‘Stressors Caused by the Pandemic’ Could Influence Potential Attacks, Houses of Worship Warned

Houses of worship already hampered by social distancing rules as the coronavirus pandemic hits during the Passover, Easter and upcoming Ramadan seasons have been warned by the Department of Homeland Security to also be alert for potential physical attacks against members or institutions.

In a letter this week to the faith-based community, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Assistant Director for Infrastructure Security Brian Harrell noted that, as mass gatherings have been curtailed by the virus, “although many people undoubtedly continue to practice their faith, including through remote services and prayer, most are inevitably eager to return to normalcy and join their fellow congregants in practicing their faiths.”

“When you begin efforts to reconstitute services and welcome congregants back into your houses of worship, please also review your security plans and ensure procedures are in place to protect your facilities and visitors. Although there are no imminent or credible threats at this time, there has been an increase in online hate speech intended to encourage violence or use the ongoing situation as an excuse to spread hatred,” Harrell wrote.

“Additionally, stressors caused by the pandemic may contribute to an individual’s decision to commit an attack or influence their target of choice,” he added. “Again, we have no information to suggest such attacks are imminent or even likely, instead we are looking to provide you with useful information for planning for restoration of normal operations, whenever that may be.”

On March 31, the Faith-Based Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (ISAO) raised its physical threat level from severe to critical, citing not only the pandemic threat but the religious holidays, “continued extremist interest in conducting various attacks and hostile actions against people and places of faith (to include specific anti-Semitic rhetoric relating to exploiting COVID-19),” and “the anniversary of complex coordinated terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka last Easter, and other incidents that may serve to inspire extremists.”

Harrell reminded faith-based organizations that CISA’s Hometown Security program offers resources include training, tools, exercises, and other materials focused on a wide range of threats (e.g., bombing, active shooter, vehicle ramming, etc.) and other resources relating to behavioral indicator detection.

“Thank you again for everything you do to champion the American people’s Constitutional First Amendment rights, as well as your leadership in keeping our houses of worship safe and secure,” he said. “You have a committed partner in DHS who is steadfast in ensuring you have the resources to enhance your security programs.”

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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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