The director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday his agency is “working around the clock” to stop potential terrorist attacks in the U.S. by individuals or groups inspired by Hamas’ deadly assault on Israel on Oct. 7.
Christopher Wray told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that the country was at a heightened threat level as a result of Hamas’ actions, warning antisemitic threats and attacks in the U.S. — already on the rise in recent years — have increased even further, along with Islamophobia.
“Given the steady drumbeat of calls for attacks by foreign terrorist organizations since Oct. 7, we’re working around the clock to identify and disrupt potential attacks by those inspired by Hamas’s horrific terrorist attacks in Israel,” Wray said in his opening remarks.
In a separate statement released ahead of his testimony, Wray noted that “terrorist organizations worldwide, as well as individuals attracted to violence, have praised Hamas’s horrific attack on Israeli civilians.”
“As of right now, we have no information to indicate that Hamas has the intent or capability to conduct operations inside the U.S., though we cannot, and do not, discount that possibility, but we are especially concerned about the possibility of Hamas supporters engaging in violence on the group’s behalf,” his statement said.
The statement added the FBI’s top concern is that lone actors inspired not just by Hamas, but motivated by the broader Israel-Hamas conflict, “pose the most likely threat to Americans, especially Jewish, Muslim, and Arab-American communities in the United States.”
As of Tuesday, the U.S. does not have a current national terrorism advisory in place, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The most recent advisory, which was issued in May and warned of a “heightened threat environment” due to domestic violent extremists and “those associated with foreign terrorist organizations,” expired on Nov. 24.
The Canadian government’s current travel advice for the U.S. notes that there is “a threat of terrorism,” and that an attack “could occur at anytime,” but otherwise doesn’t advise travellers or permanent residents to take extra precautions.
Canada’s national threat level has been set to “medium” — indicating that a violent act of terrorism “could occur” — since 2014.
Wray told the committee that the FBI had already been combatting a steady rise in hate crimes — “a particularly big chunk” of which were directed against the Jewish community — for years before the Hamas attacks, which he called a “troubling trend.”
“It’s only gotten worse in the months since (Oct. 7),” he said.
He said the FBI has seen increases in other kinds of criminal activity as well, noting the bureau has “disrupted over 40 per cent more cyber operations and arrested over 60 per cent more cyber criminals than the year before.”
Over the past two years, he claimed, FBI agents and their partners have seized “enough fentanyl to kill 270 million people.”
Wray focused most of his opening testimony on voicing his and the FBI’s support for Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the U.S. government to collect without a warrant the communications of targeted foreigners outside the United States. Law enforcement and intelligence officials see the program as vital to combating terror attacks, cyber intrusions, espionage and other foreign threats.
Losing the authorities granted under Section 702 “would be devastating to the FBI’s ability to protect Americans from those threats,” he said.
The program, created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is due to expire at the end of this month unless Congress votes to reauthorize it. But Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have called for reforms aimed at better safeguarding the civil liberties of Americans.
Though the program enables surveillance only of foreigners located outside the U.S., it also can capture the communications of American citizens and others in the U.S. when those people are in contact with those targeted foreigners. The FBI has been accused of improperly using intelligence collected under Section 702 to search for information about people tied to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol and the racial justice protests of 2020.
Wray said reforming Section 702 to require the FBI to obtain a warrant for that information, specifically for Americans, would slow down the bureau’s ability to counter fast-moving security threats.
“What if there were a terrorist attack that we had a shot to prevent, but couldn’t take it, because the FBI was deprived of the ability under 702 to look at key information already sitting in our holdings?” Wray asked the committee.
Alluding to testimony from U.S. intelligence officials gathered after the Sept. 11 attacks that the “system was blinking red” warning of an imminent threat, Wray said he was seeing a similar threat environment today.
“I see blinking lights everywhere I turn,” he said.