A Justice Department official on Tuesday announced the formation of a specialized unit to combat domestic terrorism, saying investigations into violent extremism have skyrocketed.
FBI investigations into domestic terrorism cases have more than doubled since March 2020, and the new unit will augment the department’s existing approach to prosecuting those crimes, said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, who leads the department’s National Security Division.
“This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country,” he said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Justice officials said the new focus on domestic terrorism does not target groups based on their political leanings, but they identified one of the biggest threats coming from citizen militias.
Tuesday’s hearing was part of a steady drumbeat in Washington raising concerns of a growing domestic terrorism threat in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack.
“The insurrection should be a wake-up call,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “A reminder that America is still confronted with the age-old menace that’s taken on a new life in the 21st century: terror from White supremacists, militia members and other extremists who use violence to further their twisted agenda.”
He echoed President Biden, who has vowed not to let right-wing extremists put “a dagger at the throat of democracy.”
Over the summer, President Biden announced a sweeping strategy to deal with the threat, which the administration said largely “emerges from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and networks whose racial, ethnic, or religious hatred leads them towards violence.”
The Department of Homeland Security deemed the threat of “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” a “national threat priority.” The FBI announced in November that it has 2,700 open investigations of domestic extremism.
“The threat posed by domestic terrorism is on the rise,” Mr. Olsen told the Senate panel. “The number of FBI investigations, over the past two years since March of 2020 have more than doubled.”
But the administration’s approach has raised concerns among some Republican lawmakers who say the administration has ignored left-wing violence and leveraged fears of right-wing terrorism to target political opponents.
The top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, condemned the attack on the Capitol in his opening remarks but said little attention has been paid to the “nearly 600 riots that came before it.”
“Last summer, President Biden released a domestic terrorism strategy that made no mention of the 2020 riots, though they comprise about a fifth to a quarter of the FBI’s current domestic terrorism cases,” he said. “There was almost no mention of leftwing terrorism at all.”
Jill Sanborn, the executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch testified that agents opened more than 800 cases and made more than 250 arrests stemming from protests in cities across the U.S. in 2020.
Meanwhile, 725 people have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot, of those 325 face felonies, according to the FBI.
The figures point to the administration’s singular focus on “right-wing” extremism, said Lora Ries, a senior homeland security research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“They’re suddenly putting a lot more attention and punishment to a single day’s riot where they didn’t for a year’s worth of riots,” Ms. Ries said.
“For the spring and summer rioters, even if they did arrest them, they were cut loose the next day — no bail, no follow up charges,” she said. “And yet for Jan. 6, those who are arrested have continuously detained before they even get a hearing. This is not equal justice.”
Mr. Grassley also said Mr. Biden’s strategy suggested that “partisan policies of gun control and teaching critical race theory were part of the solution.”
He remains concerned that partisanship continues to contaminate the administration’s crackdown on extremism following Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo directing federal law enforcement agencies to target parents protesting school boards.
“Using violent attacks to try to advance unrelated policy goals is a shameful tactic,” Mr. Grassley said. “It undermines what our law enforcement officers are trying to do to stem the violence in this country. It undermines the universal, nonpartisan indictment we should all bring to bear against extremist violence. There can’t be exceptions.”