Police and emergency vehicles respond to a mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., on March 22, 2021. (Boulder Police Department)

Greater Training on Behavioral Cues Can Help Stop Mass Attacks, Say DHS Officials

Acts of violence motivated by ideology or grievances can often be stopped with a multidimensional approach that couples monitoring extremist activity with training on behavioral indicators and counter-narratives, Department of Homeland Security officials told Congress.

John Cohen, tech coordinator for counterterrorism and assistant secretary for counterterrorism and emerging threats at DHS, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security on Wednesday that while the motives behind this month’s spree killings at massage parlors in the Atlanta area and last week’s mass shooting at a Boulder, Colo., grocery store are still under investigation, “we do know already that there are striking similarities between both of those incidents and incidents that have been experienced across the country in the past.”

“But we often hear from people after these types of incidents that they can’t be prevented, they’re difficult. I will tell you as somebody who has spent over 35 years in law enforcement and homeland security, that is just simply not true,” Cohen said. “These types of attacks can be prevented. There are things that we can do to make them less frequent.”

“There are actually examples around the country where targeted attacks directed at schools, houses of worship have been prevented. In some cases, they’ve been prevented by the actions of a joint terrorism task force or another law enforcement investigation and prosecution, but there are a growing number of incidents that have been prevented… by the actions of mental health professionals, community groups, faith leaders — and it’s those types of prevention activities that through the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention we’re seeking to expand upon.”

Cohen noted that over the past several years “the United States has experienced a number of targeted attacks by angry, disaffected individuals,” in some instances motivated by extremist ideologies or ideologies of foreign terrorist organizations and in others motivated by some form of personal grievance.

“In every case, these individuals have spent an inordinate amount of time online — viewing extremist violent materials, engaging with like-minded individuals and ultimately communicating online their intent to commit some type of violent act,” he said. “In many cases, these individuals are inspired by conspiracy theories or extremist narratives that are spread online by a variety of foreign adversaries or domestic thought leaders. These attacks have targeted a cross section of our society, people and facilities have been targeted because of their faith, their race, their gender or ethnicity. They have targeted government facilities, law enforcement, members of Congress… they’ve also targeted simply places where people gather. Addressing this threat is complicated, it requires a multidimensional approach and the department has taken a number of steps to expand our ability, working with the rest of the administration, our state and local partners in the private sector and non-government entities.”

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security said in a joint intelligence assessment this month 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.”

Cohen confirmed for lawmakers that “in that total population of those who have committed acts of violence motivated by extremist ideologies over the past several years, the most significant number of those attackers have been motivated by white supremacists, anti-government militia or a combination of both of those extremist ideologies.”

“What’s driving this in large part is two factors: the angry, polarized nature of our society coupled with the fact that social media and other online platforms provide the opportunity for these disaffected angry people to consume and come in contact with a large amount of information that ultimately serves as the source of inspiration for their act of violence,” he said.

John Picarelli, director of the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention at DHS, described how the office focuses on local prevention frameworks “rooted in the public health approach to violence prevention — these frameworks address societal conditions promoting targeted violence and terrorism while offering help to individuals before they commit a crime or violence.”

“Research shows time and again that these individuals often exhibit behavioral indicators that are best understood by those closest to the individual, such as peers, family and friends,” he said.

The Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention consists of five teams supporting local prevention frameworks. “The regional prevention coordinators of our field operations team cultivate trusted partnerships among the many local stakeholders that are needed to build multidisciplinary teams that form the backbone of these local prevention frameworks,” Picarelli said.

Teams work alongside colleagues from federal agencies and numerous state and local partners to build frameworks, oversee the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention grant program that invests in local prevention frameworks, offer prevention education, engage national representatives of prevention stakeholders, and draft comprehensive baseline capabilities that outline the recommended and necessary minimum functional requirements for effective local prevention frameworks. The office is also launching a nationwide public outreach campaign later this year designed to provide practical information on how to participate in local prevention efforts.

“My office understands that prevention efforts have the potential to impinge on protected speech or on other civil rights and civil liberties,” Picarelli told lawmakers. “We are now establishing an ongoing community engagement process to further address this topic with the CRCL community and we continue to work closely with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to ensure all programs consider the potential impact on such rights and liberties prior to implementation.”

Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) asked whether “given the centrality of the Internet for spreading extremist ideology” DHS is “working with social media companies to reduce the amount of radicalizing content.”

“And what do you think they can — the role that they can play — in countering the extremist narrative?” she asked.

Cohen called it “a major part of our efforts… engaging with the tech industry, with academia, with other non-government organizations who are doing an extensive amount of research into narratives, the toxicity of these narratives, how those narratives influence violence.”

“And some of the analysis that we’re looking to be able to do more effectively at the department is to work with those outside entities, understand the narratives that are emerging — whether they are being introduced into the ecosystem by a foreign intelligence service, an international terrorist organization or a domestic extremist group,” he said. “And then assess which of those narratives are most likely to result in violent activity and then the potential targets of that violent activity so we can work with the communities to take steps to mitigate that risk.”

Asked later if extremists or those vulnerable to radicalization are increasingly taking their communications to the dark web, Cohen said yes.

“While there’s a large level of activity that occurs on public-facing sites, and that’s actually an element of the playbook that these extremist thought leaders and terrorist groups and foreign intelligence services use to incite violence by people,” he added. “What we have found is that as more and more law enforcement activities have focused on scrutinizing that activity, these extremist groups who are engaging in operational planning are moving to encrypted sites in particular and using encrypted applications.”

Picarelli said the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention is about to launch new digital literacy campaign materials, and earlier this year launched a program “to fund a competitive approach among college-aged students at 25 universities and colleges across the country to tap their innovative spirit and have them help us think about new ways we might be able to address this online space.”

“Do you agree that this country has a problem with, or danger, if you will, from private unauthorized militia groups?” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) asked the DHS officials. Both replied yes.

“Your question actually hits at a core issue because part of the challenge in addressing domestic violent extremism is being able to distinguish between behavior that may be constitutionally protected under free speech and assembly rights and that behavior which is tied to violence to illicit activity,” Cohen said. “And so simply joining a group may not be unconstitutional or illegal. But joining a group that has the intent to commit violent acts is. And what we have to do is make sure that we have the information, the intelligence capabilities, the investigative abilities to be able to distinguish between an individual or group’s actions that may be constitutionally protected speech and when that transition is to illegal or violent behavior.”

“And as it relates to militia groups, that’s exactly the point,” he added, stressing how critical it is that DHS is “providing our analysts the training so they can distinguish between speech that is simply somebody expressing their anger or their disagreement with the government or whether it is a threat-related activity is important.”

“If we had the looking at, the tools and the training, and what we need, should we have a law that prohibits unauthorized private militia groups?” DeLauro asked.

“Any group that engages in illegal activity and violent activity should be a group that is in violation of the law,” Cohen said. “Based on your question specifically, it very much would depend on what the language of the law is.”

“What we are most concerned about are behavioral indicators that we can provide to family and friends of individuals and they understand when someone may be radicalizing to violence,” Picarelli said.

Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) asked how DHS is looking at targeting “specifically in rural areas where our law enforcement agencies may not have the major infrastructure in place as some of our major cities.”

“We need our prevention programs to scale just to that infrastructure,” Picarelli said. “So, we are working through our regional prevention coordinators in rural areas to understand and map out how our behavioral health service is provided. How are schools provided? And working within those infrastructures to have prevention overlay… we’re looking at how does this work in Indian country, which is yet another challenge from our perspective in terms of a different jurisdiction, a different sense of sovereignty and so forth.”

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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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