Minnesota continues to face a serious threat of violence from white supremacists and other domestic terrorist groups, two of the state's top law enforcers said Friday.

Staying ahead of potential incidents has become more difficult because supremacist groups are less organized and operate covertly underground on social media and the internet, said Michael Paul, special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis Field Office.

Paul, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and two other community experts spoke to more than 260 people at a virtual town hall about the "unmasking" of white supremacy. Ellison, who is Black and Muslim, discussed the near daily threats he receives and how it won't make him back down from advocating for racial equality and the prosecution of hate crimes.

"I'm not concerned about my own safety," he said. "I will never back down and show fear to these bullies. Nobody lives forever. If they are going to get you, they are going to get you."

From 1994 to 2020, there have been nearly 900 domestic anti-Semitic and racial terrorist attacks, and the majority of those have been by right-wing groups, said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). Racial and religious hatred were the reasons supremacists recently killed people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a church in Charlotte, N.C.

"The JCRC works well with law enforcement to protect all houses of worship, not just synagogues," he said. "We all have to work together, whatever threats come."

Paul, who helped investigate the 2015 mass shooting in Las Vegas, said the FBI has seen an increase in violent rhetoric and the acceptance of violence to advance ideologies. The internet allows individuals to craft their own ideologies without being part of a group, he said.

"As the seriousness of domestic terrorist attacks grows, they become part of the public narrative," he said.

Macalester College Prof. Brian Lozenski, who researches how people get involved in white extremism, said part of the cause comes from the country's Founding Fathers' push for white domination through the restrictions on Blacks on property ownership, citizenship and the ability to hold offices.

"We need a national recognition of the story we tell ourselves about the country," he said.

Steve Belton, president of Urban League Twin Cities, moderated the forum.

As a member of Congress in 2018, Ellison said he sent several letters of concern about white extremism to top law enforcement officials. When he contacted the Department of Defense about the issue, he was told the military had uncovered 27 incidents of infiltration by white supremacists.

Minnesota has robust laws to fight and prosecute hate crimes, but it's far more difficult to go after extremists, he said. People can't be investigated for hateful speech or ideologies unless they incite violence, he said.

When Belton asked him what he says to children when he speaks to them about racial bias and hatred, Ellison said there needs to be more dialogue "because you can't hate somebody you know."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465