AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
After a series of deadly attacks targeting Latinos, Jews and other minority groups in this country, the FBI has faced a pointed question - what more can authorities do to fight the spread of white supremacist violence? Now we have an answer.
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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We elevated to the top-level priority racially motivated violent extremism so it's on the same footing in terms of our national threat banding as ISIS and homegrown violent extremism.
CORNISH: That's FBI Director Christopher Wray at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week for fiscal year 2020. He said the bureau is putting racist violence on the same threat level as foreign terrorist groups.
NPR's Hannah Allam covers extremism. She's here in the studio to talk more. Hey, there.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So did FBI Director Wray actually say any specifics about how the bureau plans to get tougher on racially motivated violence?
ALLAM: He did. And I mean, first off, just naming it as a priority sends a message, and it signals that this is a top-down order. Wray made it a point to mention he'd gone in person to the crime scene at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh almost two years ago, the site of the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. The FBI also launched a fusion group made up of agents working on both hate crimes and domestic terrorism. Wray called domestic terrorism and hate crimes, quote, "close cousins."
And so this is a merging of the criminal and the counterterrorism investigators. And then Wray also said we'd see changes in how the agency's 200 or so joint terrorism task forces - these are JTTFs - and they've really focused primarily on the Islamist extremist threat. And Wray said that those teams - we're talking 4,500 federal, state, local investigators - that they've been instructed to keep domestic terrorism, quote, "squarely within their sights."
CORNISH: What do your sources tell you about how this has played out in actual cases so far?
ALLAM: Right. Well, federal agents tell you, we've always been making these cases. And that's true. It's not a new category of threat. And to be clear, we are still talking about a fringe. But it's a fringe that's been seeping into the mainstream in some alarming ways. But yet it hasn't been typically treated as a national security issue. And in fact, it's been played down by the Trump administration, both in language and in funding priorities.
So yes, we are seeing a change in tone, and we're certainly hearing, you know, more from the FBI about these kinds of cases. You know, Exhibit A is the FBI's operation against the neo-Nazi group known as The Base. This is a group that wanted to trigger a race war. They were infiltrated, and authorities rounded up seven suspected members in the past month on a variety of federal charges. And this was a case that Wray pointed to at the hearing.
But he also stressed that the FBI investigates violence, not ideology. And just over the weekend, we saw two hate groups staging rallies in big American cities. In Portland, Ore., a KKK faction backed out of their event at the last minute because some protesters showed up. But the Patriot Front was right here in Washington, D.C., marching on the National Mall in masks, chanting, reclaim America. So the FBI's signaling a crackdown on racially motivated extremism, but some of these groups are defiant and continue to dance right up to that line of what's protected speech.
CORNISH: Given what you said earlier about how this issue has been played down in the past in some ways - in language and in funding - how significant a step is this?
ALLAM: Like everything in Washington, it depends on who you ask. For many civil rights groups, members of Congress concerned about the rise in hate crimes, they say it's about time. You know, there - there's been a lot of criticism about, you know, has the government been nimble enough in responding to the changing threat picture - this picture - you know, the jihadist threat receding, at least here in the U.S., the far-right coming to the forefront.
And so, you know, some people say this isn't new; it's part of the restructuring that's been happening. And still others, especially former officials who worked on - you know, on these issues say, sounds promising, but we want to see whether this kind of violence gets the staffing, the funding and, really, the urgency that we saw with the fight against ISIS.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hannah Allam. Thank you for your reporting.
ALLAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.