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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Homeland Threat Assessment Says Violent Extremists Are Improving Online Materials, Information Sharing, and Collaboration

DHS says it will now reserve use of NTAS for alerting the public to a specific or imminent terrorist threat or a change in the terrorism threat level.

A new Office of Intelligence and Analysis terrorism assessment says that an increase in the quality of domestic violent extremist materials online could inspire more attacks as extremists “share novel tactics and techniques” and collaborate to a greater degree.

The Department of Homeland Security is scrapping its periodic National Terrorism Advisory System bulletins in favor of an annual Homeland Threat Assessment report and the issuance of NTAS advisories “reserved for situations where DHS needs to alert the public about a specific or imminent terrorist threat or about a change in the terrorism threat level.”

The last NTAS Bulletin, released in May, was set to expire on Nov. 24. “In the coming months, factors that could mobilize individuals to commit violence include their perceptions of the 2024 general election cycle and legislative or judicial decisions pertaining to sociopolitical issues,” that bulletin said. “Likely targets of potential violence include US critical infrastructure, faith-based institutions, individuals or events associated with the LGBTQIA+ community, schools, racial and ethnic minorities, and government facilities and personnel, including law enforcement.”

The new Homeland Threat Assessment 2024 has sections on public safety and security including terrorism, illegal drugs, malinformation and mis/disinformation, and transnational repression; border and immigration security including migration and watchlist encounter trends and transnational criminal organizations; critical infrastructure security including disruptive and destructive attacks as well as espionage against critical infrastructure; and threats to economic security including economic manipulation and malign influence, economic espionage, and financially motivated cyber attacks.

The report acknowledges that “terrorism, both foreign and domestic, remains a top threat to the Homeland, but other threats are increasingly crowding the threat space.”

On the terrorism front, the HTA said the domestic violent extremist threat is “largely unchanged” from the assessment in the May NTAS Bulletin, as terrorist actors ascribing to various ideologies “will continue to be inspired and motivated by a mix of conspiracy theories; personalized grievances; and enduring racial, ethnic, religious, and anti-government ideologies, often shared online.”

“Since January 2022, DVEs have conducted three fatal attacks in the Homeland resulting in 21 deaths and multiple non-lethal attacks. US law enforcement has disrupted over a half dozen other DVE plots,” the report states. “During the same period, only one attack was conducted by an individual inspired by a foreign terrorist organization. The individual—who is awaiting trial—was likely inspired by a spiritual mentor of al-Qa‘ida and Taliban narratives and allegedly wounded three New York City Police Department officers on New Year’s Eve.”

These incidents have “focused on a variety of targets, including law enforcement, government, faith-based organizations, retail locations, ethnic and religious minorities, healthcare infrastructure, transportation, and the energy sector,” the HTA continues. “The most lethal attack this year occurred in May in Allen, Texas, where a now-deceased attacker killed eight people at a shopping mall. The attacker was fixated on mass violence and held views consistent with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist (RMVE) and involuntary celibate violent extremist ideologies, judging from his writings and online activities.”

Violent extremists “likely will continue using accessible, easy-to-use weapons for attacks” but “will leverage online platforms and encrypted communications applications to share novel tactics and techniques,” and the threat assessment predicts “collaboration among violent extremists online likely will grow as they strive to spread their views, recruit followers, and inspire attacks.”

Some racially motivated violent extremists have “improved the quality of their video and magazine publications online, which could help them inspire more like-minded individuals to commit attacks.”

When it comes to international terrorism, groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS “are seeking to rebuild overseas, and they maintain worldwide networks of supporters that could seek to target the Homeland,” the assessment continues. “Among state actors, we expect Iran to remain the primary sponsor of terrorism and continue its efforts to advance plots against individuals in the United States.”

“Foreign terrorists continue to engage with supporters online to solicit funds, create and share media, and encourage attacks while their affiliates in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East prioritize local goals,” the HTA says. “Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ISIS’s regional branch—ISIS‑Khorasan— has garnered more prominence through a spate of high-casualty attacks overseas and English‑language media releases that aim to globalize the group’s local grievances among Western audiences. Individuals with terrorism connections are interested in using established travel routes and permissive environments to facilitate access to the United States.”

Meanwhile, Iran “maintains its intent to plot attacks against current and former US government officials in retaliation for the 2020 death of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGCQF) Commander and designated foreign terrorist Qassem Soleimani.”

“Iran relies on individuals with pre-existing access to the United States for surveillance and lethal plotting—using dual nationals, members of criminal networks, and private investigators—and has attempted plots that do not require international travel for operatives,” the assessment continues. “In August 2022, the DOJ indicted an IRGC-QF member for allegedly conspiring to assassinate a former US National Security Advisor between late 2021 to mid‑2022. Iran’s surrogate Lebanese Hizballah also called for revenge against the United States for Soleimani’s death.”

The report notes that chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats to the United States “will persist into 2024 due to several factors, including foreign political and military developments and the global proliferation of laboratories working with dangerous biological pathogens.”

“However, the deliberate use of such threats against the Homeland will likely be limited,” the HTA adds. “Over the past year, Russia’s public allusions to using nuclear weapons as part of its invasion of Ukraine demonstrate that international actors still consider nuclear threats as viable tools of statecraft. Meanwhile, the growing nexus between AI and scientific research—especially in biotech—raises the potential for deliberate and incidental creation of novel chemical compounds that can risk public health. While CBRN threats occurring abroad may not reach the Homeland, they have the potential to disrupt regional and global commerce, harming US economic interests.”

The infrastructure security section of the HTA notes that domestic violent extremists “increasingly called for physical attacks on critical infrastructure this year” as “a means to advance their ideologies and achieve their sociopolitical goals.”

“DVEs, particularly RMVEs promoting accelerationism—an ideology that seeks to destabilize society and trigger a race war—have encouraged mobilization against lifeline and other critical functions, including attacks against the energy, communications, and public health sectors,” the assessment says. “Unidentified actors have attacked electric cooling components, substations, and transformers, though the impact on the energy sector’s ability to provide localized services has been minimal.”

Some DVEs “may attempt to disrupt civic and democratic processes, mobilized by their perceptions of the upcoming election cycle,” the report says in an election security section. “…Some DVEs, particularly those motivated by conspiracy theories and anti-government or partisan grievances, may seek to disrupt electoral processes. Violence or threats could be directed at government officials, voters, and elections‑related personnel and infrastructure, including polling places, ballot drop box locations, voter registration sites, campaign events, political party offices, and vote counting sites.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas lauded the annual Homeland Threat Assessment as “a publicly available resource on the most pressing challenges facing the nation.”

“By sharing our analysis of the threat landscape, we will enable our partners across state, local, tribal, and territorial government, along with the private and non-profit sectors, to make better-informed decisions that account for these security challenges,” Mayorkas said.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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