The FBI’s Racialized Priorities Endangered Our Democracy
Where was the FBI in the months leading up to the violent siege on the Capitol? Among the many questions surrounding this week’s jarring events, this one reveals the extent to which double standards in law enforcement threaten our nation’s security.
For weeks, Donald Trump’s far right-wing supporters publicly called for and planned a protest in Washington, D.C. on January 6, the day Congress was to certify the election results. Officials knew the Proud Boys and QAnon may try to breach the Capitol perimeter. Yet when the day came, the mob of pro-Trump extremists seemed to catch law enforcement by surprise. They breached the Capitol perimeter, ransacked congressmembers’ offices, and openly posted photos of their destruction and their weapons online.
Law enforcement eventually got the situation under control later Wednesday evening — but only after members of Congress went into lockdown and bloodshed led to the death of four individuals.
Later reporting found that the FBI and an intelligence unit inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) didn’t even issue a threat assessment for the pro-Trump protests. They certainly had the resources to take this threat seriously.
For nearly two decades, the U.S. government has shoveled money into a behemoth national security apparatus. The FBI’s annual budget has ballooned from $3 billion in 1999 to nearly $9 billion today. Much of this 300% increase went to countering terrorism with a mandate to surveil, investigate, and prosecute “homegrown terrorists.”
In no uncertain terms, the directive was for the FBI to target Muslim men and Muslim communities.
With bipartisan political support and significant resources backing them, FBI agents prey on young, mentally ill, indigent, or otherwise vulnerable Muslim men as targets in government-led sting operations. Before the ubiquity of social media, agents fished for their targets through the surveillance of mosques, cafes frequented by Muslim customers, online chat rooms and Muslim community organizations.
Starting in 2006, agents and informants shifted their predatory practices to social media and websites promoting political violence against civilians and Western military forces. Individuals posting content expressing support for ISIS, Al Qaeda, or other extremist groups are targeted in sting operations.
The FBI, however, soon discovered the number of Muslims in the U.S. planning real plots is sparse. Instead of shifting its attention to the plethora of right-wing extremists seeking to assault minorities and attack the government, the FBI deployed its resources towards hiring dubious informants who manipulate and coerce Muslim men in fake terrorist plots.
As a result, the FBI authorized tens of thousands of investigations and U.S. Attorneys prosecuted hundreds of Muslims over their political dissent. The outcome has been wildly successful on their end, with more than 900 convictions or guilty pleas in the last nine years.
Compare these over-reaching practices with the government’s disregard of the well-documented rise in White far right-wing extremism. When a 2009 DHS intelligence report warned of this troubling development, then-Secretary Janet Napolitano was pressured to retract it and apologize in a Congressional hearing. And the author of the report was fired.
For the eight years when Barack Obama, the first African American president, governed the nation, far right-wing groups grew exponentially. Little attention, much less resources, was directed at preventing violence by these White extremists.
Meanwhile, the alt-right media amassed tens of millions of followers. Extremist and anti-democratic ideas became normalized into the mainstream as Donald Trump ran on a xenophobic and Islamophobic platform.
Unsurprisingly, the rise in White Supremacy groups correlated with increased racial violence against Black people, Latinos, and immigrants. Congregants were killed in Jewish synagogues, Sikh temples, and Black churches. Muslims continued to be victims of racial violence by individuals who subscribed to far-right wing extremist ideologies. Last year, reported hate crimes rose to the highest level in more than a decade.
These developments should have shifted the FBI’s investigative mission to this rising domestic security threat. But instead, the FBI continued its quest to manufacture “Muslim terrorism” through aggressive sting operations and abusive investigative practices.
What we witnessed on January 6 demonstrates that the threat to our national security is not merely extremist speech. The Proud Boys, QAnon, and other White supremacist groups planned the violent siege on the U.S. Capitol in plain sight.
So how did a mob of thousands of people premeditate such a criminal attack on our nation’s Congress? Where was the FBI during the months of planning by the rioters?
The answers lie squarely in America’s post-9/11 racial politics. The resources and expertise exist to prevent such violence by White far right extremists. Unfortunately, the political will does not.
When racism infects law enforcement priorities and clouds our government’s ability to identify true threats, not only are minority victims harmed, but our entire society is less safe.
And our democracy, not just the U.S. Capitol, is under siege.
Sahar Aziz is professor of law and Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers Law School where she directs the Center for Security, Race and Rights. She is the author of the book The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom forthcoming in 2021.