Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today, and congratulations on the opening of this Center. I look forward to seeing the excellent contributions it makes to the challenging national security and counterterrorism issues facing our nation today. As we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, I want to take the opportunity reflect on the continuing threat of domestic terrorism and how the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and our federal, state and local law enforcement partners are responding to this threat.
But first, I want to take a moment to share my condolences for the terrible events that occurred here twenty years ago. It is difficult to comprehend the grief experienced by the families of the 168 men, women, and children killed in the bombing and the hundreds more injured. Losses like those suffered here are national tragedies, and the Department of Justice’s highest priority is combatting terrorism and other threats to our national security in order to prevent this kind of attack in the future. We are, appropriately, in the midst of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. In devoting our careers to this fight, I and many others in the Department of Justice are motivated every day by the experiences of those affected by terrorist attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing, and we strive to honor through our work those who were killed in terrorist attacks, as well as the survivors, first responders, and families who have been touched by these heinous acts. The opportunity to reflect at events like this conference remind us that we must constantly rededicate ourselves to building a better, stronger society in which no one needs to live in fear of such terrible violence.
While the bombing of the Murrah building was unique in its magnitude, it was sadly not unique in kind. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were, like too many others today, inspired by extremist ideologies that, to their minds, justified unimaginable violence against the U.S. government itself and the innocent people killed and injured that day. Unfortunately, the Oklahoma City bombing continues to inspire those who would conduct their own terrorist attacks here in the United States. Just a few weeks ago, two women were charged in New York with conspiring to build a bomb to conduct an attack in the United States. While these women were motivated by an Islamic extremist ideology, they allegedly had conducted research into the type of bomb used here, demonstrating the continuing resonance of the attack.
Today, the United States faces a broad array of national security and terrorism threats, both at home and abroad, and the Department of Justice is committed to using all legal tools at its disposal to disrupt these plots and prosecute those involved in them. We grapple every day with how best to address the dangers posed by homegrown violent extremists, individuals who are inspired by foreign terrorist organizations’ extremist ideology but do not receive direction or assistance from those organizations. ISIL and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have proven to be highly effective at using traditional media platforms and widespread social media campaigns to spread their extremist ideology and advocate for homegrown extremists to conduct attacks here in the United States. AQAP’s online English magazine regularly encourages homegrown violent extremists to carry out attacks and provides detailed “how to” instructions for constructing and deploying improvised explosive devices. Despite these efforts, through reports by community members and the diligent work of the FBI and our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, we have been able to foil a number of attacks planned by such lone offenders in the United States.
And we are witnessing an expanding phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters traveling to Syria to join ISIL and other terrorist groups, who are responding to the call to join violent Jihad abroad at an alarming rate. This is a very significant global threat, and it is a very real concern to our communities at home as well. Foreign fighters may try to return to their home countries, armed with training and experience on the battlefield and inspired by terrorist groups that have called for attacks on civilians. The Department of Justice has investigated and charged over thirty-five foreign terrorist fighter cases to date, and, in most of these cases, we were able to arrest the aspiring fighters before they were able to leave the country.
Yet, while we continue to address this evolving international threat of violent extremists, the Department of Justice has not lost sight of the domestic terrorism threat posed by other violent extremists. Most domestic terrorist attacks are carried out by lone offenders attempting to promote their own grievances and agendas. These individuals are motived by a variety of ideologies, including the anti-government views that motivated McVeigh, as well as a variety of racist, bigoted, anarchist, and violent extremist views. In America, harboring such views is not itself a crime, nor is the expression of even a hateful ideology. But when individuals and groups espousing extremist views use violence in an attempt to bring about political change, their actions cross a line. We have seen individuals cross that line too many times: in seeking to advance their causes, domestic extremists have plotted attacks on government buildings, businesses, synagogues and mosques, and public infrastructure; they have planned to assassinate—and at times have succeeded in killing—police officers, judges, civil rights figures, doctors, and others; they have amassed illegal weapons, explosives, and biological and chemical weapons; and they have gone on killing sprees that have terrorized local communities.
The dangers posed by domestic terrorists remain a key threat to the United States, as recent events continue to demonstrate. For example, in January 2011, Kevin William Harpham, an individual with ties to a neo-Nazi organization, planted a radio-controlled pipe bomb along the route of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade in Spokane, Washington. Luckily, law enforcement officials were able to defuse the device before anyone was harmed. In December 2011, Harpham pleaded guilty to attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and planting a bomb as part of a hate crime, and he was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
In August 2012, Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others, including a responding police officer, at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page had also previously espoused white supremacist and neo-Nazi views. He acted alone and died in the course of the attacks from a self-inflicted gun wound.
Currently awaiting trial are three militia members who are charged with conspiring to possess unregistered pipe bombs and thermite devices and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against U.S. property. According to the indictment, in early 2014, these individuals attempted to acquire explosives in order to destroy U.S. government infrastructure as part of a guerilla warfare strategy to undermine the U.S government. The FBI arrested these three individuals as they were taking possession of twelve inert pipe bombs and two inert thermite devices from a cooperating witness.
More broadly, law enforcement agencies nationwide have expressed concern about the growing presence of the “sovereign citizen” movement. Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or “sovereign” from the United States. Pursuant to this self-proclaimed sovereign status, they believe they don’t have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, or law enforcement. Although most sovereign citizens peacefully espouse these views, some sovereign citizen extremists have resorted to violence. Terry Nichols may have viewed himself as a member of the sovereign citizen movement. And in 2010, Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father and son who identified with the sovereign citizen movement, killed two police officers and were themselves killed in the ensuing shootout with police after a routine traffic stop. Indeed, a 2014 survey by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that state, local, and tribal law enforcement officials considered sovereign citizens to be the top concern of law enforcement, ranking above Islamic extremists.
Given the continuing domestic terrorism threat, the United States must do all it can to identify and track those who would engage in large-scale acts of coercive violence. This is a particularly difficult challenge: like McVeigh and Nichols, homegrown extremists tend to act as “lone wolves,” planning and carrying out attacks on their own or with the assistance of only a single co-conspirator. In these cases, few others know of their violent plans, making their plotting more difficult to disrupt.
But we are not without weapons in this fight. Our local U.S. Attorney’s offices and FBI field offices work closely with our nation’s police officers, district attorneys, and local officials in communities across the United States who are our eyes on the ground. The FBI leads Joint Terrorism Task Forces in each of its 56 field offices that work with a variety of federal, state, territorial, and tribal partner agencies to address terror threats of all kinds, and the FBI provides investigative and intelligence support to local law enforcement and prosecutors when domestic terrorism cases are prosecuted at the local level. And we are utilizing proactive enforcement tools and investigative techniques, including the use of undercover operations, to stay ahead of the threat. Undertaken with careful oversight and with appropriate respect for civil rights and liberties, these tools can be highly effective.
We are also committed to using all of the statutory tools at our disposal. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, or AEDPA. That legislation has been invaluable to the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect the nation against international and domestic terrorism. On the domestic front, AEDPA provided for enhanced sentences for certain terrorism-related offenses, and it created a new federal offense that prohibits the possession of stolen explosives. That statute continues to be of significant use in keeping dangerous explosives out of the hands of those who would use them. Just a few weeks ago, a defendant pleaded guilty to possessing stolen military-grade C-4 and blasting caps.
Additionally, through the leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Congress passed 18 U.S.C. § 842(p), which criminalizes the teaching of, or the distribution of information pertaining to, bomb-making with the intent that the information will be used to commit a federal crime of violence or with the knowledge that the person taught intends to use the information to commit a federal crime of violence. This statute has allowed the Department of Justice to secure prosecutions against individuals who engage in terrorist attacks themselves or who share their deadly skills in order to encourage others to engage in such attacks. For example, in 2005, Daniel Schertz, a one-time member of the Ku Klux Klan, pleaded guilty to six offenses including a violation of section 842(p), for constructing seven pipe bombs and instructing a confidential informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on how to use the bombs to cause the most destruction. Schertz believed that the bombs would be used to attack Mexican and Haitian immigrants in Florida. Schertz was ultimately sentenced to over fourteen years in prison.
In order to ensure the Department of Justice’s continued commitment to protecting our national security against domestic terrorist threats, the Attorney General last year announced the reestablishment of the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee. The Committee was originally launched by Attorney General Janet Reno in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, and it was instrumental in ensuring that those responsible for combatting domestic terrorism had a forum to share information and coordinate their efforts. As fate would have it, the Committee was scheduled to meet on the morning of September 11, 2001. That meeting never took place, and the events of that day turned the U.S. Government’s focus toward confronting the international terrorist threat.
Now reestablished, the Committee is led by the National Security Division, FBI, and members of the U.S. Attorney community from across the nation. The Committee’s primary role is to coordinate with U.S. Attorneys and other key public safety officials from across the country to promote information-sharing and collaboration among those in federal government who are responsible for protecting against the threat of domestic terrorism. The Department of Justice, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and our many partners have worked for years to prevent and disrupt domestic terrorist attacks, and we are optimistic that the Committee will help further those efforts.
While we are very proud of our accomplishments in preventing against domestic attacks and prosecuting those who would perpetrate them, we are aware of the grave challenges that face us, and we are always seeking new and innovative ways to protect our national security while preserving our civil rights and civil liberties. It is my hope that the Murrah Center’s contributions to domestic national security law will build upon our work at the Department of Justice and help move us toward a better future for us all.
I want to conclude by thanking the Oklahoma City community for welcoming me here today and for being an inspiration to all of us. The bombing here was the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks, and it is the most significant act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history. It remains a vivid memory and a tragic moment for our collective national conscience. But the response of the Oklahoma City community and the nation continues to serve as a shining example of how we can come together as a community to support those victimized by such attacks and to bring to justice those who would threaten our national security. Out of the tragedy came not only the beautiful memorial here in Oklahoma City and now the Murrah Center, but also a reminder that justice, hope, and community will always triumph over the forces of evil and hate. We at the Department of Justice will never forget what happened here twenty years ago, and we will never rest in our fight to prevent such tragedies and punish those who would perpetrate them.