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Homegrown Threat: FBI Tracks White Supremicists, Domestic Extremists


Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof appeared to be motivated by white supremacist groups. The FBI is investigating a hate site reportedly created by Roof, which includes a lengthy manifesto full of racist hate speech. Roof was not on the FBI's radar prior to the Charleston shooting, but the organization does track white supremacist groups who they see as a risk for violent extremism. Michael German is a former FBI agent, who spent 16 years at the agency and specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations. He joins us now from our New York bureau to talk about how law enforcement tracks domestic extremists groups. Thanks for being here.

MICHAEL GERMAN: My pleasure.

WESTERVELT: While in the FBI, you specialized in domestic terrorism, and you spent time as an undercover agent working with a white supremacist group. What were you there to do?

GERMAN: I was there to investigate criminal activity, manufacture of explosives, the use of explosives and conspiracies to engage in other violent activities.

WESTERVELT: And you helped bring some of these white supremacists to justice?

GERMAN: Yes. The undercover portion that I was involved in successfully interdicted a number of plots and solve some previous from bombings as well as identified some weapons manufacturers and traffickers.

WESTERVELT: Several studies have shown that since 9/11, roughly twice as many people have been killed in terrorist attacks in the United States by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims. How much focus does the FBI and other agencies gives to these homegrown antigovernment threats?

GERMAN: I think the problem is that the government and other researchers tend to focus on the different groups by ideology rather than focusing on the methodology. One of the things that I was very surprised out when I was introduced into the group was that the ideological part of the movement, the part of the movement that published books, that had public meetings, that had radio shows typically did not support or engage in violence. It was an underground that was arm's-length from the larger ideological movement. What I found among the criminal underground was that they were often frustrated by the ideology because particularly in white supremacist groups, there are a number of different ideologies. So there is so much fracture between those groups that the underground that is trying to start a race war finds an impediment to their effective mobilization of a violent vanguard.

WESTERVELT: So your bottom line is law enforcement could do a better job of tracking the violent underground and spend less time on the ideology of some of these groups?

GERMAN: Exactly. By tracking the data, they can better understand how the violence works. The terrorism is a methodology. It's not an ideology. If you looked at the methodologies, you would view this problem completely different; where the Charleston shooting is far more like the Fort Hood shooting than it is like Oklahoma City. All right, even though the ideology is similar with Oklahoma City and the Charleston shooting, it's a different methodology. There are millions of racists in the United States. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are with organized white supremacist groups. Very few actually commit acts of violence. There are also people who are not part of the white supremacist movement or any ideological movement who commit mass atrocities. So we have to understand that the ideology, while it's important to understand and to look at and certainly discuss in the public, it's neither necessary or sufficient to the violence that we are trying to control.

WESTERVELT: Michael German is a former FBI agent and a current fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He joined us from New York City. Thanks for speaking with us.

GERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.