UPDATE: Law enforcement arrested Frank James on April 13th in New York’s East Village neighborhood following an anonymous tip. He has been charged under federal terrorism statutes.
Law enforcement remains on the look out for Frank James, a 63-year-old man with ties to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who is alleged to be responsible for a mass shooting that took place April 12th, at a New York City Subway Station, in which 10 people were shot and 13 others injured. James was reportedly identified as the renter of a U-Haul van believed to be linked to the attack. According to media reports, the FBI had previously investigated the suspectfor ties to terrorism in 2019 but had cleared him.
According to Law enforcement, James, wearing a green vest similar to that used by MTA subway workers and donned a gas mask prior to the attack inside the N-Line subway train at the 36th and 4th Avenue station. He then deployed a smoke grenade inside one of the subway cars before opening fire with a small caliber handgun equipped with an extended magazine, firing at least 33 rounds, before escaping in the confusion, possibly along the subway tracks.
According to social media posts and videos which this author has reviewed, James made repeated and routine references to violence and a willingness to conduct a shooting on social media. He also posted material linked to black identity extremist ideologies, including the Nation of Islam, Moorish Science, Black Panthers, Black Liberation Army, and Black Lives Matter. He notably posted a picture of Micah Johnson, the BLM supporter who killed 5 Dallas police officers in 2016. In online videos James can be seen urging racial separatism between whites and blacks.
There is some reason to believe that James may have suffered from a mental illness at some point, as he makes a reference in a video to having been previously detained for mental illness. However, his articulation of black identity extremism appears cogent and in line with common ideological expressions although without any immediate signs of adherence to one specific group.
If it is true that the FBI previously investigated James and cleared him, it once against highlights federal law enforcement’s “Known Wolf” problem where, despite having significant intelligence capabilities that bring potential threats to law enforcement attention, the FBI remains incapable of determining which individuals represent genuine threats and has repeatedly failed to successfully intervene.
In this case that may have something to do with the FBI’s politicized determination to eliminate “black identity extremism” as a potential terrorism motivation for analysis. The FBI had previously used the term to refer to a variety of black supremacist threats until it came under political pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus and left-wing media. As the Center previously noted following an April 2021 vehicular Ramming attackwhere Noah Green, a 25-year old adherent of the Nation of Islam killed a Capitol Police Officer:
Federal Law enforcement has abandoned categorizing or identifying attacks conducted by “black identity extremists” the previous FBI term for attacks conducted by black supremacist or black separatist organizations, following politicalized criticism. The FBI, DHS, and other elements of the intelligence community have routinely downplayed the potential risk of violence from black identity extremists.
The FBI instead classifies black identity extremism under the too-broad category of “Racial or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists (REMVE),” although in practice this term is being used exclusively to refer to white supremacist ideologies. This has led to some ridiculous results, such as congressional legislation which included an attack by Black Hebrew Israelites among a list of “white supremacist” attacks. As a result of this political pressure, there has been minimal study and training done to educate law enforcement on the intricacies of the black identity extremist thought, and its various strains and idiosyncrasies. Instead, the tendency is to deny that such attacks are politically motivated, and thus deny any terrorism angle for further investigation.
Law enforcement and intelligence professionals must return to doing detailed analyses to understand threat ideologies within their own historical and ideological context. The current methodology, which seeks to lump various ideological expressions into the broadest possible category trades genuine understanding for political convenience, and as a result, leaves potential threats unaddressed.
Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.
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