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 ultranationalist 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 Saint 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 Saint 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 groups say, ‘Let’s use the internet and social media to create a web of connectivity 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 direct 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.”