Justice Department to create special unit focused on domestic terrorism

The Justice Department’s top national security official told legislators on Tuesday that the department is establishing a special unit to focus on domestic terrorism.

In his announcement, the official described an “elevated” threat from violent extremists in the United States.

While testifying just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the riot at the U.S. Capitol over supposed election fraud, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said the number of FBI investigations into potential domestic violent extremists has grown by more than double since the spring of 2020.

“We have seen a growing threat from those who are motivated by racial animus, as well as those who ascribe to extremist anti-government and anti-authority ideologies,” he said. 

The creation of a new, specialized unit emphasizes the extent to which violent domestic extremism has attracted attention from the federal government and even at the White House. But the issue is still politically divisive as the lack of a federal domestic terrorism statute means there are uncertainties regarding what violence fulfills the definition.

The United States criminal code says that domestic terrorism is violence intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population and to influence government policy, but there is not currently a single domestic terrorism charge.

Executive assistant director in charge of the FBI’s national security branch Jill Sanborn testified on Tuesday with Olsen, saying the greatest threats come from lone extremists or minute cells who radicalize online. “This includes both homegrown violent extremists inspired primarily by foreign terrorist organizations as well as domestic violent extremism,” she said. 

Many Republican leaders have looked to shine a spotlight on the 2020 rioting that erupted throughout American cities that was born of racial justice protests, underscoring the idea that those incidents could be considered domestic terrorism as well.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa showed footage of the 2020 violence and said, “Those anti-police riots rocked our nation for seven full months.”

Both the FBI and Justice Department have said they treat domestic extremist violence equally no matter the ideology. Sanborn noted that the FBI has opened over 800 investigations in connection with the 2020 rioting and has arrested more than 250 people. 




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