In an exclusive interview with WIRED, FBI director Christopher Wray discusses a scourge that “moves at the speed of social media.”
“It’s not just the ease and the speed with which these attacks can happen, but the connectivity that the attacks generate.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray
As the United States marks the 25th anniversary Sunday of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray says technology is radically accelerating—and confusing—the landscape of modern terror threats.
“Terrorism today—including domestic terrorism—moves at the speed of social media,” Wray tells WIRED in an exclusive interview days before the anniversary of the attack known inside the FBI by the case name OKBOMB. “That has all kinds of ramifications that weren’t really present before, certainly not in OKBOMB and not even at the time of 9/11.”
Particularly troubling, Wray says, is how once-clear lines are blurring between “foreign” terror movements, like al-Qaeda or ISIS, and domestic terror groups motivated by white supremacy or the dislike of the US government. “We’re monitoring very closely a trend that may be starting to emerge, for example, of neo-Nazi actors here in the US who are communicating online with similar like-minded individuals overseas,” Wray explains, speaking by phone from the seventh-floor director’s suite of the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, which has largely emptied out as part of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In fact, Covid-19 news has buried a recent flurry of FBI and US government activity and developments around domestic terrorism. That includes a bizarre terror plot last month in Kansas City where an alleged would-be bomber was killed in a confrontation with FBI agents as he reportedly sought to target a hospital treating Covid-19 patients.
More recently, in early April, the State Department designated the ultra-nationalist Russian Imperial Movement, known as RIM, as a terrorist organization—the first time the US government has ever officially applied that label to a foreign white supremacist group. The designation allows the US to block Americans from dealing with RIM, financially or otherwise, and to sanction and seize any assets of the group held in the United States. The US also took the step of formally naming three RIM leaders—Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, Denis Valliullovich Gariev and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov—as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.”
“RIM is a terrorist group that provides paramilitary-style training to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and it plays a prominent role in trying to rally like-minded Europeans and Americans into a common front against their perceived enemies,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, in announcing the designation. “RIM has two training facilities in St. Petersburg, which likely are being used for woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons, and hand-to-hand combat training.”
The State Department pointed to RIM’s involvement in a Scandinavian terror plot in 2016, when two Swedish men traveled in August that year to RIM’s St. Petersburg facilities for 11 days of paramilitary-style training and returned to their home country to launch a series of terrorist attacks.
According to counterterrorism officials and observers, white supremacist movements like RIM increasingly mirror the global approach used by ISIS to build and foster a “virtual caliphate” of loosely linked, would-be extremists inspired from afar.
“We’ve seen networks of these white supremacist group say, ‘Let’s use the internet and social media to create a web of creativity about white nationalism and Neo-Nazi beliefs. Let’s get more of our ideology into public forums, call on people to take action, and praise that action worldwide,’” says Mary McCord, a veteran national security prosecutor who served early in the Trump administration as the acting assistant attorney general for national security and now teaches at Georgetown Law. “When someone carried out an attack, ISIS would claim him as a soldier of the caliphate even if there was zero evidence of physical contact.”
That same evolution has taken place among white supremacists. The Australian who killed 49 people in last year’s deadly Christchurch, New Zealand massacre referenced racially motivated shooters like Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik in his twisted manifesto. “You see attackers referencing other attacks and older attacks, like Dylann Roof,” McCord says. “That reminds me a lot of when ISIS hit the scene. The ideology is global. The labels domestic and foreign are utterly unhelpful today.”
“We’re clearly seeing people here in the US who are in some way triggered by or inspired by similar—or really just any kind of—terrorist activity overseas,” Wray says. “It’s not just the ease and the speed with which these attacks can happen, but the connectivity that the attacks generate. One unstable, disaffected actor hunkered down, alone, in his mom’s basement in one corner of the country, getting further fired up by similar people half-a-world away. That increases the complexity of domestic terrorism cases we have in a way that is really challenging.”
White supremacist groups in the United States have also seen a notable rebirth during the Trump administration, and burst into the public’s consciousness with the torch-bearing parade and hateful chanted slogans at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. That event left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead and 19 others injured after one self-proclaimed white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd.
“White supremacy and white nationalism has existed from the founding of our country, but it’s been hidden under rocks and caves for the last couple of decades—not entirely, but certainly since the KKK activity fell into disfavor in the 70s and 80s,” McCord says. “It all went underground for a while. It was still lethal, but what’s been more remarkable in recent years is how out in the open it is. That really started in the 2016 campaign when there was so much high-level, open talk about ‘anti-other.’ It became acceptable among some to speak more openly and participate in visible, physical demonstrations and open marches.”
The global linkages of white supremacist movements and inspiration-from-afar plots is being helped by message boards and social media platforms that, Wray says, “seem to almost exclusively exist to at least accommodate, if not facilitate, really unspeakable rhetoric, if not actual discussion of violence.”
Wray’s comment is a clear reference to message board sites like 8Chan, where three mass shootings were announced in advance last year—including the Christchurch massacre. That killer also streamed his rampage live online, overwhelming sites like Facebook and YouTube that tried to keep the graphic video off their platforms. “You have this phenomenon where you have people using GoPros or other kinds of efforts to film their attacks live, and then stream it right before they get arrested or killed by law enforcement,” Wray says. “Even if the subject is then put down in some way, the video lives on, and that has lingering and very real, dangerous effects here in the US.”
All of those trends—online and offline—are driving a worrisome and distinct upward rise in domestic terrorist plots. While 1995 and the Oklahoma City bombing remains the deadliest year on record since 1970 for domestic extremism, four of the other five deadliest yearshave come since 2015, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism. Last year, domestic extremists killed 42 people in 17 separate incidents, including 22 victims killed in a mass shooting targeting Hispanics at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, a massacre also announced ahead of time on 8Chan. “The most lethal domestic terrorism activity—the most violent domestic terrorism activity—has been this racially motivated violence,” Wray says.
Other senior national security officials increasingly share Wray’s fears about increasing levels of white supremacist violence. In February, Elizabeth Neumann, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy, told a congressional committee, “It feels like we are at the doorstep of another 9/11—maybe not something that catastrophic in terms of the visual or the numbers—but that we can see it building and we don’t quite know how to stop it.”
The same day Neumann testified on Capitol Hill, February 26, the FBI announced the arrest of five alleged members of a Neo-Nazi organization known as the Atomwaffen Division. The group was accused of engaging in a months-long campaign of harassment, intimidation, and fear against various black churches, journalists, government officials, and universities—including by “swatting,” calling in fake 911 calls meant to provoke an armed police response.
The arrests came just weeks after authorities cracked down on another militant Neo-Nazi group known as “The Base,” where small cells in Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Wisconsin had allegedly been involved in plotting and training for acts of violence. Among the charges was that one New Jersey member of The Base—a group name striking to counterterrorism officials since it’s the English translation of al-Qaeda—had allegedly used encrypted messaging systems to encourage two men from Wisconsin and Michigan to vandalize synagogues as part of something he dubbed “Operation Kristallnacht,” a reference to the infamous “Night of the Broken Glass” targeting Jewish stores in Nazi Germany.
The FBI’s investigation of The Base, Wray says, made clear how domestic terror groups increasingly look like national and international groups. “The Base is not as structured and formal a group as some of the more well-known international terrorism equivalents, but they operate heavily by encrypted chat rooms, they did have a military-style training camp and so forth,” says Wray. “In that sense, it starts to have a little bit more of the indicia of what we think of as kind of a traditional terrorist group.”
The best way to interdict such groups is clearly evolving—and while Wray says that the FBI has recently put white supremacist terror groups on the same priority level internally as groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, the broader US government hasn’t necessarily engaged on the same level and the Trump administration’s approach toward white supremacist organizations continues to evolve.
While the SDGT designation for RIM was unprecedented, the US government stopped short of formally naming RIM a “foreign terrorist organization,” which would unlock additional criminal sanctions and penalties for those associated with the group, a move that puzzled close counterterrorism observers. “There’s no question that an FTO designation would yield more FBI investigations,” McCord says.
The quarter-century anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing is a particularly poignant moment for Wray, who is nearly three turbulent years into the normally 10-year term of FBI director. The OKBOMB case has long existed as a backdrop to his government career; while he was just out of law school and in private practice when the incident happened in 1995, one of his first assignments upon arriving from being a federal prosecutor in Atlanta to the Justice Department’s headquarters under attorney general John Ashcroft in 2001 was to see through the execution of the main bomber, Timothy McVeigh.
“You get somebody who just wants to hurt people and is trying to figure out what the most inspiring excuse is.”
McVeigh killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing—including 19 children, many of whom were in the Murrah Federal Building’s government daycare center—after the Ryder truck he packed with nearly 5,000 pounds of explosives and parked outside the nine-story building exploded at 9:02 a.m. local time on April 19, 1995.
The Oklahoma City bombing punctuated another period of particularly deadly and controversial domestic anti-government extremism. An 11-day standoff in 1992 at Ruby Ridge, Idaho left dead a US marshal and two family members of the intended target, Randy Weaver. The following year, a 51-day siege of the Waco, Texas compound of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult ended with the deaths of four ATF agents and 82 of the Davidian members. McVeigh chose the date of his Oklahoma City bombing in part because it marked the anniversary of the fiery end of the Waco siege, as well as the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord.
Yet after his conviction at trial, McVeigh’s sentencing was almost derailed in 2001 by the FBI’s embarrassing discovery that it had not turned over thousands of pages of documents and evidence to the bomber’s defense team. Wray, then serving as the associate deputy attorney general, was assigned by Ashcroft to quarterback the Justice Department’s response to the mess, working with the FBI, prosecutors, and then-Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine. (Fine, incidentally, was recently fired by President Trump as part of a wider purge of the government watchdogs.) McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001.
The Murrah Federal Building bombing began to push terrorism to center-stage in the US government; architects and engineers began to consider “set-backs” to high-profile government buildings and talked of “hardening” design elements to protect occupants from vehicle bombs. Three months later, Bill Clinton issued a presidential directive labeling terrorism for the first time a “national security” issue.
Over the coming years—and particularly after the September 11 attacks—terrorism would become the main, overarching priority of the FBI. The bureau and US security agencies spent most of the first 15 years after 9/11 focused heavily on fighting international terrorism and Islamic extremism—a threat that evolved during that time from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda to regional affiliates like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to ISIS-inspired attacks around the world. Only in the last five years has domestic terrorism returned to being a main focus of the bureau.
“If you look at back in like 1995, I think the entire FBI had about 14 or 15 terrorism arrests—both international and domestic terrorism arrests—in a year,” Wray says. “For the last two or three years, we’ve been humming along at about a little over 100 of each—that’s over 200 arrests on international and domestic terror cases combined in a year.”
Today, Wray says, the main challenge that the FBI faces is how the so-called “signature” of would-be extremists has shifted dramatically. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 plot took years of planning and coordination among a large group spread across multiple continents. Today, many would-be extremists take few observable steps before launching a localized attack. “If you’ve got some guy who is just angry at the world, and he decides he’s not going to attack some spectacular target with an aircraft or an elaborately constructed bomb, he can just go get in his car and drive down a pedestrian walkway or grab a gun that he might own legally and go shoot up a school, a hospital, what have you,” Wray says.
“You have lone actors inspired online, deciding to go from anger to violence in the blink of an eye, using easily accessible but still lethal weapons, and going after basically soft targets instead of hard targets,” Wray says. “The challenge that presents is while it’s great to talk about ‘connecting dots,’ if there are not a lot of dots out there to connect, each dot takes on disproportionate significance.”
Moreover, while white supremacist or anti-government motivations appear to drive many would-be domestic extremists, Wray says it appears many of them simply appear to be aggrieved and want to do violence.
“We have a lot of what we would call inspiration-confusion. We’ve had cases like this where the same guy goes from one month following ISIS ‘Flames of War’ video stuff online and thinking that speaks to him—and then switching gears abruptly the next month and deciding some white supremacist or neo-Nazi things speaks to him,” Wray says. “A lot of these are people who are about the violence first and are looking for an excuse second—as opposed to the traditional terrorist organizations where somebody gets increasingly committed to a cause with a level of zealotry that is striking and then eventually goes from radicalization to mobilization. Here you get somebody who just wants to hurt people and is trying to figure out what the most inspiring excuse is.”
During his first year in office, Wray—who has kept a low profile throughout his nearly three years as FBI director—visited all 56 FBI field offices. During his Oklahoma City visit, he met with the mother and family of Baylee Almon, the one-year-old baby victim cradled by Oklahoma City firefighter Chris Fields in the most iconic imageto emerge from the bombing. Baylee’s mother, Aren Almon Kok, now has two other children; Wray recalls how he was taken aback in the meeting when the oldest told Wray that she hoped to be an FBI agent herself someday.
Wray has led the bureau through a particularly harsh period of criticism and controversy—some deserved, some not—and he says he often recounts the story of meeting that younger sister in talks to other field offices. “I often invoke that as one of many examples that I say to our folks about what I call ‘the brand that matters the most,’” he says. “There’s somebody who knows the FBI through how we responded to that attack and how we dealt with the victims and their families. She’s registering her opinion of the FBI by trying to figure out how to devote her life to working with us.”
Baylee herself would have turned 26 on Saturday.
All Rights Reserved for Garrett M. Graff