Domestic Terrorism: Inside the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Richmond

by | Aug 1, 2018 | COMMUNITY

As the one year anniversary of Charlottesville rapidly approaches, the phrase “domestic terrorism” will inevitably be on everyone’s mind. Virginia experienced something deeply traumatic last summer when white supremacist James Fields, Jr., drove his car into a group of anti-fascists, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 30 others. There is a familiarity to the attack that makes it almost routine, as it mirrors similar strikes on the streets of Europe by extremists aligned with the Islamic State.

This article originally appeared in RVA #33 Summer 2018, you can check out the issue here, or pick it up around Richmond now. 

Understanding the incident as an act of domestic terrorism might seem obvious. The phrase is reflective of what happened on Aug. 12, 2017, and the FBI even defines domestic terrorism as an act inspired by individuals or groups who “espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

Fields seems to tick all of those boxes. He was, after all, a white supremacist who radicalized and conducted an act of violence based on an extremist ideology. Case closed? Sometimes things are not so obvious, though, not when legal phrases like domestic terrorism are used.

Virginia has recently prosecuted domestic terrorism cases against white supremacists, most of which have been investigated by the FBI. This also includes the events in Charlottesville carried out by Fields. Some of these cases have been visible, while others get investigated and prosecuted behind the scenes. With the anniversary of the Charlottesville tragedy drawing near, RVA Mag wanted to understand what domestic terrorism really is, and how these cases have been investigated in Virginia — both to gain clarity on what happened last August, and to understand how the FBI seeks to prevent future acts of violence.

To do this, we spent time at the FBI field office in Richmond, where agents oversee investigations in 82 of Virginia’s 95 counties. We interviewed the special agent in charge, case agents who closed domestic terrorism cases, and the head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force; all of which led to our participation in a two-month long civilian training academy with agents from the main investigative units.

What became obvious during our time spent with the FBI was the complex legal challenges associated with investigating crimes that might be considered domestic terrorism.

Domestic terrorism is defined in the US criminal code, but is not criminalized in the US criminal code,” said Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Adam Lee, during our first interview to talk about these cases. “It is a thornier issue, probably more than one might immediately suspect.

Put simply: There is no such thing as a domestic terrorist in the US. A person or group can be investigated under the pretense of committing an act of domestic terrorism, but cannot be prosecuted for an act of domestic terrorism. Understanding this strange legal contradiction became the starting point in trying to make sense of the “nexus” – a term we heard frequently at the FBI – of the way domestic terrorism cases are investigated and, ultimately, what crime they get prosecuted for.

A career agent with almost 20 years of field experience, Lee was interviewed by President Trump to succeed James Comey as the FBI Director. But for those under his command, he is simply referred to as “the boss” — a term of respect, but also one of endearment.

Sensing our confusion, but also acknowledging how our own misperceptions overestimate what the FBI’s capabilities actually are, Lee tried to clarify the “thorniness” around the question of domestic terrorism.

“We investigate the hate groups as we would any other group; street gangs or organized crime,” Lee said, adding that the motivations of these groups are secondary to “their plots, plans, and schemes, and if they involved criminal conduct.”  

Special Agent Jim Rudisill investigated one such domestic terrorism case against a hate group out of Chesterfield County that was planning on attacking minority groups.

Rudisill is an operator in the classic sense: serious, but also cool, a former Army veteran who is the resident bomb technician. Speaking with a Southern drawl, he said his case started in an unlikely place. “The information was by way of a contact in Newport News City Jail… of all places.”

Rudisill said one of the inmates approached a guard with information about a group of guys who “wanted to start a race war.” The white supremacists, who referred to themselves as the ominous-sounding “Hammer Bearers,” maintained an ideology that originated with Odin, the principal deity in Norse mythology – a common religious identification for some white supremacists.

Led by a man named Robert Curtis Doyle, the group was comprised of individuals who met in Virginia prisons, breeding grounds for extremism of all stripes. Together, they planned to attack Jewish synagogues and black churches.

Robert Curtis Doyle

Agents that investigate domestic terrorism in Richmond’s field office fall under an inter-agency program called the Joint Terrorism Task Force, referred to as the JTTF. After 9/11, disrupting terrorism became the number one priority for the FBI, which led to the creation of 56 JTTFs nationally, as a partnership between various federal and state agencies.

In Richmond, this is headed by Special Agent Brad Elder. And this is where the investigation into the Hammer Bearers started.

Elder is well known in the bureau. In August 2016 – from a tip originating in Virginia only 60 hours prior – he spearheaded an international investigation against a man inspired by the Islamic State to conduct a suicide attack in Canada. The suspect, Aaron Driver, was eventually killed during the takedown by the Royal Canadian Mounties, while on his way to detonate his explosive vest in downtown Ontario.

Sitting down for interviews on three different occasions, including the interview with Rudisill, Elder walked us through how domestic terrorism cases are initiated; but not before reinforcing the “thorny” issue that Lee talked about, reminding us, “you can’t be a domestic terrorist” in the US.

Initial FBI investigations, called “guardians,” are a heavily-restricted assessment focused on protecting constitutional rights. “This is to protect the population,” Elder said, referring to the internal restrictions. “We start with the least intrusive means possible.”

Given the potential for violence, the investigation against the Hammer Bearers escalated out of the guardian stage quickly. To finance their plan they planned to kidnap, rob, and kill a silver dealer they met over Craigslist; part of the plan included bleeding him out in his own bathtub. “If there is a threat to life, we have to make him aware,” Rudisill said of the potential victim. “Very little time transpired before we knocked on his door and let him know what was going on.”

Seeing an opportunity in this development, the agents started introducing ways to place their own undercover assets in the vicinity of the white supremacists.

While Rudisill couldn’t talk about undercover tradecraft, he acknowledged part of the process was to create “separation between the real silver dealer and Doyle,” the leader of the Hammer Bearers, to minimize danger to the dealer. “I seized on the opportunity to put one of us in harm’s way, as opposed to the real [dealer].”

Elder described the situation as one that might have led to a “catastrophic event,” which even the case agents were not prepared for. “A lot of office resources [were used] on this case, because it was moving so fast,” Elder said. “They already had firearms and ammunition, body armor, and some incendiary devices. At that point, we had to move in and make the arrest.”

When asked how worried he was that the Hammer Bearers would actually be able to carry out a complex plan that included kidnapping, murder, precious metals, and attacking synagogues and black churches, Rudisill responded, deadpan, “Very worried.”

He recalled a chilling quote from Doyle. “Doyle said that he wanted to do something bigger than Charleston,” referring to the killing of eight black churchgoers by Dylann Roof in 2015, just a few months before the Hammer Bearers investigation began.

When the JTTF decides to pursue an investigation as an act of domestic terrorism, they work off of a metric that takes into account three factors: federal law violations, the chance of violence, and the social and political goals which link these things together.

Bringing this around to the Hammer Bearers, Elder pointed out, “They were going to kill people, which is a federal violation.” He continued, “They were targeting synagogues and black churches and using violence of force… the three prongs met there.”

This is where the case of the Hammer Bearers diverges from the incident by Fields in Charlottesville. While he was a white supremacist, his actions were not premeditated, as they were not part of a network that was engaged in a larger conspiracy to target groups based on an ideology.

The ambiguity between being an effective investigator and protecting constitutional rights is a perpetual struggle, and the FBI runs an international division dedicated to assessing the potential for civil rights violations within their investigations.

Said another way: Fields was an asshole who, in the heat of the moment, committed a series of crimes, one of which was murder. He also denied the anti-fascists and counter-protesters their civil rights, a charge that can often be used in cases like these. It was announced in June that Fields Jr. will be indicted with a federal hate crime in the killing of Heather Heyer, racially motivated violent interference with a federally protected activity, and 28 other counts of hate crime acts.

This is the “thorny” issue. Regardless of their seniority, every special agent interviewed was conscious of the danger of overstepping when investigating domestic terrorism.

The ambiguity between being an effective investigator and protecting constitutional rights is a perpetual struggle, and the FBI runs an international division dedicated to assessing the potential for civil rights violations within their investigations.

This past January, Delegate Marcia Price from Newport News, supported by Attorney General Mark Herring, introduced legislation that would give Virginia the ability to prosecute suspects for terrorism – including domestic terrorism – independent of the FBI. At the time, Herring told RVA Mag the bill was intended to combat the threat from violent white supremacy after Charlottesville.

The legislation faced strong opposition, and ultimately failed. In a statement, the Virginia ACLU cited a history of overreach and politicization of terrorism, concluding, “We, therefore, have serious concerns about the First Amendment risks that come from government branding groups with unpopular beliefs as terrorist and criminal.”

It’s not hard to imagine what form overreach could take. The FBI has a sordid history of running counter-intelligence operations against activists during the civil rights era, including attempts to disrupt and discredit the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., under a program called COINTELPRO that ran for 15 years.

Mary McCord, the senior litigator for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and at Georgetown University Law Center, referred to this and other abuses when speaking to RVA Mag about the “thorny issue” of prosecuting domestic terrorism.

“The designation of domestic terrorist groups could lead to increased use of legal authorities to target certain people for ideological or political reasons,” McCord said. She explained that labeling individuals as domestic terrorists could violate constitutional protections.

Lee, deeply aware of the potential, commented dryly, “Those are issues our agency grapples with.”

The Hammer Bearers investigation was brought to completion in around three months; investigative warp speed by FBI standards. Doyle eventually pled guilty to charges that included conspiracy to “affect commerce by robbery” and “unlawful possession” of a firearm. The charge carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. While his group was investigated by the JTTF, he was ultimately charged for crimes associated with his conspiracy, not domestic terrorism, since no such charge exists. Nonetheless, the punishment was appropriate to the act.

The phrase “domestic terrorism” is an easy term to use in post-Charlottesville America, where the threat from white supremacy is being mainstreamed. But one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero, and the only difference between the two for law enforcement may be where you are standing at the time.

The FBI is far from perfect. They’ve made mistakes – even launched investigations against activists that have turned up flat – but they’ve also taken down the Hammer Bearers, saving the lives of black church-goers and Jewish worshippers. Regardless, they don’t want the power to label Americans as “terrorists,” and human rights and privacy groups agree with them.

At the end of our final interview, we asked Rudisill what he’d say to young people about the FBI’s domestic terrorism investigations in Virginia. No-nonsense as always, he said, “We are seeking to disrupt people that would do others harm, regardless of what their ideology is. This case, [Hammer Bearers] and how we advanced it and prosecuted it, is a good example of how demographics make no difference to us. What interests us is the active threat of violence. I don’t care what you look like or what you are yammering on about.”

And the fight continues.

Top Photo: Adam Lee, Special Agent in Charge of the Richmond Field Office. Photo By Landon Shroder 

Landon Shroder

Landon Shroder

Landon is a foreign policy and communications professional from Richmond specializing in high risk and complex environments, spending almost fifteen years abroad in the Middle East and Africa. He hold’s a Master’s Degree from American University in Conflict Resolution and was a former journalist and producer for VICE Media. His writing on foreign affairs has been published in World Policy Journal, Chatham House, Small Wars Journal, War on the Rocks, and the Fair Observer, along with being a commentator in the New York Times on the Middle East.

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