The FBI’s New U.S. Terrorist Threat: ‘Black Identity Extremists’
Law enforcement calls it a violent movement. Critics call it racist.
As white supremacists prepared to descend on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, the FBI warned about a new movement that was violent, growing, and racially motivated. Only it wasn’t white supremacists; it was “black identity extremists.”
Amid a rancorous debate over whether the Trump administration has downplayed the threat posed by white supremacist groups, the FBI’s counterterrorism division has declared that black identity extremists pose a growing threat of premeditated violence against law enforcement.
“The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence,” reads the report, marked for official use only and obtained by Foreign Policy.
The August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was the catalyst for widespread anger and violence, the FBI report says, concluding that continued “alleged” police abuses have fueled more violence.
“The FBI assesses it is very likely incidents of alleged police abuse against African Americans since then have continued to feed the resurgence in ideologically motivated, violent criminal activity within the BIE movement,” the report states.
Some 748 people have been shot and killed by police so far in 2017, including at least 168 African-Americans.
The report, dated Aug. 3 — just nine days before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville turned deadly — appears to be the first known reference to “black identity extremists” as a movement. But former government officials and legal experts said no such movement exists, and some expressed concern that the term is part of a politically motivated effort to find an equivalent threat to white supremacists.
A former senior counterterrorism and intelligence official from the Department of Homeland Security who reviewed the document at FP’s request expressed shock at the language.
“This is a new umbrella designation that has no basis,” the former official said. “There are civil rights and privacy issues all over this.”
The concept of “black identity extremists” appears to be entirely new. FP found only five references to the term in a Google search; all were to law enforcement documents about domestic terrorism from the last two months. One of those online references is to law enforcement training on identifying “domestic terror groups and criminally subversive subcultures which are encountered by law enforcement professionals on a daily basis.”
Among the six acts of premeditated violence linked to black identity extremists — it excludes violence toward police carried out in the normal course of their duties — the reports cites the July 2016 shooting of 11 police officers in Dallas. The shooter, Micah Johnson, was reportedly angry at police violence.
“Based on Johnson’s journal writings and statements to police, he appeared to have been influenced by BIE ideology,” the FBI report states. The attack took place during a Black Lives Matter protest of police shootings, though the BLM movement is not mentioned by name in the report.
Yet those involved in the Black Lives Matter movement have voiced concerns about FBI surveillance.
DeRay McKesson, an activist involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, told FP that the FBI visited his house in the run-up to the Republican National Convention. “I spoke about the FBI visit to my house and the houses of other activists in our final meeting with [President Barack] Obama,” he said.
“There is a long tradition of the FBI targeting black activists and this is not surprising,” McKesson said.
The FBI declined to comment on the report itself and did not respond to specific questions, but in an emailed statement to FP, the bureau defended its tracking of “black identity extremists,” saying that “the FBI cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights.”
In its August report, the FBI said it expects further attacks by black identity extremists, driven by both the perception and the reality of unfair treatment at the hands of police officers.
“The FBI further assesses it is very likely additional controversial police shootings of African Americans and the associated legal proceedings will continue to serve as drivers for violence against law enforcement,” the report says.
Some experts and former government officials said the FBI seemed to be trying to paint disparate groups and individuals as sharing a radical, defined ideology. And in the phrase