Among many critical national security lessons, 2020 emphasized the importance of staying nimble as multiple threats simultaneously unfold. A pandemic was coupled with the most active Atlantic hurricane season in history, political tension and protests kept law enforcement on its toes, and entities from critical infrastructure operators to local governments and houses of worship were forced to assess and adjust security postures based on an overlapping – and often overwhelming – saturation of threats.
Even the response to COVID-19 gave the homeland community fresh insight on confronting this shifting threat landscape in 2021. With all of the other challenges vying for the attention of security professionals, entities must resolve to wisely shape counterterrorism strategies and not let this focus take a backseat. Today’s threats underscore the need to adapt as concerns arise with new or evolved groups, movements, and tactics.
Conspiracy theory extremism
“The biggest threat to humanities [sic] survival in 2021. ChemTrails x 5G x COVID Vax = EXTERMINATION event,” declared a Jan. 2 tweet from a self-declared QAnon account, mishmashing some of the conspiracy theories that could propel people convinced they must combat a perceived threat into taking potentially violent action.
As we repeatedly saw in 2020, conspiracy theories jump into the void created by upheaval and continue to be stoked by grassroots movements and authority figures. Coronavirus conspiracy theories have had devastating public health consequences by encouraging people to not take the threat seriously, compounded by vaccination opponents claiming Bill Gates wants to microchip people or asserting other claims about the goals of inoculation programs. Conspiracy theories that have warranted the attention of homeland security also include those pushed by QAnon supporters alleging “deep state” conspiracies and more, the 5G conspiracy theories that allege the technology is used to track people and/or spread COVID, and the white supremacist “great replacement” theory that claims there is an organized plot against whites and has been cited by mass shooters in Christchurch and El Paso.
Conspiracy theories have at times driven people to violence, including the 2016 “Pizzagate” believer who fired shots inside a restaurant in D.C. and the 2019 arsonist there, the 2018 California wildfire arson and Hoover Dam standoff by QAnon adherents, this spring’s disrupted plot against a Missouri hospital in which the suspect wanted to “attack high value targets if the government issued martial law and quarantine orders as a result of COVID-19,” and the March derailment by a train engineer who shared conspiracy theories about the intent of USNS Mercy in the Port of Los Angeles. In the coming year these movements are poised to evolve with perhaps more intense expressive actions and potential violence in response to political and policy changes in the country along with the continuing pandemic response.
Expressive actions in response to COVID conspiracy theories have ranged from maskless flash-mob-style protests potentially exposing store workers and patrons to the deadly virus, increased incidents of people deliberately coughing or spitting on emergency workers and law enforcement, threats of violence against public health officials including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and even the alleged militia plot to kidnap the Michigan governor because of COVID mitigation measures. In Wisconsin, a pharmacist was arrested last week and charged with intentionally spoiling 570 doses of COVID-19 vaccine because, according to prosecutors, he is an admitted conspiracy theorist who believed the vaccine altered DNA. In addition to insider threats that could inflict harm, there is the risk of anti-vaccination individuals or groups attacking soft-target inoculation sites such as drugstores, government offices seen as instrumental in COVID policy, or even healthcare facilities.
Violence against faith-based institutions
“Hey motherf*ckers, I’m going to burn that f*cking church, I’m going to bomb it, b*tch! I’m going to f*cking kill you guys. I’m going to send my f*cking soldiers, motherf*ckers,” Sonia Tabizada of San Jacinto, Calif., said on the voicemail of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., the oldest Catholic girls school in the country, after the school decided to allow same-sex wedding announcements in its alumni magazine. A minute later, Tabizada, who pleaded guilty in federal court this week, called back and vowed, “I’m gonna f*cking blow up the school and call it a mission from God. You guys are going to get terrorism.”
Among white supremacist, Islamist, and other politically and religiously motivated extremists, attacks against religious institutions have achieved a sort of exalted status: They are often soft targets with a welcoming environment, they have great symbolic meaning to would-be attackers, and the nature of the attacks achieves a terrorist’s shock-and-awe aims. Attacks such as the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018, the Sri Lanka Easter attacks in 2019 and the Christchurch mosque attacks just a few weeks before that, and the 2019 Poway synagogue shooting still feature prominently in extremist propaganda and recruitment.
And even when COVID-19 kept many pews empty in 2020, house of worship still have been targeted in different ways. Just hours after three people were killed Oct. 29 in a knife attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, France, ISIS published a full-page article in its regularly scheduled weekly newsletter featuring a photo from the attack scene and a call to threaten France to the extent that the country would feel driven to ban depictions of Muhammad. After a mid-December rally in D.C., police said attacks on four historically black churches were being investigated; this week, the leader of the Proud Boys was arrested in connection with video (the circulation of which serves as propaganda and recruitment) showing a group tearing down and burning a Black Lives Matter banner from one of the churches, and he was also charged with possession of two high-capacity firearm magazines. Threats to religious institutions are also emanating from conspiracy theory extremism, as anti-Semitic claims that Jews spread COVID and orchestrate vaccinations as part of a global domination plot circulate among both white supremacist and coronavirus conspiracy forums.
Threats against houses of worship and faith-based institutions in 2021 will be heavily influenced by extremist groups’ desires to boost relevance and recruitment, and thus attacks could increasingly feature multiple perpetrators instead of lone terrorists. These institutions also need to keep in mind as they tailor limited COVID openings and pandemic prevention measures that extremists have openly discussed using the coronavirus as a bioweapon to infect crowds.
Anti-Semitic and white supremacist terrorism is increasingly becoming a transnational threat that helps put the United States “at the doorstep of another 9/11,” DHS and FBI officials told Congress early in 2020. FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress in September that domestic violent extremists of concern “include everything from racially motivated violent extremists… all the way to antigovernment, anti-authority violent extremists.”
The FBI director said the Bureau usually has about 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations open each year, but that was higher in 2020 – “a good bit north of 1,000.” Arrests last year included “everything from racially motivated violent extremists to violent anarchist extremists, militia types, sovereign citizens, you name it,” Wray said.
“Within the domestic terrorism bucket category as a whole, racially motivated violent extremism is, I think, the biggest bucket within that larger group,” Wray said. “And within the racially motivated violent extremist bucket, people ascribing to some kind of white supremacist type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that… I would also add to that that racially motivated violent extremists over recent years have been responsible for the most lethal activity in the U.S.”
Accelerationist movements, which can include white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other movements and seek to collapse society through violence and start anew, have been growing with increasingly global reach. Two professed members of the extremist Boogaloo Bois who claimed membership in a sub-group called the “Boojahideen” allegedly offered themselves as mercenaries to Hamas and delivered gun accessories to an undercover FBI employee they believed was a senior member of the terror group. The accused gunman in the slaying of a Federal Protective Service officer in Oakland in June is linked to the Boogaloo and was an active-duty staff sergeant stationed at Travis Air Force Base.
Propaganda and recruitment efforts are also up, as seen when a neo-Nazi group claiming their recent actions were spurred by “violent left-wing” protests posted flyers across the Arizona State University campus declaring “Hitler was right,” among other anti-Semitic messages. In a February update tracking white supremacist propaganda, the ADL said there were 2,713 cases of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ fliers, stickers, banners and posters distributed or posted on or off campuses in 2019 — double the number of incidents in 2018 and the highest level of activity recorded by the organization. Islamist extremist propaganda and white supremacist propaganda also reflect similar themes and memes in the ways they recruit and incite, contributing to the internet’s ample open-source library of D.I.Y. extremist training and incitement – from posters to videos, from social media to magazines – that bridges group allegiances and ideologies. At times they mimic each other’s memes, promote ideological dominion, urge copycats to emulate infamous attacks, threaten the social media companies that try to rein in their propaganda, praise and promote attacks that have recently occurred, circulate machismo-saturated training camp videos, and heavily traffic in anti-Semitism.
One key shared characteristic of recruitment is how Islamist extremists and white supremacists both try to appeal to grievances, hoping that potential recruits who might not otherwise join their movements could be pushed over the edge with targeted psychological messaging. Similarly, both groups seize on current events to promote core anti-government and retribution themes, trying to appeal to would-be recruits as if they’re soldiers in a cultural or kinetic war – as one recruitment propaganda poster from the neo-Nazi Feuerkrieg Division put it, “Turn your sadness into rage.” Islamist extremists and white supremacists hope to seize on the energy of current events whether it’s white supremacists using debates over Confederate monuments or Islamist terror groups using Western military operations – and both ideological movements trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to their advantage – to steer some of that fury into their movements to stoke anger and gain new recruits.
In the coming year we may see more reactionary violence from domestic extremists, either by multiple members of a group or movement or lone attacks with manifestos like the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, in response to real or perceived policy shifts that naturally come with a new administration — or even in reaction to how a newly led Justice Department may address and confront domestic extremist movements. Political and social tensions will also likely influence recruitment and growth in some domestic extremist movements.
Complex coordinated attacks
Wray told lawmakers in September that the greatest threat to the homeland “is not one organization, certainly not one ideology, but rather lone actors, largely self-radicalized online, who pursue soft targets using readily accessible weapons.”
2021 could see shifts, though, not in just who is committing attacks but how they are committing attacks. The more that extremist movements encourage “revolutionary”-caliber attacks, the more likely they are going to try to show strength through numbers. And the more attacks with multiple co-conspirators, the more we could see multi-faceted operations intended to throw off the intended targets and law enforcement, strike multiple locations, or deploy multiple tactics against targets. The alleged Michigan plot of the “Wolverine Watchmen” was felled by an informant in their militia midst, leading to a criminal complaint that richly detailed the construction of the plot including a diversionary IED to distract law enforcement in order to kidnap the governor. One suspect allegedly discussed how their plot could snowball into other operations hatched by self-styled militias: “I can see several states takin’ their f*ckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.”
Among Islamist extremists, the complex coordinated attacks in Paris, Mumbai and Sri Lanka are recycled in propaganda and recruitment materials as the gold standard of attacks. Individual operations have been encouraged by ISIS and al-Qaeda as they have acknowledged that their homegrown loyalists in the West and other target regions aren’t always the brightest bulbs and may be less likely to catch the attention of law enforcement in the planning stages by working alone. Encouragement of lone operations can also lead to more opportunistic attacks and can give freedom to low-skilled terrorists to use simple weapons and tactics to the best of their abilities. But these groups are also aching for a fresh complex coordinated attack as an ideal recruitment and propaganda boost as they evolve and grasp at new opportunities.
ISIS and al-Qaeda moving forward
ISIS is still evolving, and the group’s tentacles are their strongest part: the network of supporters and recruiters and propaganda artists deeply ingrained online, ultimately posing a greater threat in the long term than a physical caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq as they recruit, inspire, and teach homegrown violent extremists anywhere in the world. The terror group still publishes their weekly newsletter al-Naba, but some of the most consistent media reaching out to an English-language audience in 2020 came from ISIS supporters in India, underscoring how the terror group is reliant on its geographical diversity for recruitment and distance learning. ISIS has not been defeated but has evolved out of necessity toward its original goal of being a global, far-flung, and insidious terror outfit. ISIS provinces are still active, particularly through attacks in West Africa and Afghanistan. More importantly, they’ve laid down a framework of borderless jihad and a blueprint for growing a terror movement both on the dark web and the open internet that is impossible to rein in. And while COVID-19 hasn’t left their own ranks untouched, the virus has had the group thinking more about bioweapons and unconventional attacks as we look ahead.
Afghan officials have reported that the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda seems as cozy as ever since the Taliban inked a deal with the United States in a Doha ceremony on Feb. 29 – as First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said last week, trying to separate the deeply intertwined groups “is harder than desalination.” Yet, as the Taliban self-identified as a jihad-centered political entity, they traded a promise for U.S. withdrawal for a promise to behave. Taliban propaganda has long boasted that they would eventually bring “to their knees” American “crusaders,” and as their headlines scream that they essentially accomplished their goal it can serve as a shot in the arm to other terror groups operating with the same aims. Terrorists no longer live, communicate, or recruit in silos: a victory against a common enemy is viewed at its core a victory for all, and that is feeding the ever-growing and accessible ideological marketplace of terrorist ideas, methods and inspiration – in addition to the physical assistance the Taliban and their terror allies share.
Al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab also have been using current events to recruit and inspire attacks, as the latter group watches the 11th-hour pullout of U.S. forces that had been training Somali forces to battle the terror group. In response to recent terror attacks in France, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabaab subsequently issued statements telling followers that they should emulate the assaults, with the latter declaring that the terrorists were “gallant knights” who “have treaded the path of the noble companions in dealing with those who malign our religion.” The terror group then advised others to follow in those footsteps as well in a “war” against secularism, naming recent attackers in France “and the other unknown soldiers of Allah.” Al-Qaeda had previously issued a statement declaring France to be a target and inciting attacks after French President Emmanuel Macron said in an Oct. 2 address that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world,” and said there is a need to build an “Islam des Lumières,” or Islam of Enlightenment. These groups will be using perceived gains in the year ahead to recruit, inspire, and move into their next era.