If you want a consistent point of agreement among counterterrorism professionals to describe the lay of the land over the past year, start with the word “evolution”: a terror landscape that is as complex as it is dynamic, shifting with the political tides and ungoverned spaces, willing to set aside short-term satisfaction as needed for long-term gains, cultivating new extremists from current events, and hungrily feeding on the escalation of disinformation. Terror groups and extremist movements evolved into long-distance training before the pandemic hampered travel, found new methods of communication to evade social media bans or learned how to make extremism palatable enough to lure recruits while not triggering the censors, and embraced the remotely inspired lone actor as not a fallback plan but a frontline soldier. What worked best for extremists even just a few years ago has likely been adjusted based on new technologies, new trends in recruitment and incitement, and new realities on local and global stages.
A year ago, my annual piece detailing terror trends to watch in the months ahead singled out conspiracy theory extremism as the top concern – it was published on Jan. 5, 2021, a day before the Capitol attack. The Jan. 6 riot did not materialize out of thin air, underscoring how critical it is to study trends in extremism and assess how they might figure into future violent action by lone actors or groups in the year ahead and beyond.
Extremists Helping Extremists
Recent hate-crimes cases highlighted by the Justice Department reflected perpetrators allegedly engaging in the same sort of preparation and planning as one might expect from lone-actor terrorists. In Oregon, a man was charged in November with luring and beating a gay victim with a wooden club after viewing violent anti-gay materials online, researching how to plan and execute a killing online, and purchasing the weapon on the internet. Last month, a New York man who had long been engaged in sending threats to the LGBTQ community allegedly promised a strategic attack on the 2021 New York City Pride March with “firepower” that would “make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk.” The allegations aren’t just notable for their brutality, but for their shared characteristics with other extremist lone actors who have progressed from spouting ideology to fomenting and executing violence – from consumption of extremist propaganda and inspiration drawn from other terrorist attacks to weapons acquisition and target selection.
Extremists helping extremists isn’t about merging seemingly conflicting ideologies, though some have shown a willingness to embrace the enemy of their enemy and disregard some core differences to achieve a shared goal. It’s about cross-pollination: learning best practices from terrorists who have gone before including selection of targets and tactics, recruitment and propaganda strategies, utilization of disinformation, and communication between like-minded adherents. ISIS rolled with the social media era and transformed terror propaganda, online recruitment, and incitement into a whole new beast, trying to make terror look cool with stylized production values and an emphasis on diverse recruitment; this spawned independent media groups that churn out more ISIS content than tech companies or law enforcement can handle. Propaganda operations aren’t happening in silos. Far-right groups that became more active in online forums and physical operations such as leafleting on college campuses have borrowed from this general blueprint of production and dissemination using a full-court press of forums, social media, messaging apps, placing propaganda on file-sharing sites, and more. And both extremist movements deploy propaganda that often skirts so closely to seemingly innocuous topics that they can do stealthier recruitment ops.
Even if disparate groups don’t cooperate with each other – like the Boogaloo Bois who pleaded guilty to trying to strike an arms deal with what they thought was Hamas in order to fund a ‘Boojahideen’ training camp – they can complement each other. It matters not so much what different extremists believe as what their goals are and how they could be useful to each other in accomplishing those goals. Even if white supremacist groups shudder at the thought of even going near a mosque unless to commit a massacre like in Christchurch, there is an admiration for what ISIS has accomplished and a desire to emulate methods that will also stoke fear, lure recruits, grow their base, and incite attacks. And vice-versa: Damon Joseph, sentenced to 20 years in September for plotting to attack Toledo synagogues on behalf of ISIS, told an undercover agent that he admired the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting and “can see myself carrying out this type of operation.”
Shared themes one sees across Islamist, white supremacist, accelerationist, and eco-fascist propaganda often include using current events to stoke grievances and ultimately recruitment, vowing ideological dominion, pressing conspiracy theories in order to accelerate slides toward extremism, using action-film-style imagery of training or operations, highlighting past attacks conducted by any type of group to show extremists how much suffering they can also inflict, using anti-government and revenge themes, promoting weapons and tactics, threatening social media over deplatforming, and displaying antisemitism or misogyny along with hatred toward minority communities, the LGBTQ community, or religious groups. The danger is that these groups learn from each other and share best practices, even if not overtly, and conduct attacks that complement each other’s goals.
Midterm Election Violence
Not that long ago, the prospect of violence marking a midterm election season – in which voters often can’t be stirred to even head to the polls – would have been a farfetched prediction. But the aftermath of the last presidential election was violent enough to raise concerns about the prospect of extremist violence connected to this year’s House and Senate elections, and even contests on a state or local level all the way down to school boards. The Jan. 6 Capitol attack continues to be a focus of conspiracy theorists who claim it was a false-flag operation, and is also lifted up by those who acknowledge the actual perpetrators but brand it as a sort of martyrdom operation while calling the hundreds arrested for their activities that day political prisoners. Even al-Qaeda couldn’t resist trying to stoke more political violence, telling “the raiders of the Congress” in a video after the Capitol attack that they and similar groups “will find what they need in the Inspire magazine issued by the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula.” What’s in Inspire, which is easily found online? Recipes for bombs and other devices, tactical advice on target and weapons selection, practical considerations for lone-actor terrorists, etc.
It’s alarming not just that violence was employed in an effort to stop the certification of election results, but that many Americans just assume extremist violence will now be the way things are in future elections. A new CBS News-YouGov poll found that 62 percent of respondents expect violence from the losing side in future presidential elections, and 14 percent said that political candidates or officials could be justified in calling for violent action. In November, Reuters released an article in which reporters tracked down and spoke with people who had harassed and threatened election officials – a piece that was jarring not just for the content of the violent threats but for the frankness of many of the perpetrators who went on record with their names to discuss, justify or downplay what they did to terrify these election workers.
It’s a stark reminder that election security is not just about cyber-securing the integrity of the vote but physical protection of government sites, polling places, political rallies or campaign stops, workplaces and private homes of election officials and workers, and more as the potential for violence lurks before, during, and after the vote.
Islamist Terror Adapts
When we talk about a shifting terror landscape, Islamist terror groups are undoubtedly anxious or eager to see what the new year has in store. While noting damaging losses of leadership or territory, counterterrorism professionals in the federal government roundly describe ISIS, al-Qaeda, and their ideological brethren as not just in a state of evolution but as resilient, adaptive, and determined. Their domain is not limited to the former so-called caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria or enclaves in Yemen or southern Asia, but increasingly stretches into corners of Africa and even the recently designated al-Qaeda network in Brazil.
In Afghanistan, where the Taliban is more concerned with beheading clothing-store mannequins than they will ever be about reining in their al-Qaeda allies, the terror landscape is volatile at best. ISIS declared that its Aug. 26 attack outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, which killed 169 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members, “heralded the start of a new phase” of “eternal jihad,” with the bombing “dispelling the illusions of peace-bearers and drawing a map of light for a new stage” as they hoped the attack will draw more ISIS recruits in their claimed Khorasan province from the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Islamist terror groups’ revolutionary use of the internet – pathways carved out for other extremists to emulate – means that they still exercise significant narrative control when it comes to wooing new followers and inspiring attacks. ISIS propaganda this past year called for lone actors during wildfire season to deploy fire as a weapon by using accelerants concealed in apple juice containers to start blazes of remote parked cars, and to take advantage of what they assumed would be distracted law enforcement after civil unrest at the Capitol. An al-Qaeda magazine marking 20 years since the 9/11 attacks encouraged lone or paired attackers to try to emulate the operation that was carefully planned for years by the terror group, arguing that the tactic of using planes as weapons is “an open door even to lone wolves.” Perhaps one of the most impactful threats to be felt from al-Qaeda this year will be their aforementioned concerted effort to dip into the domestic extremist threat – which could be seen as hollow sideline encouragement if not for the trove of English-language distance-learning materials produced over the years by the group that are readily available online.
Critical Infrastructure Threats
The 2021 ransomware attacks on Colonial Pipeline and JBS meat processing plants underscored the economic impacts of attacks on critical infrastructure, and that the cyber battlefield is not just the domain of nation-state actors. But these crippling impacts also provide a guide or simply inspiration for extremists who often openly discuss how physical attacks on critical infrastructure could be a force multiplier – expanding the impact of an attack beyond one targeted location or one attacker, and inflicting everything from inconvenience to death on victims. Think of the impact that an outside attacker or insider threat could have on the safety of gas pipelines, the security of dangerous chemicals, the integrity of a dam, the contamination of food or water, or the ability of a healthcare facility to function.
A National Socialist Order (formerly known as the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division) video posted on Telegram in 2020 used simple animation to encourage followers to identify allies and enemies and finally act – and the first “act” depicted an individual chucking an incendiary device at a power substation that subsequently bursts into flames. The video, which also depicted a vehicle attack on a crowd and an assassination of a person behind a podium, encouraged followers to educate themselves with books such as The Turner Diaries before attacking. One social media account that was sharing accelerationist memes and references to the Boogaloo Bois posted an animated meme depicting a masked shooter in front of a power substation to the tune of “Electric Avenue.” Another meme posted on YouTube in April 2020 and circulated in other online forums asked people to “repost if you would dismantle the electrical transmission grid with your male followers” and included a short video showing an unknown individual blowtorching the leg of a transmission tower. And last year ISIS executed its longtime threats against the energy sector with attacks on generating units and high-voltage lines in Iraq, as well as attacks on transmission towers supplying power to part of Baghdad’s water system — using one critical infrastructure sector to cripple another.
A superseding indictment filed in August against a group composed of former and active-duty military along with members of the now-defunct Iron March neo-Nazi online forum alleges that they discussed attacking the power grid both “for the purpose of creating general chaos and to provide cover and ease of escape in those areas in which they planned to undertake assassinations and other desired operations to further their goal of creating a white ethno-state.” The accused also “discussed using homemade thermite to burn through and destroy power transformers” and “researched, discussed and critically reviewed at length a previous attack on the power grid by an unknown group,” the indictment states. “That group used assault-style rifles in an attempt to explode a power substation.” That attack is not named but can be assumed to be the 2013 attack in which multiple gunmen opened fire on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation south of San Jose, Calif., causing more than $15 million in damage to 17 transformers; the perpetrators have not been caught and the incident is commonly referenced in online extremist discussions about critical-infrastructure vulnerabilities.
The Disinformation-Terrorism Nexus
As we approach the first anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, with 704 federal cases as of today against individuals involved in the siege, the term Jan. 6 “believers” is used on social media to derisively refer to people who believe the official facts about what happened that day instead of conspiracy theories alleging a false-flag operation intended to make protesters look bad. Despite 22 percent of the defendants in Jan. 6 cases already pleading guilty, and one man indicted on charges of assaulting four police officers fleeing to Belarus to avoid prosecution, disinformation not only keeps a narrative alive for the sake of those invested in the mythology but can incite fervent believers of the disinformation or conspiracy theory to further violent action. As FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers at a September hearing, “Today, terrorism moves at the speed of social media. And you have the ability of lone actors disgruntled in one part of the country to spin up similar or like-minded individuals in other parts of the country and urge them into action or inspire them into action.” The CBS News-YouGov poll found that half of respondents who ascribe to QAnon beliefs approve of the attack on the Capitol.
Like terrorism, disinformation operates to deliberately further a cause, belief, or group, and both domestic and international extremist movements have learned how important information warfare is to their efforts. Over the past year, we’ve seen disinformation stoke anger in a way that at the very least can lead to verbal sparring and can escalate into threats or extremist plots – one of the key dangers of disinformation is when it motivates people into thinking they need to take violent action to be saviors and eliminate the wrongly perceived threat. Healthcare workers were lauded for their selflessness and sacrifice at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but after several spin cycles of disinformation centering largely on the introduction of lifesaving vaccines or simple pandemic-control measures such as masking the harassment, threats, and assaults against healthcare employees have been alarming. About 300 public health department leaders have left their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic, the National Association of County and City Health Officials noted in an October letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, as “in many cases, they have been verbally abused and physically threatened; their personal information has been shared, their families targeted, and their offices attacked.”
One speaker at anti-vaccination rally on Staten Island in October threatened that “town halls and schools will be f–king burned to the ground” over vaccine mandates, with the crowd cheering as he declared “there are plenty of people that are ready to go there” down the path of violence. Disinformation labors tirelessly to push people to that point. Last month, police in Germany announced that they had foiled a plot to assassinate government officials and seized “crossbows, parts of weapons, and weapons” during multiple raids: “The members of the chat group, which links opponents of vaccination, the state, and the current anti-pandemic policy, stated plans of murdering the premier of Saxony and other representatives of the Saxony government, both in the group and in non-virtual meetings,” police said in a statement.