Antisemitism rising as US also grapples with threats from 'lone' radicals: Officials

ByQuinn Owen and Luke Barr ABCNews logo
Wednesday, November 1, 2023
Antisemitism rising, US grapples with threats from 'lone' radicals
Antisemitism rising as US also grapples with threats from 'lone' radicals: Officials

A rise in antisemitism since Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel is part of "preexisting increase ... in the United States and around the world," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a Senate committee on Tuesday.

"Hamas terrorists horrifically attacked thousands of innocent men, women and children in Israel on Oct. 7, brutally murdering, wounding and taking hostages of all ages," Mayorkas said. "In the days and weeks since, we have responded to an increase in threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab-American communities and institutions across our country."

For the hearing, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee gathered security leaders to address a range of threats to the U.S., including those stemming from the Israel-Hamas war.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, appearing alongside Mayorkas, said the bureau also has its sights set on the Israel and Hamas conflict. Wray said there is no information to indicate Hamas "has the intent or capability to conduct operations inside the U.S., though we cannot, and do not, discount that possibility."

Nonetheless, Wray warned, "The reality is that the terrorism threat has been elevated throughout 2023, but the ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level since the horrific terrorist attacks committed by Hamas ... and we've been working around the clock to support our partners there and to protect Americans."

Wray compared Hamas to the Islamic State group, saying the Hamas attacks "will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven't seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate [in the Middle East] several years ago."

But the director said the greatest terrorism threat to the U.S. is "posed by lone actors or small cells of individuals who typically radicalize violence online and who primarily use easily accessible weapons to attack soft targets."

These extremists "are often motivated and inspired by a mix of social or political, ideological and personal grievances against their targets," Wray said. Law enforcement in recent years has focused on potential targets for this violence, including members of U.S. government, houses of worship, retail locations and mass public gatherings.

The director reiterated security concerns about China, as he has since 2017, when he was sworn in as director. He also touched on the FBI's efforts to combat cyber threats and the nation's violent crime.

Mayorkas, in his remarks, laid out resources and authorities that he believes his department needs from Congress and he urged lawmakers not to let them lapse in the coming weeks. For example, the Homeland Security office dedicated to stopping weapons of mass destruction faces a Dec. 21 expiration deadline.

"That would hinder our ability to detect biological and illicit nuclear material threats and safeguard against the use of AI in the development of biological weapons," Mayorkas said.

Later in the hearing, Wray said he couldn't ensure that the FBI could detect every threat against the U.S. but said agents are "quite good" at tracking the threats they are aware of.

"We shouldn't stop conducting our daily lives, going to schools, houses of worship and so forth. But we should be vigilant," Wray said. "You often hear the expression 'if you see something, say something.' That's never been more true than now."

He also said Jewish people are "uniquely targeted."

Wray said domestically, there is a "societal" problem "right now of people manifesting hatred or violence."

"And it's perfectly appropriate for people that have hateful views and there's an opportunity to call out anybody who's in the right quarters for the violence and threats of violence is something that we cannot and will not tolerate," he said.

Immigration and border security became the subject of bipartisan lawmaker questioning at the hearing, with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin pressing Mayorkas on the historically high number of migrants at the southern border in recent years.

"Our job would be a lot easier if the broken immigration system was fixed," Mayorkas responded.

The secretary went on to explain the deportation process before Johnson grew frustrated and moved onto more questions.

"Senator, as you well know, when an individual is released they are released into immigration enforcement proceedings and are subject to removal if they do not have a legal basis to remain in the United States," Mayorkas said.

He later pointed to a "significant drop" in the number of migrants from Venezuela after the administration announced it would resume direct deportations of Venezuelan nationals.

Preliminary data shows a 20% decrease in migrant encounters along the southern border through the first two weeks of October, according to a DHS official.

The administration has said it is trying to balance swift border enforcement with delivering lawful humanitarian protections.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., returned to border security in his questioning for Mayorkas, asking about Mayorkas' level of concern for a coordinated terrorist attack.

"The threats are very different today than they were a number of years ago -- they're very different today than they were weeks ago and our capabilities are far more advanced in its investments and our people technology and other resources," Mayorkas said when asked if the country is safer today under the Biden administration.

A huge dustup between Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Mayorkas arose after Hawley cited a Homeland Security employee who had posted what appeared to be pro-Hamas rhetoric on her personal social media accounts.

Mayorkas called Hawley's sharply worded question and assertion that the woman's views are emblematic of the department's employees "despicable."

The employee is on administrative leave and is being investigated, Mayorkas said.

"Sen. Hawley takes an adversarial approach to me in this question and perhaps he doesn't know my own background," Mayorkas said. "Perhaps he does not know that my mother lost almost all her family at the hands of the Nazis, and so I find his adversarial tone to be entirely misplaced. I find it disrespectful of me and my heritage."