Homeland security

Mayorkas and Wray warn of significant increase in antisemitic homeland threats

Hamas’ attack could ‘serve as an inspiration [for terrorism] the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate several years ago’ FBI Director Christopher Wray warned

Win McNamee/Getty Images

(L-R) Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center Office of the Director of National Intelligence are sworn in prior to testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee October 31, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Top homeland security officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel have increased the threat of terror attacks against Americans at home, with the threat to the Jewish community rising to “historic levels.”

“The Jewish community is targeted by terrorists really across the spectrum: homegrown violent extremists, foreign terrorist organizations, both Sunni and Shia, domestic violent extremists,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “And when you look at a group that makes up 2.4%, roughly, of the American population, it should be jarring for everyone that that same population accounts for something like 60% of all religious-based hate crimes, and so they need our help.”

Wray noted that since Oct. 7, foreign terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS specifically called for attacks against the U.S. Jewish community. He predicted that the Oct. 7 attack would “serve as an inspiration [for terrorism] the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate several years ago.”

He said that the FBI has seen a series of threats in the U.S., that it had already intercepted a synagogue bombing plot in Houston, that Iran has an ongoing pattern of attempted operations on U.S. soil and that the FBI is investigating individuals affiliated with Hamas.

“Our most immediate concern is that violent extremists, individuals or small groups will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against Americans. That includes not just homegrown extremists inspired by a foreign terrorist organization, but also domestic extremists targeting Jewish or Muslim communities,” Wray said. “We also cannot and do not discount the possibility that Hamas or another foreign terrorist organization may exploit the current conflict to conduct attacks here on our own soil.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas indicated that DHS is paying additional attention to threats to Jewish students. In a change from a usual line, Mayorkas mentioned that DHS is sharing intelligence and information with campus security forces, in addition to the state, local and tribal agencies with which DHS frequently works.

“I have spoken with a number of leaders of colleges and universities with respect to their need to take leadership and to ensure the safety of security students,” Mayorkas said.

Wray and Mayorkas specifically warned about heightened cybersecurity threats; Wray said he expects existing cyberattacks by Iran and non-state actors to expand, along with the threat of physical attacks, if the conflict in the Middle East escalates.

Mayorkas described the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, for which the administration requested an additional $200 million in emergency funding, as being of “vital importance” to securing Jewish and other communal institutions. He said the administration worked to make the application process easier and to engage in community outreach.

He also said that DHS is working closely with faith-based communities and has security advisers in each state providing them with advice on securing their facilities and communities. 

Wray said the FBI is likewise in close touch with local and national Jewish groups. He highlighted that the FBI created a joint unit bringing together hate crimes and domestic terrorism specialists, which he said has allowed the Bureau to more proactively pursue hate-motivated threats, including the Houston bombing plot. And he said that the FBI is increasing its outreach to law enforcement and communities to improve chronic issues with underreporting of hate crimes.

The administration included the NSGP funding request in a lower-profile domestic funding request, not the higher-priority national security-focused request that includes Israel and Ukraine aid.

The two homeland security officials also highlighted increased threats to Arab and Muslim American communities.

Mayorkas and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) engaged in a heated exchange regarding a DHS asylum and immigration officer who posted on social media in support of the Hamas attack on Israel. Hawley questioned whether the official had admitted asylum seekers whom should not have been allowed into the U.S. or discriminated against Jewish asylum seekers and why they had not been fired.

Mayorkas said the official in question had been placed on administrative leave, but said he could not comment further on an “ongoing personnel matter.” He also noted that the official had been hired before he and President Joe Biden took office.

“Is this typical of people working at DHS?” Hawley asked. Mayorkas responded that it was “despicable” for Hawley “to suggest that is emblematic of the men and women of DHS.” 

Mayorkas added that he found Hawley’s rhetoric particularly offensive given his own heritage as the child of a Holocaust survivor, whose mother lost most of her family to the Nazis.

“I find his adversarial tone to be entirely misplaced,” Mayorkas said. “I find it to be disrespectful of me and my heritage.”

Mayorkas also said the DHS is assessing calls from Hawley and other Republicans to revoke visas from foreign students who expressed support for the Hamas attack on Israel; he explained that the issue is one of legal interpretation on which he could not opine, but added, “there is a difference between espousing and endorsing terrorist ideology and speech that is odious that does not rise to that level.”

Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that Iran and its proxies are currently seeking to avoid opening a second front in the war with Israel, while still “exacting costs.” That situation, she explained, carries the “potential for miscalculation.”

She added that there is no current indication of any threat from Iran inside the United States.

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