Justice Department Creates Domestic Terrorism Unit Amid 'Elevated' Extremist Threat

A specialized unit focusing on domestic terrorism is being established at the Justice Department due to threats from violent extremists in the U.S.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told lawmakers Tuesday he decided to create the specialized domestic terrorism unit to investigate domestic violent threats from extremists. Olsen called the threats "elevated," as they have more than doubled since Spring 2020 after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The creation of the new unit, alongside the department's National Security Division which has a counterterrorism section, underscores the extent to which domestic violence extremism was overshadowed by international terrorism, following the events of 9/11.

Olsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he decided to create the unit "to augment our existing approach" and to "ensure that these cases are properly handled and effectively coordinated" across the country.

"We have seen a growing threat from those who are motivated by racial animus, as well as those who ascribe to extremist anti-government and anti-authority ideologies," Olsen said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified last March the domestic terrorism threat was "metastasizing."

Jill Sanborn, who testified with Olsen Tuesday, said the greatest threat comes from lone extremists who radicalize online and look to carry out violence on so-called "soft targets."

Since there is no federal domestic terrorism statute, this has placed some questions as to what will be classified as domestic terrorism and international terrorism. According to the FBI's website, international terrorism includes "violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored)."

The site also describes domestic terrorism as "violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature."

Jan. 6 Insurrection
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen called the threats "elevated," as they have more than doubled since Spring 2020 after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Above, supporters of US President Donald Trump protest inside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Several Republican senators, for instance, suggested Tuesday that the FBI and the Justice Department had given more attention to the Jan. 6 insurrection than to the 2020 rioting that erupted in American cities and grew out of racial justice protests.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas accused the department of "wildly disparate" treatment. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Senate's top Republican, played video clips of the 2020 violence as a counter to the video of the January 6 Capitol rioting played by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, the committee's chairman.

The officials said the department treats domestic extremist violence the same regardless of ideology.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Department of Justice
The Department of Justice announced a domestic terrorism unit in response to the increase of threats in recent years. Above, the Department of Justice (DOJ) building on January 11, 2021, in Washington, DC.. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images