ISIS and al-Qaeda “remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to U.S. interests overseas” and still want to conduct attacks on our home soil, but “U.S.-based lone actors and small cells with a broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate domestic threat,” according to the intelligence community’s 2021 Annual Threat Assessment.
That domestic threat comes from homegrown violent extremists who might never venture overseas to formally train with ISIS or al-Qaeda but are inspired to commit attacks on behalf of the terror groups, and from domestic violent extremists (DVE) motivated by a range of ideologies including white supremacy and anti-government movements.
“The diffusion of the terrorist threat globally, competing priorities for many countries, and in some cases decreased Western CT assistance probably will expand opportunities for terrorists and provide them space to recover from recent setbacks,” the report said.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the House Intelligence Committee at a Thursday hearing that “DVE is an increasingly complex threat that is growing in the United States.”
“These extremists often see themselves as part of a global movement and, in fact, a number of other countries are experiencing a rise in DVE,” she said. “For example, Australia, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom consider white, racially, or ethnically motivated violent extremists, including neo-Nazi groups, to be the fastest growing terrorism threat they face today. And of course, regional conflicts continue to fuel humanitarian crisis, undermine stability, and threaten U.S. persons and interests.”
The IC assessment said the threat from “violent extremists who espouse an often overlapping mix of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and exclusionary cultural-nationalist beliefs” has “ebbed and flowed for decades but has increased since 2015.”
“Violent extremists who promote the superiority of the white race have been responsible for at least 26 lethal attacks that killed more than 141 people and for dozens of disrupted plots in the West since 2015,” the report notes. “While these extremists often see themselves as part of a broader global movement, most attacks have been carried out by individuals or small, independent cells.”
The targets of domestic violent extremists “have increasingly included large public gatherings, houses of worship, law enforcement and government facilities, and retail locations,” and lone actors are “increasingly choosing soft, familiar targets for their attacks, limiting law enforcement opportunities for detection and disruption.”
“We see some social media connectivity across borders, across oceans, with like-minded individuals. We see — certainly pre-COVID, we were seeing some travel, for example, neo-Nazis in the United States going to countries in Europe to meet, to train, to attend events, that kind of thing,” FBI Director Chris Wray told the House hearing. “And, we certainly see some level of inspiration. An attack in one country can be an inspiration for attackers in another country. I will say that we are also seeing — which is an important nuance that I think sometimes gets lost by the American public — that a lot of these violent extremism threats don’t fit into nice, neat ideological buckets.”
As an example of the “salad bar” mix of ideologies that often do not “fit logically together,” Wray noted last year’s case in which two adherents of the accelerationist Boogaloo movement allegedly tried to make an arms deal with Hamas to help fund a “Boojahideen” training camp.
“Mix them together with some kind of personal grievance, you know, some place that fired them, some place they applied for a job and didn’t get in, etc., and then put that all together for justification or excuse for an attack,” he added. “And, so many cases, it’s more about the violence than it is about the ideology.”
The FBI also takes anarchist violent extremism “extremely seriously,” with more arrests of adherents in the past year than the three previous years combined, and said the QAnon movement “in some instances may be an inspiration for violent attacks.” At least five self-identified QAnon adherents have been arrested in connection to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Wray said.
“We are using our joint terrorism task forces, of which we have over 200 all around the country, to investigate not just the homegrown violent extremists, the jihadist-inspired terrorists, but also the domestic violent extremists,” Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee at a Wednesday hearing. “And certainly in both cases, there are a lot of parallels. You have individuals largely able to connect online. It provides a greater decentralized connectivity. And as I have said before, it’s terrorism today, and that includes domestic violent extremism, moves at the speed of social media. And so that means recruitment. That means planning, training, dissemination of propaganda, etc. all those things that apply and that happen on the jihadist-inspired side in many cases are also happening on the domestic violence extremist side. Obviously, there are on the domestic extremist side, constitutional protections and chronic and legal challenges that we have to be mindful of, especially given some of the history in this country, clearly.”
Social media, the FBI director added, “can bring great good to society, but it is also a platform for all kinds of security challenges that we’re trying to counter.”
The IC assessment states that terrorists in general “remain interested in using chemical and biological agents in attacks against U.S. interests and possibly the U.S. homeland.”
ISIS-inspired attacks in the West haven’t since risen to their 2017 peak, but “very likely will remain the primary ISIS threat to the U.S. homeland this year, rather than plots operationally supported or directed by ISIS, given the logistical and security challenges the group would need to overcome to deploy and support attackers in the United States.”
“The appeal of ISIS’s ideology almost certainly will endure, even if it appeals to a narrower audience,” the assessment stated, noting that the terror group is trying to regain a foothold in Iraq and Syria. “The group will continue to use its media to encourage global supporters to conduct attacks without direction from ISIS leadership, but ISIS’s degraded media capabilities probably will hamper its ability to inspire its previous high pace of attacks and attract recruits and new supporters.”
Al-Qaeda has suffered leadership losses but “will encourage cooperation among regional elements, continue calls for attacks against the United States and other international targets, and seek to advance plotting around the world,” as regional affiliates “exploit local conflicts and ungoverned spaces to threaten U.S. and Western interests, as well as local governments and populations abroad.” The strongest areas for al-Qaeda right now are the Sahel and Somalia.
Hezbollah, “in coordination with Iran and other Iran-aligned Shia militants,” is expected “to continue developing terrorist capabilities as a deterrent, as retaliatory options, and as instruments of coercion against its adversaries,” and “maintains the capability to target, both directly and indirectly, U.S. interests inside Lebanon, in the region, overseas, and — to a lesser extent — in the United States.”
“I think we have to be clear-eyed about the reality, looking at the potential terrorism challenge that both al-Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets, whether it’s in the region in the West or ultimately in the homeland,” CIA Director Bill Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee.