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Wray warns of increased terrorist threat, says U.S. is in a 'dangerous period'

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on Nov. 15, 2022.
Chip Somodevilla
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FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before the House Homeland Security Committee on Nov. 15, 2022.

Updated October 31, 2023 at 2:14 PM ET

FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday the war between Israel and Hamashas led to a spike in threats against the United States, warning that "we are in a dangerous period" as various terrorist groups look to leverage the conflict for their own causes.

The threat of international terrorism in the U.S. had largely subsided in recent years, particularly since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But senior American officials say Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel has created a new dynamic with dangerous implications at home and abroad.

"The reality is that the terrorism threat has been elevated throughout 2023, but the ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole other level," Wray said in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Hamas' attack, which killed some 1,400 people in Israel, "will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven't seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate years ago," Wray said.

He said the FBI has no evidence of a imminent threat from a foreign terrorist group, but he noted that since Hamas' attack on Israel, al-Qaida has issued its most specific call for violence against the U.S. in years, while the Islamic State has urged its followers to target Jewish communities in the United States and Europe.

Israel-Gaza conflict is being used in extremist propaganda

Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told lawmakers that the Israel-Hamas war has featured in messaging and propaganda since Oct. 7.

"We've seen it from al-Qaida affiliates, almost every single one of them," she told lawmakers, referring to terrorist groups in the Mideast and Africa with ties to al-Qaida. "We've also seen it from ISIS, which isn't ideologically aligned with a group like Hamas but is still leveraging this current conflict to try to sow the kind of violence, bring adherence to its cause in a kind of exploitative way."

On the home front, Wray said the biggest concern for the FBI is that violent extremists — including people inspired by foreign terrorist groups but also domestic violent extremists — will draw inspiration from the ongoing conflict to carry out attacks against Americans.

"We've seen that already with the individual we arrested last week in Houston, who'd been studying how to build bombs and posted online about his support for killing Jews," Wray said. "And with the tragic killing of a 6-year-old Muslim boy in Illinois in what we're investigating as a federal hate crime."

But Wray said he's also concerned about traditional, formal terrorist organizations like al-Qaida, ISIS or Hezbollah potentially carrying out strikes in the U.S.

"We are not currently tracking an imminent, credible threat from a foreign terrorist organization, a structured attack here or something like that, but it is something that we think heightened vigilance is warranted for," he said.

"It is a time to be concerned," he said. "We are in a dangerous period."

At the same time, he urged Americans not to be intimidated.

"This is not a time for panic, but it is a time for vigilance," he said. "We shouldn't stop conducting our daily lives, going to schools, houses of worship and so forth. But we should be vigilant."

Iran and its proxies

Abizaid said the U.S. has no intelligence that indicates Iran or its proxies, most notably the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, "had any foreknowledge" of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack.

But she said the U.S. remains focused on Iranian activities — and those of its allies — targeting American interests since the war's outbreak. She noted that militant groups aligned with Tehran have conducted 24 attacks against American forces in Iraq and Syria.

Despite those strikes, she said Washington doesn't believe Iran currently is interested in escalating the conflict.

"We assess Iran, Hezbollah and their linked proxies are trying to calibrate their activity, avoiding actions that would open up a concerted second front with the U.S. or Israel while still exacting costs in the midst of the current conflict," she said.

"This is a very fine line to walk and, in the present regional context, their actions carry the potential for miscalculation thus requiring heightened scrutiny in the region and we monitor for signs that the conflict could spread."

On the domestic front, she said she has no indications of any Iranian threat inside the U.S., though she cautioned that Iran has a "significant escalatory capability" that it could call on if Tehran decided it wanted to ramp up the conflict.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.