Wray said that about 100 targets of FBI domestic terrorism investigations were arrested in the first three quarters of the federal government’s 2019 fiscal year, which ran from October 2018 through June 2019. That would put the current year on track to outpace the 120 domestic terrorism arrests the FBI recorded in fiscal 2018, but potentially below the 150 domestic terrorism arrests of fiscal 2017.
An FBI official said previously that about half of these arrested targets whose efforts the FBI seeks to “disrupt” are charged with state and local crimes, while others are charged with federal crimes that would appear on their face to be unrelated to terrorism.
Wray told the Judiciary Committee that the individuals in the “majority” of the domestic terrorism cases investigated by the bureau “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
The bureau takes domestic terrorism “extremely seriously,” Wray said, regardless of ideology. After the anti-Muslim terrorist attack in New Zealand in March, President Donald Trump said that he did not believe white nationalism was a rising global threat.
The U.S. government lacks a statute that broadly outlaws domestic terrorism, which can make federal officials hesitant to label acts of domestic terrorism what they are. The FBI Agents Association, among others, has pushed Congress to adopt such a statute, and polling indicates that most Americans would support that kind of law.
The federal government has sometimes struggled to convict alleged domestic terrorists or reached plea agreements that were more generous than they would have been if the defendant were inspired by designated foreign terrorist organizations.
In other clear cases of domestic terrorism ― such as in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 ― defendants have instead faced federal civil rights charges that led to lifetime prison sentences.
The 2019 domestic terrorism arrest figures would include Cesar Sayoc, the Trump fanatic who mailed pipe bombs to those he perceived as the president’s enemies last fall. Sayoc’s attorneys argued this week that the Trump “super fan” became convinced that Democrats were a threat based on the president’s rhetoric and the false stories that clogged his own social media feed. “A rational observer may have brushed off Trump’s tweets as hyperbole, but Mr. Sayoc took them to heart,” his attorneys wrote.
Wray’s remarks came the same day as a D.C.-based neo-Nazi reached a plea deal on a gun charge in a case that illustrates the problems federal officials face in domestic terrorism investigations. Jeffrey Clark, who has extensive ties to the alt-right, came under federal scrutiny because his relatives were concerned about his violent rhetoric in the days after his younger brother and fellow neo-Nazi committed suicide in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
Clark stockpiled racist gear in his room and considered the Pittsburgh shooter a “hero” whose victims “deserved” to be killed. A federal prosecutor said Clark was “a bomb” waiting to explode. But he was charged with a seemingly unrelated crime under a rarely invoked federal statute that makes it illegal to possess a firearm while using or addicted to a controlled substance.
Clark took a plea deal that will likely lead to a prison sentence of between 10 and 16 months. He was arrested in November, which means he could be released from custody right after his sentencing in September.