The FBI is conducting three times as many domestic terrorism investigations than it was five years ago, with 70 percent of its open cases focused on “civil unrest” and anti-government activity, according to FBI documents and government specialists. The Bureau has also quietly changed the general classification of white supremacy, antisemitism, abortion-, and anti-LGBTQI+-related extremism to “hate crimes” rather than “terrorism.” Since terrorism remains the top national security priority, this has lowered the visibility and resources dedicated to those issues.
The FBI considers all violent acts (and threats of violence) with a political motive to be terrorism, a senior government official explains to Newsweek. But not all acts of extremism are considered terrorism. “If an act is focused on the government, it’s terrorism,” the source says. “But if extremism is focused on private individuals or institutions, it’s considered just a crime or classified as a hate crime.” The source was granted anonymity to speak about classified matters.
On one level, the senior government source says, this is a more precise definition of domestic terrorism: the label is applied only to acts with political motives and mass casualties. But in reality, the tweaked classification inserts the FBI and counterterror investigators into the political life of the nation.
According to internal FBI numbers obtained by Newsweek, “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism” was considered the prime threat (and dominated investigations) before January 6. Since then, anti-government, “anti-authority” and civil unrest cases have taken over as the number one threat, making up almost 90 percent of all investigations.
“A hate crime is targeted violence motivated by the offender’s bias against a person’s actual or perceived characteristics,” said an FBI report issued in October, “while a DT [domestic terrorism] incident involves acts dangerous to human life that are in violation of criminal laws and in furtherance of a social or political goal.” As the number of cases involving politics has expanded, the FBI has doubled the number of agents working on the subject.
“It’s not because the FBI is partisan, but more because society … and Washington remains obsessed with January 6 and Donald Trump,” says the senior government official. “It doesn’t matter whether the activity is left or right, anti-Biden or anti-Trump,” the official says. “That’s the pool of suspected terrorists. In other words, the focus now is political terrorism.”
Of 2,700 open cases, where an individual or group of individuals has been designated domestic terrorists by the FBI, almost a third relate to the 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol or subsequent political activity connected to it. Since then, the counter-terrorism agencies have also focused on the transnational links of domestic individuals and groups—an approach that provides the intelligence agencies more authority to conduct surveillance and intrusive collection of information.