat,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray, adding that domestic terrorists have committed more fatal attacks than international terrorists in the U.S. in recent years.
These concerns were echoed by Russell Travers, acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and David Glawe, undersecretary in charge of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.
Wray clarified that “international terrorism is very much alive and well and something we need to stay focused on too.” But he and the other witnesses emphasized how rapidly advancing technology and the increasingly disorganized nature of terrorism in general make homegrown terrorism uniquely dangerous at this time.
“Terrorism today moves at the speed of social media,” Wray said. While there have been cases of American white supremacists traveling overseas to train with groups in Eastern Europe, as well as some known ties “between U.S.-based neo-Nazis and their overseas analogues,” Wray said that for the most part, interactions between individual U.S.-based extremists and like-minded individuals overseas is limited to social media, internet forums and, increasingly, encrypted messaging technology.
“They’re not working together but they’re inspired by each other,” he said.
Wray suggested that the counterterrorism tools developed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, crucial for tracking the nexus of more structured foreign terror groups such as al-Qaida, aren’t as useful against the “increasingly diffuse” nature of today’s terror landscape.
“The whole concept of going after organizations is still valid, but the threat we face right now isn’t so much about organizations,” Wray said when asked whether it would be helpful to formally designate European white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups as foreign terror organizations.
Doing so may be useful, he said, “but isn’t going to hit the biggest threat we face here” which is “self-radicalized terrorists” who pick up their ideology online and act alone.
The witnesses also acknowledged other obstacles, such as the need for more funding for DHS efforts to identify potential radicals and the absence of a federal criminal charge for domestic terrorism.
Wray said the FBI has been “laser-focused on threats from within the country,” relying on “creative workarounds,” including bringing other types of federal charges and handing off cases to state and local authorities who can bring cases more readily. In fiscal year 2019, he said, the FBI made 107 domestic terrorism arrests, slightly fewer than the number of arrests (around 121) for international terrorism made during the same period.
Beyond domestic terrorism, the witnesses addressed a variety of other threats, including those posed by ISIS and other foreign terror organizations, the potential for biological attacks and election interference efforts.
Travers warned against complacency.
“Terrorism may no longer be viewed as the No. 1 threat to the country,” he said, but the “threat itself continues to metastasize and will require very close attention in years ahead.”
Many of the members of the committee, especially Democrats, including Chairman Bennie Thompson, expressed concerns about the lack of a permanent, confirmed secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
McAleenan, a career homeland security official who previously served as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, recently announced his intention to resign after sixth months as acting director. He was the fourth person to run the department since President Trump took office and was never officially nominated. Thursday was slated to be McAleenan’s last day in office, but by the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing, Trump had yet to name his replacement. Overnight, the New York Times reported that the White House had found a legal loophole that could allow Trump to install one of his political allies who’d previously been considered ineligible.
“At no time in my tenure on this committee have I been more concerned about DHS’s ability to ability to carry out its mission,” Thompson said in his opening remarks. “Beyond the secretary and deputy secretary,” he continued, “11 components and offices within DHS are operating with acting leaders, and in all but two cases the president has yet to nominate anyone to fill these vacancies.”
However, McAleenan repeatedly dismissed questions about whether such instability in leadership could harm the department’s ability to effectively address domestic security threats.
He acknowledged that “it’s always good to have confirmed leaders,” but insisted, “I’m not worried.”
“I’m very confident with the quality and caliber of leadership [among] the frontline people across this entire department,” said McAleenan.
Asked whether he was prepared to stay on at DHS if a new acting secretary had not been named by Thursday, McAleenan said “I hope a plan for successor is imminent, but if necessary I will absolutely ensure a smooth transition.”
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