FBI needs to do more to fight domestic extremist threats, watchdog says

By Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI has not done enough to fight homegrown extremist threats and has failed to determine whether people it investigates who have mental health issues pose an actual threat to national security, the U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Wednesday.

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz also found that the FBI did not follow up or initially closed out some investigations into individuals who had been flagged as potential threats.

The report found shortcomings in the FBI’s efforts to prevent mass attacks by U.S. residents who have been inspired by international militant groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda, which the agency says is its highest counterterrorism priority.

In a response, the FBI said it was working on a strategy, first announced last fall, to head off possible attacks by people struggling with mental illness. The agency declined further comment.

Foreign radical groups have yet to repeat coordinated attacks inside the United States like the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings that killed about 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

But they have been able to recruit and indoctrinate so-called homegrown violent extremists who have killed more than 100 people in the United States since then, according to the New America Foundation.

That toll has been eclipsed in recent years by attackers who are motivated by white supremacy or other far-right ideologies. Under pressure from Congress, the FBI has stepped up its efforts to head off such attacks.

Horowitz’s report only examined the FBI’s efforts to investigate jihadist threats between 2012 and 2018.

The inspector general found that at least six attacks were carried out by people who the FBI had earlier investigated — including the perpetrators of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

After the Orlando shooting, officials said they were not set up to identify individuals with a history of mental illness who could potentially be influenced by violent propaganda.

Horowitz found that the FBI conducted reviews after those attacks to find out what it had missed, but failed to ensure agents followed through with proposed improvements.

The FBI concluded in 2017 that it should have conducted about 6% of its counterterrorism assessments more thoroughly. But the agency did not re-examine nearly half of those cases for 18 months, Horowitz wrote.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)