Surveillance footage of the Aug. 3, 2019, El Paso Walmart shooting. (El Paso Police Department)

DHS Calls Racially Motivated Extremism the ‘Most Persistent and Lethal’ Domestic Violent Extremist Threat

The Department of Homeland Security’s new Homeland Threat Assessment released this week sparked a rebuke from the acting secretary over the House Homeland Security Committee chairman’s reading of white supremacy as the greatest domestic threat the country currently faces.

The 26-page report was released two days before it was revealed that the FBI intercepted an elaborate plot by militia extremists to kidnap the governor of Michigan from her vacation home or stage an armed, hostage-taking raid on the state capitol. The suspects were allegedly upset over the governor’s regulations to control the COVID-19 pandemic, and also expressed the accelerationist intent to spark a civil war.

“We also remain particularly concerned about the impacts from COVID-19 where anti-government and anti-authority violent extremists could be motivated to conduct attacks in response to perceived infringement of liberties and government overreach as all levels of government seek to limit the spread of the coronavirus that has caused a worldwide pandemic,” the threat assessment says on page 19.

“Ideologies driven by such [domestic violent extremists] often are reinforced by a variety of online content, including conspiracy theories and political commentary they view as controversial. Current events that DVEs perceive as infringing on their worldviews often contribute to periods of increased ideologically motivated violence, including recently during the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lawful protests.”

The assessment is structured by the categories of cyber threats, naming Russia and China as the foreign actors posing the greatest risk; foreign influence activity, including disinformation campaigns targeting the election and COVID-19; threats to economic security, including destabilization from the pandemic and intellectual property theft; terrorist threats, including international groups, domestic movements, and lone actors; transnational criminal organizations, including drug cartels and human smuggling; illegal immigration as “flows within the Western Hemisphere have begun to increase after a short-term decline in response to the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic and countries instituting border transit restrictions”; and natural disasters that “require the Department to readjust its priority focus, as resources continue to be reallocated to focus on responding to multiple natural disasters, while continuing to handle its traditional roles and responsibilities.”

“The primary terrorist threat inside the United States will stem from lone offenders and small cells of individuals, including Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs) and foreign terrorist-inspired Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVEs),” the assessment states. “Some U.S.-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020, which will drive an elevated threat environment at least through early 2021. Violent extremists will continue to target individuals or institutions that represent symbols of their grievances, as well as grievances based on political affiliation or perceived policy positions.”

COVID-19 has introduced or exacerbated stressors — such as mental health issues brought on or worsened by social isolation, or job losses that can precede radicalization — that could also drive extremists to violence, the report notes. Also, the presidential election — “the election itself, election results, or the post-election period” — could spur violent actors to “mobilize quickly to threaten or engage in violence.”

“Some DVEs have heightened their attention to election- or campaign-related activities, candidates’ public statements, and policy issues connected to specific candidates, judging from domestic terrorism plots since 2018 targeting individuals based on their actual or perceived political affiliations,” the assessment states. “Open-air, publicly accessible parts of physical election infrastructure, such as campaign-associated mass gatherings, polling places, and voter registration events, would be the most likely flashpoints for potential violence.”

The report states that “among DVEs, racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs)—will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”

“Spikes in other DVE threats probably will depend on political or social issues that often mobilize other ideological actors to violence, such as immigration, environmental, and police-related policy issues,” the assessment adds.

White supremacists “have demonstrated longstanding intent to target racial and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, politicians, and those they believe promote multi-culturalism and globalization at the expense of the WSE identity. Since 2018, they have conducted more lethal attacks in the United States than any other DVE movement,” the report continues. “Some WSEs have engaged in outreach and networking opportunities abroad with like-minded individuals to expand their violent extremist networks. Such outreach might lead to a greater risk of mobilization to violence, including traveling to conflict zones.”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told The New York Times that “this threat assessment confirms two things: that white supremacist extremists are the top domestic threat to the homeland, and they are often inspired by President Trump’s rhetoric.”

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf retorted in a statement the next day that Thompson “misrepresented the facts” in the assessment, saying the report “does not specifically identify a ‘top domestic threat to the Homeland.’”

“Instead, we address each unique threat stream with the most lethal and dangerous groups operating within those threat steams – from Domestic Violent Extremists to transnational criminal organizations,” said Wolf, who was nominated by Trump last month to the permanent role leading DHS. “More importantly, the HTA does not state, in any way, that any groups are inspired by the President’s statements. That is a fabrication.”

In addition to a domestic threat environment that “is rapidly evolving,” the assessment says the threat from foreign terrorist organizations including ISIS and al-Qaeda continues “but we expect the primary threat from these groups to remain overseas in the coming year” as they call for lone actors within the United States to commit attacks on behalf of the terror groups.

“Transportation infrastructure—especially the aviation sector—almost certainly will remain a primary target for terrorists plotting overseas. While terrorists continue to pursue flight school training and the use of insiders, plotting against domestic aviation targets most likely will remain aspirational among FTOs and their supporters over the next year,” the assessment states. “Terrorists and other criminal actors might look to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to threaten critical infrastructure. In 2019, there were nearly 4,000 reports of unique incidents of UAS activity near U.S. critical infrastructure or public gatherings. Although we have no indication that any of these events were terrorism-related, it is possible that malicious or criminal actors will turn to UAS tactics.”

Will Election Day Be Safe? Physical Threats to Voters and Mitigating Risk

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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 senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. 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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