By Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett,
The Justice Department is forming a new domestic terrorism unit to help combat a threat that has intensified dramatically in recent years, a top national security official said Tuesday.
Matthew G. Olsen, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, announced the unit in his opening remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee, noting that the number of FBI investigations of suspected domestic violent extremists — those accused of planning or committing crimes in the name of domestic political goals — had more than doubled since the spring of 2020.
Olsen said the Justice Department already had counterterrorism attorneys who worked both domestic and international cases, and that the new unit would “augment our existing approach” to prosecuting those cases.
His testimony comes just a few days after the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, which some lawmakers view as evidence that the FBI was not taking sufficiently seriously the threat posed by domestic extremists and violence-prone members of far-right groups.
Olsen said the intelligence community had determined that “we face an elevated threat from domestic violent extremists — that is, individuals in the United States who seek to commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of domestic social or political goals.”
“This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat, helping to ensure that these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country,” Olsen said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) opened the hearing with a video showing footage and news coverage from the riot, taking aim at Republicans for not being fully supportive of congressional efforts to investigate the attack.
“They are normalizing the use of violence to achieve political goals,” Durbin said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) countered with a video showing footage of riots the previous summer at racial justice protests around the country.
“These anti-police riots rocked our nation for seven full months, just like the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol rocked the nation,” Grassley said.
The Justice Department and FBI have faced criticism in recent years for not focusing as intensely on domestic terrorism as they do international threats, though officials have insisted they take both matters seriously.
The White House last year released a national strategy to address the problem, calling for, among other things, new spending at the Justice Department and FBI to hire analysts, investigators and prosecutors.
Historically, domestic terrorism investigations come with more procedural and legal hurdles than cases involving suspects inspired by groups based outside the United States, such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. The charge of material support for a foreign terrorist group, for instance, has no legal equivalent for someone eager to commit violence in the name of domestic political goals.
As a result, domestic terrorism investigators often settle for filing gun or drug charges, and often those are filed in state — not federal — court, which can mask the extent of extremist threats.
From 2016 to 2019, the number of domestic terrorist suspects arrested per year fell from 229 to 107, before jumping to 180 in 2020. In testimony last year to Congress, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said that to handle the rapidly growing caseload, he has more than tripled the number of agents and analysts working on domestic terrorism cases.