Leaked FBI Documents Show FBI Developed “IRON FIST” To Counter “Black Identity Extremists”

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Portions of the FBI’s Consolidated Strategy Guide were leaked to the Young Turks’ Ken Klippenstein. Labeled “threat guidance”, these documents from 2018-2020, show how Black dissent continues to be viewed as a top domestic terrorism threat by the FBI. Year after year, the Bureau continuously claimed that African-American anger at police racism could lead to “retaliatory lethal violence” against law enforcement. The logic at play is both clear and insidious. It delegemitizes movements for racial justice, by drawing a connection between opposition to racism and violence against law enforcement. Even more disturbingly, these documents reveal for the first time that the FBI had created a program called IRON FIST to “mitigate” this supposed “threat.”

In 2017, Foreign Policy revealed the existence of an FBI intelligence assessment on the threat posed by “Black Identity Extremism.” This revelation sparked outrage from activists and members of Congress. During a May 8, 2019, House Homeland Security Committee hearing on domestic terrorism, Michael McGarrity, Assistant Director for Counterterrorism, FBI, claimed the FBI is no longer using the designation “Black Identity Extremism.” However, it was not because the FBI had repudiated the reasoning behind the assessment, but because the FBI was combining Black Identity Extremism with White Supremacist Extremism into a single category– “racially motivated violent extremism.”

The leaked portions of the Consolidated Strategy Guide shows this internal evolution of terminology. The 2018 threat guidance refers to Black Identity Extremism and White Supremacist Extremism as seperate domestic terrorist threats. In 2019, the threat guidance describes “Racially Motivated Extremism.” This is broken down into two categories–White Supremacist Extremism and Black Racially Motivated Extremism, which per the threat guidance was “previously referred to as Black Identity Extremism.” In the 2020 threat guidance, the FBI scrapped this framework and introduced yet another new term “Racially Motivated Violent Extremism.” This time, the FBI does not break it down into further categories. Nonetheless, it  is clear that this category encompassed both White Supremacists and so-called Black Identity Extremism. The previous definitions of both “domestic terrorism” threats now appear as traits attributable to “some Racially Motivated Violent Extremists.” Case classification listed for 2020 do, however, distinguish between “Racially Motivated Violent Extremists (White)” and “Racially Motivated Violent Extremists (Black).” Black Identity Extremism also continued to be assigned a “Crime Problem Indicator” code indicating that the term has not fallen completely out of use. 

Regardless of the term used–Black Identity Extremism, Black Racially Motivated Extremism, or Racially Motivated Violent Extremism–the underlying description remains similar from year to year. “Perceptions about police brutality against African-Americans” or “perceived racism or injustice in American society” may motivate extremists to commit violent acts. Consistent throughout all three years is the claim that the FBI first became aware of the threat “in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved in that incident.”

The 2018 threat guidance references an FBI headquarters-led plan to mitigate the threat of Black Identity Extremism called “IRON FIST.” According to the documents, under IRON FIST the FBI engaged in “enhanced intelligence collection efforts” and that the FBI headquarters was working to develop confidential human sources. Additionally, the information on IRON FIST notes that “many [Black Identity Extremists] are convicted felons who are prohibited possessors [of firearms], therefore the FBI will continue to use their prohibited possessor status as a tactic to assist in mitigating the threat for potential violence.” 

In December, 2017 the FBI undertook what was believed to be the first prosecution of a “Black Identity Extremist.” Rakem Balogun was an opponent of police brutality and advocate of black gun ownership. He came to the attention of the FBI after they saw a video of him engaged in political expression on the rightwing conspiracy website InfoWars. The FBI surveilled Balogun, monitoring his online speech on social media. Eventually they arrested him–for illegal possession of firearms. Although the charge was ultimately dismissed by a judge, it closely mirrors the strategy for “mitigating” Black Identity Extremism laid out in the documents. 

The FBI’s Black Identity Extremism category conflates opposition to police violence and racial injustice with violence against law enforcement. By doing so, it opens the doors to surveil racial justice movements as “domestic terrorism” threats. This was bad enough, but as these documents show the FBI not only continued to promulgate this troubling criminalization of Black dissent year after year, it treated so-called “Black Identity Extremism” as one of the leading terrorist threats to the US.