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Domestic terrorism investigations and arrests shot up in 2021

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Early this morning, Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was brutally attacked in their California home. It's a developing story, and the intruder's motivations remain to be seen. But it comes as a new government report on domestic terror threats shows the number of domestic terrorism investigations and arrests in the United States shot up last year, compared to a year earlier. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent, Odette Yousef, joins us now. And Odette, we are still learning about what happened today, but this report does tell us about domestic terrorism last year. What jumps out to you?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, Juana, this is the second annual report that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have sent to members of certain congressional committees. It's required by law. And it's basically a roundup that shares some numbers and trends in the domestic terrorism landscape. It also talks about how various agencies are working together on the issue. And this report's important because it gives some baseline information to policymakers and researchers who are concerned about the increased threat we're seeing from domestic terrorists, particularly from violent white supremacists.

And so the main standouts in this report are two numbers. First, the FBI investigated 2,700 potential cases of domestic terrorism last year. That's nearly twice what they investigated the year before, Juana. And then the second number is how many domestic terrorism arrests were made. Last year, it was 800, compared with just 180 the year before.

SUMMERS: OK. And Odette, as I'm thinking through the timing here, that would include the aftermath of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, right?

YOUSEF: That's right. And those January 6 cases are a huge part of this increase. One thing that experts say could be clearer is how the FBI categorized those January 6 cases. Many appear to have been filed under civil unrest, but we know that there were members of organized extremist groups there, like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, and so the report doesn't clarify whether those individuals were all lumped into this civil unrest category. Michael Jensen of the University of Maryland says that kind of detail is actually really important because it helps to clarify where federal resources need to go.

MICHAEL JENSEN: These are individuals that are pursuing certain social, political, religious, economic goals. And in order to combat that, especially in terms of prevention, we have to understand what it is they're trying to achieve. We have to understand what their grievances are. We have to understand the narratives that they're using to recruit individuals.

SUMMERS: That all does seem important. So Odette, are lawmakers working with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to make this report better in the future? And I guess I want to ask - what does this report tell lawmakers about what they can or need to do?

YOUSEF: Well, everyone says there are still major gaps in the information that federal law enforcement is gathering on this issue, Juana. Senator Gary Peters of Michigan leads the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He's been wanting 10 years of data, and he wants it to include more data from local officials that might fall under domestic terrorism. He says the FBI and DHS continue to say they can't access those numbers.

GARY PETERS: But that's not acceptable to me or members of our committee. These are our two national organizations focused on crime and terrorism issues. And if we're going to have an effective national response to what is considered the most lethal terrorist threat facing this country from domestic terrorists, we need to have that information.

YOUSEF: So it's not clear that this report is going to move the needle, Juana, when it comes to new policies that can help stem the continued rise of domestic terrorism in the U.S.

SUMMERS: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.