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FBI chief warns violent ‘domestic terrorism’ growing in U.S.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks as FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks as FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — FBI Director Chris Wray bluntly labeled the January riot at the U.S. Capitol as “domestic terrorism” Tuesday and warned of a rapidly growing threat of homegrown violent extremism that law enforcement is scrambling to confront through thousands of investigations.

Wray also defended to lawmakers his own agency’s handling of an intelligence report that warned of the prospect for violence on Jan. 6. And he firmly rejected false claims advanced by some Republicans that anti-Trump groups had organized the deadly riot that began when a violent mob stormed the building as Congress was gathering to certify results of the presidential election.

Wray’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his first before Congress since the insurrection, was the latest in a series of hearings centered on the law enforcement response to the Capitol insurrection. Lawmakers pressed him not only about possible intelligence and communication failures ahead of the riot but also about the threat of violence from white supremacists, militias and other extremists that the FBI says it is prioritizing with the same urgency as the menace of international organizations.

“Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “At the FBI, we’ve been sounding the alarm on it for a number of years now.”

The violence at the Capitol made clear that a law enforcement agency that remade itself after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to deal with international terrorism is now laboring to address homegrown violence by white Americans. President Joe Biden’s administration has tasked his national intelligence director to work with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to assess the threat. And in applying the domestic terrorism label to conduct inside the Capitol, Wray sought to make clear to senators that he was clear-eyed about the scope and urgency of the threat.

Wray said the number of domestic terrorism investigations has increased from around 1,000 when he became FBI director in 2017 to about 2,000 now. The number of white supremacist arrests has tripled, he said.

Many of the senators’ questions Tuesday centered on the FBI’s handling of a Jan. 5 report from its Norfolk, Va., field office that warned of online posts foreshadowing a “war” in Washington the following day.

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