Breathless reporting that neo-Nazis and white supremacists intend to use coronavirus as a weapon is spreading through the corporate media faster than the virus itself. Yet the media practiced its own “social distancing” from a similar story a few weeks earlier, about a New York-based Muslim Brotherhood member who videotaped himself urging people to infect police and military members with the virus.
According to the report from ABC News, members of law enforcement in New York City received an alert from the FBI regarding reports that: “‘Members of extremist groups are encouraging one another to spread the virus, if contracted, through bodily fluids and personal interactions.’ The FBI alert, which went out on Thursday, told local police agencies that extremists want their followers to try to use spray bottles to spread bodily fluids to cops on the street. The extremists are also directing followers to spread the disease to Jews by going ‘any place they may be congregated, to include markets, political offices, businesses and places of worship.’”
While nothing quoted in the ABC News report specifically mentions white supremacists as the focus of the FBI alert despite the headline, other reporting does seem to confirm the story. Yahoo News cited a Federal Protective Service memo that noted, “White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists have recently commented on the coronavirus stating that it is an ‘OBLIGATION’ to spread it should any of them contract the virus.” Racially Motivated Violent Extremists is an ambiguous term adopted by the FBI to refer to all forms of racist extremism after blowback from members of Congress forced the law enforcement agency to abandon the term “Black Identity Extremists.”
On March 16, nearly a week prior to the ABC News story, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported on a New York-based Muslim Brotherhood member, Bahgat Saber, who urged any Egyptian with coronavirus to deliberately spread the disease to Egyptian military, police, and political figures. Saber also stated he would personally spread it to the Egyptian Consulate in New York, if he were to be infected.
In contrast to the ABC news report about white supremacists, which relies on leaked quotes from a single law enforcement alert, MEMRI provides video evidence of Saber making his remarks. Yet they were not covered in the mainstream media, while only a handful of few conservative and Jewish outlets mentioned the story. The website Algemeiner very responsibly covered both stories, however, noting, “Neo-Nazi and Islamist extremists have found another common cause” in spreading the virus.
The potential of bioterrorism is a genuine concern, and needs to be taken seriously, regardless of the source. In practice, however, the federal government does not have a sterling record of success with bioterror investigations.
In 1998, the FBI arrested Larry Wayne Harris, a reported member of the Aryan Nation White supremacist group, for an alleged plot to spread anthrax in New York City based on boasts he’d allegedly made that were reported to the Bureau. But the case collapsed at trial, when what the FBI believed to be anthrax turned out to be anthrax vaccine.
An Anti-Defamation League report on extremism and bioterrorism notes that Harris was actually obsessed with the notion of preventing, not causing, a bioterror attack and suffered from fantastical delusions. At the time, Sen. Chuck Grassley called the case an example of the FBI “crying wolf.”
The bureau was similarly embarrassed in 2001, after it tried and failed to pin the 2001 anthrax attacks on scientist Steven Hatfill, who eventually won a $5.8 million settlement from the government for their behavior, which included leaks to the media. The federal government later claimed the attacks were carried out by scientist Bruce Ivins, although the allegations were never proven in court after Ivins committed suicide before he could be charged.
Subsequent media investigations raised doubts about Ivins’s culpability as well. The FBI’s mishandling of the 2001 anthrax case became an element of reporting during the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation, when Bureau critics pointed out that both Mueller and James Comey had played a role in the botched case. In both cases the stories were breathlessly reported by a willing media that took FBI leaks at face value.
It is important that significant terror threats, including bioterrorism, be thoroughly investigated. However, one should be wary of leaked reports, which do not provide the total perspective of the likelihood of the threat.
Extremists of all stripes routinely discuss potential plots that they have neither the capability nor the willingness to carry out. While the media and some politicians will continue to make white supremacists the singular domestic terror focus, law enforcement should take a more measured approach.