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FBI director Wray testified in September that racially motivated violent extremism is the biggest category within domestic terrorism, and of that group, those who are white supremacists are the biggest category.
The acting director of Homeland Security recently testified that white supremacist extremists in 2018-19 were the most persistent and lethal threat when referring to domestic violent extremists.
Independent think tanks and researchers have also flagged the threat of white supremacists.
At an NBC town hall in Miami, a woman asked former Vice President Joe Biden what he would do to stop white supremacist groups as president.
"No. 1, the president's own FBI chief has said the greatest domestic threat to terrorism are white supremacists," Biden said. "And when you have a president saying to one particular group of white supremacists that, in fact, stand down but stand by, that is like a clarion call to get ready."
Biden was referring to President Donald Trump’s debate comments for the far-right Proud Boys group to "stand back and stand by." The next day Trump said he didn’t know who the Proud Boys were and that "they have to stand down, let law enforcement do their work."
We found that Biden is correct. FBI director Christopher Wray singled outwhite supremacists during a Sept. 17 House Homeland Security committee hearing.
During the hearing, Wray testified broadly about the FBI’s investigation of terrorism threats and security issues and answered questions about antifa, Black Lives Matter and white supremacists.
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst, asked Wray to discuss the number of investigations into white supremacist groups versus groups on the left.
Wray replied that the FBI has roughly 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations a year, though it is a "good bit north of a thousand this year."
"Everything from racially-motivated violent extremists to violent anarchist extremists, militia types, sovereign citizens, you name it. Of the domestic terrorism threats, we last year elevated racially-motivated violent extremism to be a national threat priority commensurate with a homegrown violent extremists," Wray testified. "That’s the jihadist-inspired people here and with ISIS."
Slotkin pressed further and asked how many of the cases or arrests involved white supremacists.
"What I can tell you is that, within the domestic terrorism bucket category as a whole, racially-motivated violent extremism is, I think, the biggest bucket within that larger group, and within the racially-motivated violent extremists bucket, people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that," Wray said.
"So the white supremacists are the largest chunk of the racially-motivated domestic terrorists?" Slotkin asked.
Wray replied "yes" part way through her asking the question.
Then Wray explained: "Racially-motivated violent extremists over recent years have been responsible for the most lethal activity in the U.S. Now this year, the domestic terrorism, lethal attacks we’ve had have, I think, all fit in the category of anti-government, anti-authority, which covers everything from anarchist violent extremists to militia types. We don’t really think in terms of left, right."
The Biden campaign also pointed to Wray’s testimony to a Senate committee Nov. 5, 2019, when he made similar comments.
"A huge chunk of those domestic terrorism investigations involve racially-motivated, violent extremist-motivated terrorist attacks," Wray said. "And the majority of those, of the racially-motivated, violent extremist attacks, are fueled by some kind of white supremacy. And I would say that the most lethal activity over the last few years has been committed by those type of attackers."
Experts on terrorism pointed to other information from the federal government or independent sources that back up Biden’s statement.
"I think Biden’s interpretation of Wray’s statements is correct, and it is supported by a separate threat assessment done recently by the Department of Homeland Security," said Michael Jensen, principal investigator at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
Jensen pointed to a Sept. 4 article by Politico that a draft report from the Department of Homeland Security identified white supremacists as the gravest terror threat to the United States. Two later drafts of the same document used slightly different language about the threat of white supremacists. PolitiFact did not directly see the drafts; however, the final report in October stated that among domestic violent extremists "racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland."
Data sets maintained by think tanks and university researchers match the federal government’s warnings about white supremacy. START’s Global Terrorism Database shows that from 2015-19, white supremacists were responsible for more attacks in the U.S. than other types of extremists.
A separate study of terrorist incidents by the Center for Strategic and International Security in June 2020 found "the most significant threat likely comes from white supremacists, though anarchists and religious extremists inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda could present a potential threat as well."
An expert also pointed to the Sept. 23 testimony by Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that white supremacists have become the "most persistent and lethal" internal "threat" to the U.S.
"White supremacist extremists, from a lethality standpoint over the last two years, particularly when you look at 2018 and 2019, are certainly the most persistent and lethal threat when we talk about domestic violent extremists," Wolf said.
Brian Levin at the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, said last year his center found at least 29 suspected white supremacist/far right extremist motivated homicides. The number represented the third consecutive increase, constituting a clear majority of all extremist homicides in 2019. In 2020, domestic extremist homicides are down so far, but far right/white supremacist homicides are again the most lethal, Levin said.
Biden said that the FBI director said "the greatest domestic terrorism threat are white supremacist groups."
In September, Wray testified to that general effect, and he made similar comments in 2019.
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U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Threat Assessment, October 2020
Politico, DHS draft document: White supremacists are greatest terror threat, Sept. 4, 2020
Rev.com, House Homeland Security Hearing Chris Wray Testimony Transcript, Sept. 17,2020
Email interview, Rosemary Boeglin, Joe Biden campaign spokesperson, Oct. 6, 2020
Email exchange with Michael Jensen, senior researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, Oct. 6, 2020
START, Global Terrorism Overview: Terrorism in 2019, July 9, 2020
Center for Strategic and International Studies, The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States, July 17, 2020
USA Today, Acting DHS secretary: White supremacy is 'most persistent and lethal threat' internally to US, Sept. 23, 2020
Email interview with Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, Oct. 6, 2020
Email interview with Neil Shortland, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Oct. 6, 2020
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