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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

NTAS Warns of Threat Posed by ‘Convergence’ of Violent Ideology, Disinformation, Conspiracy Theories

The new bulletin also warns that the months leading up to 2022 midterm elections "could provide additional opportunities" for domestic violent extremists.

The Department of Homeland Security’s updated National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin assesses that the threat environment has not “significantly changed” over the past year but warns that the converging factors of disinformation, persistent calls for violence against critical and often-soft targets, and recent calls by foreign terrorist organizations for attacks on the United States have “increased the volatility, unpredictability, and complexity” of the threat landscape.

The last NTAS Bulletin was issued on Nov. 10 and was set to expire today, and warned of a continuing “diverse and challenging threat environment” as several religious holidays and associated mass gatherings approach “that in the past have served as potential targets for acts of violence.” The bulletin is a grade below elevated alert or imminent alert advisories under the NTAS.

The August bulletin focused on the impending 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, increased online chatter among domestic extremists, and potential violence sparked by anger over the reimposition of COVID-19 pandemic-control measures that had DHS on alert that violent extremists “may use particular messaging platforms or techniques to obscure operational indicators that provide specific warning of a pending act of violence.”

Warning that “the homeland is facing threats that have evolved significantly and become increasingly complex and volatile in 2021,” DHS previously issued a bulletin in May focused on evolving threats from ideologically motivated violent extremists and potential targets opening up as lockdowns were lifted.

The latest bulletin reiterates assessments previously and frequently expressed by federal law enforcement and homeland security officials that the “primary terrorism-related threat to the United States continues to stem from lone offenders or small cells of individuals who are motivated by a range of foreign and/or domestic grievances often cultivated through the consumption of certain online content,” and stresses that “the convergence of violent extremist ideologies, false or misleading narratives, and conspiracy theories have and will continue to contribute to a heightened threat of violence in the United States.”

Disinformation and misinformation propagated and disseminated by both domestic and foreign actors are listed as the first key factors influencing the heightened threat environment, with grievances stoked by unsubstantiated widespread election fraud conspiracy theories and COVID-19 mis/disinformation noted as inspiring violent extremist attacks during 2021.

The bulletin said that calls for violence have been notably targeting “U.S. critical infrastructure; soft targets and mass gatherings; faith-based institutions, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques; institutions of higher education; racial and religious minorities; government facilities and personnel, including law enforcement and the military; the media; and perceived ideological opponents.” Violence against these locations or groups could stem from anti-government extremism, racially or religiously motivated extremism, and/or disinformation or conspiracy theories; for example, “COVID-19 mitigation measures—particularly COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates—have been used by domestic violent extremists to justify violence since 2020 and could continue to inspire these extremists to target government, healthcare, and academic institutions that they associate with those measures.”

Also noted are the recent bomb threats against historically black colleges and universities, threats to Jewish facilities and churches, and the attack on the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in which the British gunman ranted about the “f***ing Jews” in the last phone call he made to his family during the hostage standoff.

“Domestic violent extremists have also viewed attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure as a means to create chaos and advance ideological goals, and have recently aspired to disrupt U.S. electric and communications critical infrastructure, including by spreading false or misleading narratives about 5G cellular technology,” the bulletin continues. Online 5G conspiracy theories have alleged the technology is used to track people and/or spread COVID.

A DHS memo two weeks ago warned that domestic violent extremists including white supremacists and accelerationists continue to aspire to attack the power grid utilizing encrypted messaging platforms and simple tactics that could make a plot harder to detect in the planning stages.

Recent online narratives have also been attempting to inspire physical attacks on energy infrastructure with a range of tactics adapted to the perpetrator’s skillset, the memo states. As HSToday previously reported, a National Socialist Order (formerly known as the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division) video posted on Telegram last year 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 burst into flames. The video encouraged followers to educate themselves with books such as The Turner Diaries before attacking. The Base, another neo-Nazi group, in New Jersey distributed a 2019 propaganda image showing two members saluting in front of power lines. Accelerationist and eco-fascist memes have also encouraged attacks on energy infrastructure, sometimes citing the 2013 incident 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 new bulletin also warns that the months leading up to 2022 midterm elections “could provide additional opportunities” for domestic violent extremists encouraging violence based on election fraud conspiracy theories “and other individuals to call for violence directed at democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events, and election workers.”

Additionally, “a small number of threat actors are attempting to use the evacuation and resettlement of Afghan nationals following the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last year as a means to exacerbate long-standing grievances and justify attacks against immigrants.”

Foreign terrorist organizations continue recruitment and incitement efforts directed at people based in the United States, and the Colleyville attack could inspire copycats, the bulletin continued. An al-Qaeda-supporting media group reacted to the attack by praising the gunman as a martyr while users on a white supremacist forum reacted to the events with antisemitic sentiment and discussion of attacking Jewish targets.

ISIS operatives may also conduct retaliatory strikes after the recent operation that killed ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

“DHS remains committed to proactively sharing timely information and intelligence about the evolving threat environment with the American public,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “We also remain committed to working with our partners across every level of government and in the private sector to prevent all forms of terrorism and targeted violence, and to support law enforcement efforts to keep our communities safe. This NTAS Bulletin outlines the key factors that have increased the volatility, unpredictability, and complexity of the current threat environment, and highlights resources for individuals and communities to stay safe.”

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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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