Under President Trump, the FBI’s official counterterrorism priorities have included “Black Identity Extremists,” “anti-authority” extremists, and “animal rights/environmental extremists,” according to leaked Bureau documents obtained exclusively by The Young Turks. The documents, many of which are marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive” and “For Official Use Only,” also reference a mysterious plan to mitigate the threat of “Black Identity Extremists” with a program codenamed “IRON FIST” involving the use of undercover agents.
Each fiscal year, the FBI headquarters updates its Consolidated Strategy Guide, which lists the Bureau’s priorities in numerous domains such as counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and cyber crime. When an August 2017 internal FBI report referencing the counterterrorism threat posed by “Black Identity Extremists” was published by Foreign Policy, the FBI became the subject of intense criticism for adopting what critics alleged was a racially loaded term.
What was not publicly known, however, was that not only had the FBI adopted the term; it specifically listed it as a top counterterrorism priority in its 2018 strategy guide, referring to the group as a “priority domestic terrorism target,” and even established a program to counteract the supposed threat.
While the documents depict concerns about violent black extremist attacks, they do not cite a single specific attack — unlike white supremacist attacks, of which several prominent examples are provided.
Furthermore, although the FBI last month reportedly assured Senate Democrats that it had dropped the term “Black Identity Extremist” in favor of one that isn’t race-specific, the documents suggest that this was misleading. Despite changing the name, the Bureau retained much of the original definition and still targeted black people.
So grave did the Bureau consider the threat of black extremists that from 2019 to 2020, using new designations, it listed the threat at the very top of its counterterrorism priorities — above even terror groups like Al Qaeda.
“Black Identity Extremists”: What’s in a Name?
By 2019, the FBI had indeed replaced its 2018 counterterrorism priority “Black Identity Extremists” with the vaguer designation “Racially Motivated Extremism,” according to the Bureau’s FY2018-20 counterterrorism strategy guides obtained by TYT.
In addition to the strategy guides, TYT also obtained FBI threat guidances associated with many of the counterterrorism priorities. These guidances detail the nature of the threats as well as how the Bureau plans to counteract them.
Despite the new term, “Racially Motivated Extremism,” a 2019 threat guidance defines the new priority as including “Black Racially Motivated Extremism,” a term that appears repeatedly in the document and includes much of the same definition of the 2018 “Black Identity Extremist.”
“Racially Motivated Extremism....generally includes White Racially Motivated Extremism, previously referred to as White Supremacy Extremism, and Black Racially Motivated Extremism, previously referred to as Black Identity Extremism,” the FBI document states.
The FBI’s new 2020 counterterrorism priorities changed the designation yet again, this time to “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.”
However, the new term also includes much of the same definition of the 2018 “Black Identity Extremist.”
The 2020 threat guidance states, “RMVEs [Racially Motivated Violent Extremists] use force or violence in violation of criminal law in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society, or in an effort to establish a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations within the United States.”
The 2018 threat guidance defines Black Identity Extremists in nearly identical fashion, saying members “use force or violence in violation of criminal law in response to perceived racism and injustice in American society; some do so in furtherance of establishing a separate black homeland or autonomous black social institutions, communities, or governing organizations.”
“The FBI judges some RMVE perceptions of police brutality against African Americans served as justification for premeditated, retaliatory violence against law enforcement in 2016,” the document states.
Origins of the ‘Threat’
The 2018 threat guidance strongly suggests that the “Black Identity Extremist” term emerged from the Black Lives Matter movement — specifically, the 2014 shooting of black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and its aftermath.
“The FBI judges BIE perceptions of police brutality against African Americans have likely motivated acts of pre-meditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement,” the document states. “The FBI first observed this activity following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent acquittal of police officers involved in that incident.”
The threat guidance goes on to attribute the threat in part to violent rhetoric on social media as well as media attention generally.
“The threat to law enforcement from BIE...is likely to remain elevated, and may continue to expand, driven in part by continued calls for violent action on social media,” the document says. “The FBI assesses racially charged events, coupled with the wide-spread media attention of the events...remain contributing factors to the emergence of violent lone offenders within the BIE movement.”
Countering the ‘Threat’
The documents also shed light on the FBI’s plans to counter the perceived threat of black extremists. Methods alluded to include undercover employees, confidential informants and, cryptically, IRON FIST.
The 2018 threat guidance states, “It is challenging to get sources into BIE groups, due to security measures these groups employ. The vetting process and time investment to gain access to leadership in BIE groups is very lengthy. The use of undercover employees and online covert employees in BIE investigations would provide valuable intelligence to assist in mitigating the threat.
“Field offices will evaluate their need for an open Type 3 assessment file in regards to BIE. An open assessment file allows for greater proactive collection techniques should the BIE threat emerge in the wake of a police-involved incident that sparks potential BIE activity.”
The Bureau appears particularly interested in ascertaining BIE groups’ organizational structure as well as their alleged ties to criminal organizations.
“The FBI needs a better understanding of the hierarchy and structure of BIE groups, and how these groups train/work with one another, and criminal organizations,” the guidance states.
Although the document says that “many recent lethal BIE incidents have been conducted by BIE lone offenders,” it does not cite any specific cases.
The guidance also references legal and seemingly innocuous activities as “key threat indicators,” including attempts to identify the names or vehicles of law enforcement officers.
Threat Mitigation Strategy ‘IRON FIST’
IRON FIST, an FBI program not known to the public prior to the publication of these documents, was a strategy implemented by FBI headquarters to “mitigate” what it considered to be a “threat” posed by the “BIE movement.”
“IRON FIST is designed to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing threat posed by BIEs, to proactively address this priority domestic terrorism target by focusing FBI operations via enhanced intelligence collection efforts,” a 2018 FBI threat guidance document states. (At the same time, the Bureau also considered white supremacist extremists a priority domestic terrorism target.)
“IRON FIST will accomplish this by identifying actionable intelligence to directly support the initiation of FBI investigations and augment current efforts directed against BIEs...In addition, FBIHQ works to develop potential CHS [Confidential Human Sources] and conduct assessments on the current BIE CHS base.”
IRON FIST also includes a tactic by which the FBI would use the felony status of many Black Identity Extremists against them.
“Many BIEs are convicted felons who are prohibited possessors, therefore the FBI will continue to use their prohibited possessor status as a tactic to assist in mitigating the threat for potential violence,” the document states.
Little else is revealed about IRON FIST in the documents.
‘White Supremacy Extremists’
The same documents show that the FBI also defines racially motivated extremists as inclusive of white supremacist groups, which it describes as a “medium threat.”
Until 2019, “White Supremacy Extremists” was a term listed on the FBI’s counterterrorism priorities before it was categorized under racially motivated extremists, the documents also reveal.
“Some RMVEs are driven by a belief in the superiority of the white race and a perception that the U.S. government is conspiring with Jews and minority populations to bring about the race’s demise,” the 2020 threat guidance states.
While the 2020 threat guidance alludes to violent black extremist attacks, each of the specific attacks referenced were carried out by white supremacists: the October 2018 attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 11, the March 2019 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51, and the April 2019 attack on a synagogue in Poway, California, which killed one.
In July, FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress that the majority of terrorism cases the Bureau has investigated in 2019 “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
The head of the FBI’s counterterrorism division testified that 40% of domestic terrorism cases were racially motivated extremists and that most of them were white supremacists.
Despite the apparent rise in attacks, the documents show that, in 2018, the FBI anticipated a decline in national white supremacist groups.
“The FBI further judges ongoing attrition of national organized white supremacy extremist groups will continue over the next year, yielding a white supremacy extremist movement primarily characterized by locally organized groups, small cells, and lone offenders,” the 2018 threat guidance states.
“Infighting and lack of leadership have made it difficult for groups to organize nationally and to sustain their memberships and influence. The internet and the emergence of social media have also enabled individuals to engage the WSE movement without joining organized groups,” the 2019 threat guidance says.
A PDF of the FBI documents obtained by TYT can be viewed here.