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 have the Department of Homeland Security on alert as 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 last issued a National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) Bulletin in May focused on evolving threats from ideologically motivated violent extremists and potential targets opening up as lockdowns were lifted. That bulletin, which is a grade below elevated alert or imminent alert advisories under the NTAS, expired today.
The new NTAS bulletin released today noted that law enforcement “have expressed concerns that the broader sharing of false narratives and conspiracy theories will gain traction in mainstream environments, resulting in individuals or small groups embracing violent tactics to achieve their desired objectives.”
“With a diverse array of threats, DHS is concerned that increased outbreaks of violence in some locations, as well as targeted attacks against law enforcement, may strain local resources,” the bulletin states.
Russian, Chinese and Iranian government-linked media outlets have also been stoking tensions by amplifying COVID-19 conspiracy theories and in some cases “amplifying calls for violence targeting persons of Asian descent.”
The bulletin also notes that ideologically motivated violent extremists — those animated by personal grievances or extremist ideological beliefs — “continue to derive inspiration and obtain operational guidance through the consumption of information shared in certain online communities,” including “information regarding the use of improvised explosive devices and small arms.”
Three weeks ago, al-Qaeda released a video inviting parties such as “the raiders of the Congress” in the United States to take advantage of English-language online manuals that have taught Islamist extremists to construct explosive devices and select prime targets. Online training and recruitment materials — dating back to the 2010 debut of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine that included the pressure-cooker bomb recipe used in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings — are omnipresent in both secluded and high-visibility corners of the web, available for all ideologies to utilize.
The bulletin highlighted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s recent release of the English-language Inspire “Praise & Guide: Colorado Attack,” in which the terror group said the Boulder supermarket mass shooting in March underscored the ease with which potential shooters can acquire guns and told would-be jihadists to not start with simpler knife or vehicle attacks “until you search for these weapons and use them in your operation.” AQAP praised the mass shooter for picking an easy-to-use and accurate firearm, for choosing “a place where people gather, which can bring about the largest number of deaths” during a “time in which people gather to take the Corona vaccination,” and for not drawing enough suspicion to himself before the attack in a way that derailed his plot.
“We are seeing expressions of violent extremism born of false ideologies, false narratives, ideologies of hate and we are seeing the potential connectivity to violence, which is where we step in,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN today. “And it is for that reason that we did not let our prior bulletin expire bur rather renewed the alert to the American public to stay vigilant — and if one sees something of great concern from a public safety perspective to report it to either the local authorities or the federal government.”
Upcoming religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September — “could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence” along with the 9/11 anniversary, the NTAS bulletin warns. “These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.”
“These actors are increasingly exploiting online forums to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and promote violent activity. Such threats are also exacerbated by impacts of the ongoing global pandemic, including grievances over public health safety measures and perceived government restrictions,” the bulletin adds, noting that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) and anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists “will remain a national threat priority” through at least the end of the year.
“These extremists may seek to exploit the emergence of COVID-19 variants by viewing the potential re-establishment of public health restrictions across the United States as a rationale to conduct attacks. Pandemic-related stressors have contributed to increased societal strains and tensions, driving several plots by domestic violent extremists, and they may contribute to more violence this year,” the bulletin states. “…Some RMVEs advocate via online platforms for a race war and have stated that civil disorder provides opportunities to engage in violence in furtherance of ideological objectives. The reopening of institutions, including schools, as well as several dates of religious significance over the next few months, could also provide increased targets of opportunity for violence though there are currently no credible or imminent threats identified to these locations.”
Online calls for violence highlighted in the bulletin include threats against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious communities or commercial facilities, and individuals perceived to be of an opposing ideology.
“There are also continued, non-specific calls for violence on multiple online platforms associated with DVE ideologies or conspiracy theories on perceived election fraud and alleged reinstatement, and responses to anticipated restrictions relating to the increasing COVID cases,” the bulletin adds.