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New terrorism guide shows FBI still classifying Black 'extremists' as domestic terrorism threat

Jana Winter, Marquise Francis and Sean D. Naylor
·9-min read

More than three years after the FBI came under fire for claiming “Black identity extremists” were a domestic terrorism threat, the bureau has issued a new terrorism guide that employs almost identical terminology, according to a copy of the document obtained by Yahoo News.

The FBI’s 2020 domestic terrorism reference guide on “Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism” identifies two distinct sets of groups: those motivated by white supremacy and those who use “political reasons — including racism or injustice in American society” to justify violence. The examples the FBI gives for the latter group are all Black individuals or groups.

The FBI document claims that “many” of those Black racially motivated extremists “have targeted law enforcement and the US Government,” while a “small number” of them “incorporate sovereign citizen Moorish beliefs into their ideology, which involves a rejection of their US citizenship based on a combination of sovereign citizen ideology, religious beliefs, and black separatist rhetoric.”

Protesters march for the fifth consecutive night of protest on September 6, 2020, following the release of video evidence that shows the death of Daniel Prude while in the custody of Rochester Police in Rochester, New York. Maranie R. Staab/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters in Rochester, N.Y., on Sept. 6, following the release of video evidence that showed the death of Daniel Prude while in the custody of Rochester police. (Maranie R. Staab/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, a leaked copy of an FBI report on “Black identity extremists” sparked an outcry from activists, civil rights groups and Congress, who criticized the bureau for portraying disparate groups and individuals as a single movement, even though the only common factor was that those associated with the term were Black Americans. Those critics also faulted the FBI for equating isolated attacks against law enforcement with those perpetrated by white supremacists, which even the FBI said represent the majority of domestic terror attacks in recent years.The American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the government as part of a Freedom of Information Act request for records on the FBI’s use of the term “Black identity extremist” and its targeting of Black activists, said the new report continues to show underlying problems with the bureau’s approach to domestic terrorism.

RMVE FBI Terrorism Guide by Yahoo News on Scribd

“As evidenced by this reference guide, white supremacists are the ones actually carrying out violent attacks, yet the FBI continues to equate them with Black activists and Black-led organizations who exercise their First Amendment-protected right to speak out against racism and racial violence committed by police,” Mark Carter, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, told Yahoo News. “Putting Black activists in the same category as violent racists is absurd and illogical.”

In 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers that the bureau had abandoned the term “Black identity extremist” and had instead moved toward the term “racially motivated violent extremist.” Yet the new terrorism reference guide outlines two types of such racially motivated extremists: those who are motivated by the belief in the superiority of the white race, and those who are Black and motivated by political causes, including racial injustice.

The current language used in the guide appears to be identical to how the FBI previously identified “Black identity extremists.”

A protester raises his hand as he protests outside a burned Wendy's restaurant on the third day following Rayshard Brooks shooting death by police in the restaurant parking lot in Atlanta, Georgia, June 15, 2020. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)
A protester outside a burned Wendy's restaurant in Atlanta on June 15, following the police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks in the restaurant's parking lot. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Mike German, a former FBI agent and now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security Program, says the latest guide shows the FBI has altered the language but is still mischaracterizing the issue. The guide “reprises the faulty analysis the FBI used to manufacture what it previously called the Black identity movement to describe this new subcategory of Black ‘racially motivated violent extremists,’” he told Yahoo News.

“Just as with the [‘Black identity extremist’] report, it cobbles together several disparate and even conflicting motivations and ideologies into this new subcategory where the sole distinctive feature is being Black,” German said. “Then it uses dubious language to suggest that Black people angry over ‘alleged’ police brutality and ‘perceived’ racial injustice in the legal system are part of this ‘violent extremist’ category, clearly painting Black Lives Matter activists and supporters as potential threats to law enforcement.”

The debate over the FBI’s designation of “racially motivated extremists” comes amid a larger shift in the debate about domestic terrorism, as violent acts committed by domestic extremists with no known foreign affiliation have far outstripped those carried out by individuals affiliated with groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State. And those tracking domestic extremists say the data shows that white supremacists commit the vast majority of such attacks.

Russ Travers, who previously headed the federal government’s National Counterterrorism Center, said attacks committed by Black nationalist groups weren’t a focus when he was there. “There certainly have been instances over the past few years — Jersey City being the most recent I recall,” he said, referring to the attack last year targeting a police officer and a kosher deli.

A man with ammunition can be seen in front of a confederate flag as members of far right militias and white pride organizations rally near Stone Mountain Park in downtown Stone Mountain, Georgia on August 15, 2020. - Militia members, such as III%, clashed with anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters organized by F.L.O.W.E.R, a frontline organization based in Atlanta to combat racism. (Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images)
A man with ammunition in front of a Confederate flag as members of far-right militias and white-pride organizations rally in Stone Mountain, Ga., on Aug. 15. (Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the two assailants, who both died in the subsequent shootout with police, was reportedly tied to the Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group.

But the number of such attacks is simply “not in the same league” as those committed by white supremacists, according to Travers. “I certainly haven’t seen any spate of black nationalist violence since I left,” he added.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, recently conducted its own study of attacks and found that, as of October, white supremacists and “like-minded extremists” were responsible for two-thirds of domestic attacks.

Seth Jones, director of the center’s Transnational Threats Project, told Yahoo News that while Black nationalist groups might have presented a threat in the 1960s or 1970s, he didn’t recall seeing any examples in the recent data. “It’s a threat, but how big of one, especially now?” he said. “I’d be skeptical.”

Even with white supremacists conducting the majority of recent attacks, the FBI terrorism guide lists six “notable” incidents from the past several years evenly split between those linked to white supremacists and those connected to Black individuals who law enforcement believed may have had political motivations for their attacks. Omitted from the list is the attack carried out by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine Black people in a 2015 shooting in a Charleston, S.C., church.

German, the former FBI agent, said that “by equally dividing the six incidents it describes, the report appears to equate white supremacist violence with violence by Black ‘racially motivated violent extremists,’ which mischaracterizes the data.”

In this June 18, 2015 file photo, Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C. (Chuck Burton/AP)
Charleston, S.C., shooter Dylann Roof is escorted from a courthouse in Shelby, N.C., on June 18, 2015. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Malkia Devich-Cyril, the founding director and a senior fellow at MediaJustice in Oakland, Calif., also took issue with the FBI’s classification of Black separatists as racial extremists alongside white supremacists. “The fact is, Black radicalism, including Black separatism, has long been about winning equity, peace and justice for Black people, not about denying it to anyone else — while white supremacist violence has been responsible for the vast majority of domestic terror attacks in 2020 and throughout the last several decades,” she said.

Another concern for Black activists has been the FBI’s seeming conflation of Black Lives Matter with extremism. The FBI reference guide asserts, for example, that “retaliation and retribution for alleged or actual police brutality and the perception of unjust legal proceedings surrounding the officers involved are organizing drivers” for racially motivated violent extremists.

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., told Yahoo News in an interview that comparing people fighting for social justice to white supremacists is “not only disrespectful, it’s not true.”

Henderson, who has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, said there is “a level of intentionality behind labeling ‘Black identity extremist’ movements and [law enforcement’s] targeting of the Black liberation movement.”

In a statement to Yahoo News, the FBI defended its classification of racially motivated extremists.

“While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI routinely shares information with our law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve,” it said. “The FBI is focused on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security. The FBI can never initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

In its statement to Yahoo News, the FBI said attacks by those classified as racially motivated extremists “were the primary source of ideologically motivated lethal incidents and violence in 2018 and 2019 and have been considered the most lethal of all domestic extremists since 2001.”

It added, however, that its data, which is based on fiscal years, shows that in “2020 the three lethal domestic violent extremism attacks were perpetrated by anti-government violent extremists.”

A photograph of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer is seen amongst flowers left at the scene of the car attack on a group of counter-protesters that took her life  during the "Unite the Right" rally as people continue to react to the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 14, 2017.  (Justin Ide/Reuters)
A photograph of counterprotester Heather Heyer among flowers left at the scene of a car attack where Heyer was killed during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. (Justin Ide/Reuters)

Over the past four years, critics have taken aim at President Trump for failing to condemn white supremacist attacks, particularly after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in which a counterprotester was killed in a vehicle attack. Under pressure, Trump condemned the violence but also said there were “very fine people, on both sides.”

Since then, the president’s critics have pointed to repeated cases where he immediately condemned as terrorism attacks involving Muslims, yet has often remained silent in cases where the perpetrator was white. Most recently, he has remained silent on the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville; the man named as responsible for the attack, Anthony Warner, who was white, died in the explosion.

Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, which had previously called out the FBI for its use of the term “Black identity extremist,” said the new terrorism guide appears to perpetuate the same flawed approach and shows that the FBI continues to be “tone deaf.”

Johnson criticized the new guide for “shifting the focus to a community that has not demonstrated any act of violence or domestic terrorism this entire year.”

“We’ll be calling on Congress to hold hearings,” he said.

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