DALLAS — Before he went on a shooting rampage in Dallas that left 5 police officers dead and a nation reeling, former army engineer Micah Johnson did the sorts of things the FBI normally looks out for. He stockpiled material like Tannerite, an explosive powder that the FBI has singled out as a go-to ingredient for improvised bombs. And he had turned to black militant groups on Facebook that encouraged violence against police officers, groups that the FBI has traditionally monitored.
But Johnson was never the subject of an FBI investigation, a spokesperson at the FBI’s national press office told BuzzFeed News Tuesday.
As people in Dallas — and the country — now tries to heal, it’s wrestling with a tough question: why didn’t law enforcement officials know about Johnson’s plans?
“The [FBI] should be looking at any group, regardless of who they are, that is advocating violent behavior,” said Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director of the FBI. “The problem is that you can’t monitor every person who has a plight against the government or public policy.”
But that approach — targeting ideologies rather than fringe individuals — may be what allowed Johnson to fly under the radar for so long. Johnson, like the Orlando gunman who killed 49 at an LGBT club last month, was a lone actor, a status that highlights a gaping hole in the FBI’s domestic counterterror strategy. Violent actors tend to be on the fringe of the groups the FBI watches, which often lets them hatch their plans under the radar.
Johnson told Dallas authorities he was angry about the police killing black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castille — though investigators say he was planning an attack long before that. He wanted to kill white people, specifically white officers, as the militant groups he subscribed to on social media encouraged. But it remains unclear just how involved Johnson was in the black separatist groups he liked and followed on Facebook. According The Daily Beast, the Collective Black People’s Movement blacklisted him — when BuzzFeed News called their office, they said they didn’t know anything about Johnson.
“Most of the people who express extreme political views or religious views do not engage in violence, and the people who do engage in violence do not have longstanding or deep ties to those communities,” said Mike German, a former agent with the FBI who worked undercover combating domestic counterterrorism groups. "Trying to draw connections between violent actors and extremist groups often misses the problem.”
That federal intelligence officials keep tabs on groups that promote violence is not new. The FBI is investigating 900 ISIS-related cases. Often overshadowed, though, is how the feds track homegrown actors, particularly those in racial separatist hate groups like the KKK, the New Black Panther Party or a whole swath of other groups that actively encourage racially motivated hate crimes.
“To the extent that there are black groups calling for a violent overthrow, the Bureau’s absolutely working that,” Henry said.
Today, there are 180 black separatist groups on the list of 892 total active hate groups in the U.S., according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups throughout the country. Some of those 180, such as the New Black Panther Party — which was rejected by the original Black Panther Party of the 60s and 70s — encourage racially motivated violence against Jewish people, white people and police officers. Not all adherents of the groups agree with those views.
But it's been decades since those groups took organized action on any of their threats — Johnson’s would be the first high-profile violent incident in years, and there's no indication the groups had knowledge of his plans. (There were nearly three times as many hate crimes committed against blacks in the U.S. as there were against whites in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available. About 14% of the U.S. population identifies as black.) As recently as 2011, the FBI was raising alarms on increased black separatist organization activity — but the only evidence of violence it could cite was from 1976.
“The violence that they associate with these groups is back in the 1970s and 80s,” German said. “The idea that there still [is] a black separatist threat to the United States is quite hard to make.”
But juxtaposing this new wave of fear following Johnson’s attack is the FBI’s historically skewed assessment of the threat black separatist groups actually pose, and its torrid, politically-motivated history of inappropriately infiltrating and surveilling those organizations.
J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was notorious for its brazen attempts to undermine the Civil Rights Movement. Its infamous “Counterintelligence Program”, or “COINTELPRO” was dedicated to smearing Hoover’s own political enemies, many of them civil rights leaders. Hoover himself personally authorized wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr.’s phones, and in 1964, the Bureau sent an anonymous letter to King encouraging him to kill himself. The letter was enclosed with FBI recordings of King’s alleged infidelities, and called him a “filthy, abnormal animal.”
Johnson’s massacre is not being formally considered domestic terrorism. Quietly, law enforcement officials say it could easily fall into that category — which means the FBI would take over the investigation — currently the feds are staying in the background. “A lot of this is about relationships. Dallas lost four police officers, and DART lost one, and [FBI agents] don’t want to appear they’re coming in and taking over,” Henry said. “Anybody in law enforcement should understand that.”
“This was a terrorist attack. There’s no doubt,” Frederick Frazier, a detective with the Dallas police, told BuzzFeed News. “When you have a group claim victory after a mass police killing such as ours and when that group puts up a website and says we’ve claimed victory, that is a terrorist attack,” he said, referring to the since-deactivated webpage of a Black Power group that praised Johnson’s actions. “That’s what terrorists do, they have a mission. Their mission is to kill law enforcement.”
By federal definition, terrorism is a violent act meant to intimidate the civilian population or the government for a cause. After years of various lone actors — with various motivations — carrying out violent acts, there is still no clear FBI system for what counts and what doesn’t.
By the FBI’s assessment, Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 at a gay nightclub in Orlando last month was a domestic terrorist, claiming ties to ISIS. So were Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who killed 14 in San Bernadino last year, also claiming ISIS links. Dylann Roof, though, a 22-year-old white nationalist who killed nine at a historically black Charleston, S.C. church — with the stated hope of starting a race war — wasn’t.
All of those mass murderers have more in common with each other than they do to any of their respective ideological groups, German said.
“These are people who, for whatever reason, were having some sort of crisis, anger problems in their life, and at the last minute when they chose to do something, they reached out for some particular justification,” German said. By focusing on violent groups rather than lone actors, people like Johnson can wreak havoc, he said.
“Because the FBI clings to this radicalization theory, that proposes that extremist belief is a precursor to violence...it takes resources away from actually interdicting the threat.”
Claudia Koerner contributed reporting from Dallas.