A day before the bulletin issued in August was set to expire, the Department of Homeland Security released a new National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin today warning 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.”
“These threats include those posed by individuals and small groups engaged in violence, including domestic violent extremists (DVEs) and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences,” the bulletin states. “These actors continue to exploit online forums to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and promote violent activity. The ongoing global pandemic continues to exacerbate these threats, in part due to perceived government overreach in implementation of public health safety measures. Further, foreign terrorist organizations and DVEs continue to attempt to inspire potential followers to conduct attacks in the United States, including by exploiting recent events in Afghanistan.”
DHS added that as of today they are “not aware of an imminent and credible threat to a specific location in the United States.”
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 bulletin is a grade below elevated alert or imminent alert advisories under the NTAS.
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.” The new NTAS bulletin says that since the 9/11 anniversary and U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan “violent extremist media branches of al-Qa’ida and its affiliates, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS), have celebrated perceived victories over the United States and encouraged the use of violence by their followers and supporters to further their objectives.”
“These foreign terrorist organizations will likely continue to maintain a highly visible online presence in an attempt to inspire U.S.-based individuals to engage in violent activity,” the bulletin added.
Through the end of this year and into 2022 racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists “will continue to pose a threat to the United States” as “pandemic-related stressors have contributed to increased societal strains and tensions, driving several plots by DVEs, and they may contribute to more violence this and next year.”
“If a new COVID-19 variant emerges and new public health restrictions are imposed as a result, anti-government violent extremists could potentially use the new restrictions as a rationale to target government or public health officials or facilities,” the bulletin continues. “In addition, some DVEs have attempted to use the relocation of Afghan nationals to the United States to exacerbate historical DVE grievances over immigration and the American Muslim community.”
Domestic violent extremists and individuals inspired by foreign terrorist organizations have targeted crowded commercial facilities, houses of worship, and public gatherings, and continued reopenings coupled with potential “ongoing societal and economic disruptions due to the pandemic, as well as mass gatherings associated with several dates of religious significance over the next few months, could provide increased targets of opportunity for violence, though there are currently no credible or imminent threats tied to any dates or locations.”
Online propaganda and messaging is playing a critical role in the ongoing threat environment as both foreign and domestic threat actors “continue to introduce, amplify, and disseminate narratives online that promote violence, and have called for violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious communities or commercial facilities, and perceived ideological opponents.”
“Ideologically motivated violent extremists fueled by personal grievances and violent extremist ideological beliefs continue to derive inspiration from and obtain operational guidance, including regarding the use of improvised explosive devices and small arms, through the consumption of information shared in online forums,” the bulletin notes. “The use of encrypted messaging by violent extremists may obscure operational indicators that provide specific warning of a pending act of violence.”
Shortly before the last NTAS bulletin, 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.
“Law enforcement officials have expressed concerns that the broad sharing of false narratives and conspiracy theories that endorse the use of violence will continue to gain traction, resulting in individuals or small groups embracing violent tactics to achieve their desired objectives,” the new bulletin states. “DHS is concerned that increased acts of violence, as well as targeted attacks against law enforcement, may strain local resources and challenge the ability of law enforcement to maintain the safety and security of local communities.” That fear was outlined in the last NTAS bulletin as well.
DHS said that the department and FBI are working with state, local, tribal, and territorial partners, including issuing “numerous” intelligence assessments on the evolving threat.
DHS is also “engaging industry partners to help them identify and respond to the spread of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives on social media and other online platforms.”