The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that it is creating a new “domestic terrorism” division.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen revealed the new division during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee focused on the nation’s domestic terrorism threat in the year after the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
“I have decided to establish a domestic terrorism unit to augment our existing approach. This group of dedicated attorneys will focus on the domestic terrorism threat helping to ensure these cases are handled properly and effectively coordinated across the Department of Justice and across the country,” Olsen told lawmakers.
The move is spurred by what Olsen described as a “growing threat” of individuals motivated by factors such as “racial animus” and “extremist anti-government and anti-authority ideologies.”
Ideologies themselves are not a basis for what the DOJ considers domestic terrorism, Olsen noted. “We prosecute people for engaging in violent behavior, not for their beliefs.”
Olsen said that combating domestic terrorism and prosecuting domestic violence extremists remain among the department’s “top priorities.” However, “domestic terrorism” is not currently defined by federal law, and it’s unclear what type of violence constitutes that label.
Olsen described domestic terrorism as entailing “acts dangerous to human life,” and while still ambiguous and not established in law, he pointed out that domestic terrorism is responsible for some of the “most heinous” acts in U.S. history.
Olsen told lawmakers that the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was being investigated as an “act of domestic terrorism” although none of the 725 individuals charged so far have been charged with terrorism, or even rioting or insurrection charges.
When asked if the DOJ was willing to charge individuals with terrorism and employ the enhanced sentencing provisions allotted for terrorism cases, Olsen declined to say, but left it open as a possibility dependent on “the facts and circumstances of the case.”
“The department has pursued enhanced sentencing in terrorism cases … where appropriate,” Olsen pointed out.
Executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch, Jill Sanborn, also testified on Tuesday that the FBI’s investigations of “suspected domestic violent extremists” have “more than doubled since the spring of 2020.”
Sanborn said the greatest threat comes from “lone actors or small cells who typically radicalize online and look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.”