FBI Director Christopher Wray told senators Tuesday there is an “elevated” terrorism risk in the US following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel — including a possibility of homegrown supporters of the jihadist group engaging in violence.
“We assess that the actions of Hamas and its allies will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called ‘caliphate’ several years ago,” Wray told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The FBI chief added that while “the terrorism threat has been elevated throughout 2023 … the ongoing war in the Middle East has raised the threat of an attack against Americans in the United States to a whole ‘nother level since the horrific terrorist attacks committed by Hamas against innocent people in Israel a few weeks ago.”
Wray’s testimony followed widespread demonstrations in major US cities and on college campuses, during which pro-Palestinian activists have expressed support for Hamas.
The terror group carried out a surprise multi-front attack against Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people — including at least 33 Americans — wounding thousands and taking more than 200 hostages.
“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,” the FBI director warned.
“This is not a time for panic,” Wray told Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) when asked about the threat Americans face. “We shouldn’t stop conducting our daily lives — going to schools, houses of worship and so forth — but we should be vigilant.”
The FBI director also noted that foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda have also called for attacks on US soil in addition to rocket and drone attacks carried out by Iran-backed jihadists against American military bases in Iraq and Syria.
Wray further cited recent failed attempts by Tehran-sponsored terrorist groups to carry out assassinations of “high-ranking current and former US government officials.”
The “Threats to the Homeland Hearing” hearing also featured Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) took Mayorkas to task for having employed a former spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organization at his agency, who shared images of Hamas terrorists using paragliders and called for the “downfall” of Israel in personal social media posts.
“This is an asylum and immigration officer who is posting these, frankly, pro-genocidal slogans and images on the day that Israelis are being slaughtered in their beds,” Hawley told Mayorkas, referring to Nejwa Ali, an officer with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“This person works for the Department of Homeland Security. Have you fired her?” Hawley asked.
“To suggest that that is emblematic of the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security is despicable,” Mayorkas began to respond before being cut off.
“When Israel has been invaded and Jewish students are barricaded in libraries in this country and cannot be escorted out because they are threatened for their lives,” Hawley shot back, “you have employees who are celebrating genocide. And you are saying it’s despicable for me to ask the question. Has she been fired?”
“That individual has been placed on administrative leave,” Mayorkas replied, trading glares with Hawley. “The individual was hired in 2019. … I cannot speak to an ongoing personnel matter.”
“This isn’t sufficient to fire her?” Hawley asked. “That’s what you’re telling me.”
“That is not what I’m saying,” Mayorkas interjected.
“She’s still on your payroll as we sit here today,” Hawley said. “Did she adjudicate any cases involving Israelis seeking asylum in this country?”
Mayorkas declined to answer further.
“Quite frankly, Mr. Secretary, I think that your performance is despicable, and I think the fact that you are not willing to provide answers to this committee is absolutely atrocious,” Hawley concluded.
“What I found despicable is the implication that this language, tremendously odious, actually, could be emblematic of the sentiments of the 260,000 men and women of the Department of Homeland Security,” Mayorkas responded.
“Senator Hawley takes an adversarial approach to me in this question, and perhaps he doesn’t know my own background — perhaps he does not know that I am the child of a Holocaust survivor; perhaps he does not know that my mother lost almost all her family at the hands of the Nazis.
“And so I find his adversarial tone to be entirely misplaced. I find it to be disrespectful of me and my heritage. And I do not expect an apology. But I did want to say what I just articulated.”
Mayorkas also declined to answer whether the Biden administration would revoke visas of foreign students at US universities celebrating the deaths of Israelis.
Hawley led a resolution that passed the Senate last week condemning Hamas and the antisemitic student groups that praised the terror group’s attacks.
Both Wray and Mayorkas used their opening statements to ask Congress to renew section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), about which House Republicans have expressed concerns.
In a January 2022 letter to Wray, then-House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) cited “apparent widespread violations” of privacy rules in conducting surveillance, according to a 2020 memo from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, among other concerns.
The letter was co-signed by now-Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who has not yet indicated how the lower chamber will approach the issue.
However, Jordan in a Judiciary Committee hearing with the FBI director earlier this year made clear that “Republicans will oppose FISA reauthorization in its current form.”