SALT LAKE CITY — The Federal Bureau of Investigation is still keeping a close eye on groups like al-Qaida and ISIS.
But when it comes to the biggest danger on U.S. soil, "the primary terrorist threat to the homeland here today, without question, is homegrown violent extremists. That’s what keeps us awake at night,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said.
On Wednesday, the head of the FBI delivered a keynote address to a room full of law enforcers from across the state during the 11th annual Utah National Security and Anti-Terrorism Conference at the downtown Salt Lake Sheraton Hotel.
Wray was appointed FBI director a year ago, replacing James Comey. Before that, he served as assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division under the George W. Bush administration.
On Wednesday, Wray talked about how the FBI has transformed as an agency since the attack on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and what the terrorism threat for the U.S. is going forward.
Wray said he was at the FBI headquarters with then-Director Robert Mueller on 9/11. He said for a long time, each day after that was Sept. 12 — everybody "in a haze" asking what they could have done better and how they can keep the public safe from here on out?
He said when he returned to the FBI a year ago, he was inspired by the progress the agency had made, a transformation that started with Mueller.
Today, "national security remains, as it has to, our top priority,” he said.
"And I think it’s fair to say that today we are all stronger, and smarter and better in being able to confront the threats we face. And those threats are many,” Wray said.
But while Islamic terrorist groups based in the Middle East still pose a threat, it's those known as "homegrown violent extremists" that FBI agents are most worried about. These are people who are based in United States and may have never been outside the country, but have become radicalized and inspired by some of the foreign terrorist groups, he said. Some feed into the social media propaganda groups like ISIS generate, he said.
The FBI currently has about 5,000 open investigations into terrorist activity, with an estimated 1,000 of those being homegrown violent extremists, Wray said. They are located in all 50 states.
The challenge for agents is identifying them. Most are male, Wray said, and born in the United States. But their education level, occupations and ethnicity are across the board. As are their ages.
"We’re definitely seeing a worrisome trend of people being radicalized at younger and younger ages,” he said.
As an example, Wray pointed to the southern Utah teenager accused of leaving an explosive device in a backpack at Pine View High School. Martin Farnsworth, 16, is also accused of painting "ISIS is comi--" on a wall at Hurricane High School and replacing the American flag on a pole in front of the school with a homemade ISIS flag. No one was injured in the Pine View incident, but prosecutors say the intent of the device in the backpack was to injure.
The problem with extremists like this is, unlike groups like al-Qaida, most homegrown radicals are not working with two dozen other people and planning an attack for two years, he said.
"These guys, homegrown violent extremists, they’re planning attacks that take hours or days instead of months and months,” Wray said.
And rather than hijacking planes, they use smaller weapons like knives, guns, crude homemade explosives and even cars. Wray said investigators have far less time to "connect the dots" and prevent an attack.
Likewise, he said the FBI is keeping an eye on domestic terrorist groups that promote violent extremist ideologies, such as militias, anarchists, environmentalist groups, or racial hatred groups.
To combat these groups, Wray said the FBI must use intelligence, innovation and partnerships. Those partnerships, he said, are not just with local law enforcement agencies but also utilize mental health professionals and even the public. In most cases, a family member, friend or co-worker has noticed a radicalization transformation happen in a person before they become a violent extremist.
"We need those people to speak up,” he said.
Terrorists are always revising their tactics, Wray said. And likewise, he said, the FBI needs to continually evolve to find the best ways to combat them.
"We’ve got to have the right tools, the right technology, the right people, the right skills to meet our mission tomorrow, next year and into the next decade. And if we don’t, the consequences could be dire,” he said.
The annual conference brings together more than 650 federal, state and local law enforcement officers, agents and prosecutors.