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‘Acute Threat’ from Domestic Extremists for Mass-Casualty and Gov-Targeted Attacks

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security said in a joint intelligence assessment that the likelihood and potential lethality of domestic extremist attacks are elevated this year, with racially motivated extremists “most likely to conduct mass-casualty attacks against civilians” and militia violent extremists “typically targeting law enforcement and government personnel and facilities.”

“The IC assesses that the MVE threat increased last year and that it will almost certainly continue to be elevated throughout 2021 because of contentious sociopolitical factors that motivate MVEs to commit violence,” said the unclassified summary of the intelligence community report.

“We are very focused on domestic violent extremism,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told NBC on Sunday. “It is the greatest threat, terrorist-related threat, that we face in our homeland. We are very focused on it. We’ve done a tremendous amount already. We have plans to do more.”

Mayorkas also told CNN on Sunday, “Domestic violent extremism is the most acute threat, terrorism-related threat that we are seeing to our homeland.”

A domestic violent extremist is defined by the intelligence community as “an individual based and operating primarily in the United States without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power and who seeks to further political or social goals wholly or in part through unlawful acts of force or violence.” The report categorizes domestic violent extremists as racially or ethnically motivated, anti-government or anti-authority (including militia, anarchists, and sovereign citizens), animal rights or environmental, and abortion-related. A domestic violent extremist could still fall outside of these categories, potentially motivated by bias toward religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

Ultimately, those “who are motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States pose an elevated threat to the Homeland in 2021,” the IC assessment concluded.

“Enduring DVE motivations pertaining to biases against minority populations and perceived government overreach will almost certainly continue to drive DVE radicalization and mobilization to violence,” the summary said. “Newer sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some DVEs to try to engage in violence this year.”

“The IC assesses that lone offenders or small cells of DVEs adhering to a diverse set of violent extremist ideologies are more likely to carry out violent attacks in the Homeland than organizations that allegedly advocate a DVE ideology. DVE attackers often radicalize independently by consuming violent extremist material online and mobilize without direction from a violent extremist organization, making detection and disruption difficult.”

The assessment said that racially motivated violent extremists “who promote the superiority of the white race are the DVE actors with the most persistent and concerning transnational connections because individuals with similar ideological beliefs exist outside of the United States and these RMVEs frequently communicate with and seek to influence each other.”

“We assess that a small number of US RMVEs have traveled abroad to network with like-minded individuals,” the summary said. “The IC assesses that DVEs exploit a variety of popular social media platforms, smaller websites with targeted audiences, and encrypted chat applications to recruit new adherents, plan and rally support for in-person actions, and disseminate materials that contribute to radicalization and mobilization to violence.”

The agencies found that “several factors could increase the likelihood or lethality of DVE attacks in 2021 and beyond, including escalating support from persons in the United States or abroad, growing perceptions of government overreach related to legal or policy changes and disruptions, and high-profile attacks spurring follow-on attacks and innovations in targeting and attack tactics.”

“DVE lone offenders will continue to pose significant detection and disruption challenges because of their capacity for independent radicalization to violence, ability to mobilize discretely, and access to firearms.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that domestic violent extremism “has grown steadily on my watch… we’ve increased the number of domestic terrorism investigations from around 1,000 or so when I got here, to up to about 1,400 at the end of last year, to about 2,000 now.”

The number of white supremacists arrested last year was “almost triple the number” it was in Wray’s first year as director, and there were more arrests of anarchist violent extremists last year than in the prior three years combined, he said.

Wray told lawmakers that social media has “more broadly has become a major factor, a catalyst if you will” for domestic violent extremists.

“The increased speed, dissemination, efficiency, accessibility that it provides — it facilitates a greater interconnected nature in a more decentralized way,” he said, adding that authorities saw this play out in real time at the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. “We tried to work with social media companies to get them to more aggressively use the tools that they have to police their own platforms under terms of service, etc., and in particular to cooperate with us so that we can bring justice for those who hijacked these companies’ platforms to engage in some of the conduct we are talking about, and that is where you heard a little bit about the encryption issue come up.”

“We are moving in a direction — we saw it on the 6th and we are seeing it more and more every day in this country — where violent extremists just like other bad actors are taking advantage of encrypted platforms to evade law enforcement,” he continued. “Social media companies and the technology companies are moving more and more in a direction where if we don’t come up collectively with some kind of solution it’s not going to matter how bulletproof the legal process is or how horrific the crime is or how heartbreaking the victims are — we will not be able to get access to the content and the evidence that we need to protect the American people and then, I think, we will all rue the day.”

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 speciality 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, anti-Semitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She 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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