WASHINGTON – The week before three lone gunmen cut bloody swaths through three American cities, FBI Director Christopher Wray sounded a prescient alarm about the growing threat within.
Wray described the risk posed by domestic violent extremism, animated by racial tension, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other unrest, as 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 July 23. “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 requested the public’s assistance last month in an effort to thwart 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 communication 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 Secret Service concluded.
Just as 9/11 opened the nation's eyes to the peril posed by international terror, the nearly weekly examples of gun violence highlight a gathering storm led by untethered extremists inside a country riven by racial and political discord.
The massacre Saturday in El Paso, Texas, which left 20 dead and 26 wounded, followed closely by a deadly attack in Dayton, Ohio, underscore a crisis that the nation struggles to confront. Almost a week before those attacks, a gunman killed three people at a food festival in Gilroy, California.
"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 investigation into the deadly Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, 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 before the post-9/11 spotlight moved to international terrorism. "We evolve from issue to issue. We have to change our focus."
Darrel Stephens, former executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said ideologically motivated mass attacks have been "on the radar" of law enforcement officials for years, but authorities lacked critical support from lawmakers on gun regulation and mental health assistance.
"The challenge for law enforcement is that unless these (suspects) are extremely active and visible, they are hard to detect," Stephens said, adding that lawmakers could help in part by agreeing to extend the controversial ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.
"Some of this is just common sense, but I have to tell you that if we couldn't summon political support after Newtown (the 2012 Connecticut school shooting that left 26 dead) or Las Vegas (the 2017 concert shooting that claimed 58 lives), I don't know what it will take. I'm just not optimistic."
Investigators reviewed the Texas massacre as a possible hate crime because of a racist screed spewing disdain for Hispanics that was purportedly posted by the suspect on social media just before the attack.
Emmerson Buie, chief of the FBI's El Paso office, confirmed Saturday that federal authorities 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, Patrick Crusius, 21, of Allen, Texas. Crusius is white.
Well before the spasm of weekend violence, lawmakers and law enforcement officials expressed concerns over the long-simmering threat of domestic extremists.
In May 2017, a joint bulletin issued by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security highlighted the risk posed by white supremacists, detailing 49 deaths in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016.
The numbers exceeded "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 two weeks ago as Wray outlined the 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 although 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 listed some of the recent attacks, including the attack in April that left one dead at a synagogue in Poway, California; the Pittsburgh synagogue assault that killed 11 in 2018; and the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine dead in 2015.
Both synagogue shootings involved suspects who allegedly espoused anti-Semitic views before or during the attacks. The Charleston assault was carried out by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof, who was convicted and sentenced to death.
Wray asserted that the FBI moves 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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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: El Paso Walmart shooting, Dayton shooting equal overseas terror threat