Though police have not ascribed a terror motive to Sunday’s deadly incident in which an SUV drove into crowds at a Wisconsin Christmas parade, the scene invariably brought to mind the vulnerabilities exploited in the 2016 attacks on the Bastille Day crowds in Nice and the Breitscheidplatz Christmas market in Berlin: Soft targets without secure perimeters. Packed crowds that increased the casualty count from the use of a vehicle as a weapon. Crowds that were distracted by joyful holiday activities and not necessarily on alert for danger.
Extremist movements and lone actors have favored targets connected to holidays for these logistical reasons – ease of attack, ability to effectively use simple weapons, crowds that may be oblivious to the threat – or for symbolic reasons if the intended target, date, or victims align with an ideological motive. These can combine; for example, if a person with antisemitic beliefs opportunistically decides to attack a Jewish community location after noticing light security on an important date for either the faith of the victims or the faith of the attacker.
Holiday attacks present a conundrum for security services that are trying to keep venues and celebrations protected while keeping a sense of openness and welcoming during observations of community traditions.
The National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin released earlier this month warned of a continuing “diverse and challenging threat environment” as several religious holidays and associated mass gatherings approach “that in the past have served as potential targets for acts of violence.” Domestic violent extremists and individuals inspired by foreign terrorist organizations have targeted crowded commercial facilities, houses of worship, and public gatherings, and continued reopenings coupled with potential “ongoing societal and economic disruptions due to the pandemic, as well as mass gatherings associated with several dates of religious significance over the next few months, could provide increased targets of opportunity for violence, though there are currently no credible or imminent threats tied to any dates or locations.”
Online propaganda and messaging are playing a critical role in the ongoing threat environment, NTAS continued, as both foreign and domestic threat actors “continue to introduce, amplify, and disseminate narratives online that promote violence, and have called for violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious communities or commercial facilities, and perceived ideological opponents.”
Terror propaganda and tutorials are easily accessible online for lone actors and groups of any ideology to access and use as inspiration or instruction. Past attacks and threats can provide some guidance on what has been attractive to violent extremists, how these threats may be adapted to realities on the ground today, and how both security officials and holiday revelers can prepare for a worst-case scenario in conjunction with focusing on the joy of the season.
In a 2016 issue of ISIS’ now-defunct Rumiyah magazine, the terror group used a tutorial-style format to encourage followers to emulate Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s cargo truck attack on the Bastille Day revelers in France. ISIS directed would-be terrorists to steer clear of passenger cars and “off-roaders, SUVs, and four-wheel drive vehicles” as they can “lack the necessary attributes required for causing a blood bath” and “smaller vehicles lack the weight and wheel span required for crushing many victims.” The magazine displayed a picture of a U-Haul, calling it “an affordable weapon”; in 2017, an attacker used a pickup rented from Home Depot to ram cyclists and runners along the Hudson River in Manhattan, killing eight. ISIS also showed a photo of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, describing the annual holiday tradition as “an excellent target.”
“Any outdoor attraction that draws large crowds,” the terror group noted, makes for an attractive target, especially “low security” gatherings deemed “fair game and more devastating to Crusader nations.” While the Macy’s parade is not low-security, primers on vehicle attacks and emphasis on targeting large crowds and soft targets have been a recurring theme in terror propaganda. “The target should be on a road that offers the ability to accelerate to a high speed, which allows for inflicting maximum damage on those in the vehicle’s path,” ISIS said in the Rumiyah article.
Violent extremists’ focus over the Thanksgiving weekend would not be limited to parades but crowded stores on Black Friday – the alleged manifesto of accused El Paso Walmart shooter Patrick Crusius, still circulated among domestic extremists, advised others to “pick low hanging fruit” and “attack low security targets.” Increased air travel would also pique the interest of extremists who could attempt attacks not just on flights but on travel infrastructure and related crowded areas. A magazine published by al-Qaeda supports to mark 20 years since the 9/11 attacks argued that the tactic of using planes as weapons is “an open door even to lone wolves” and that “aircraft operations are not limited to the orientation of the aircraft as a weapon,” such as planting explosives in cargo.
In 2019, on the seventh night of Hanukkah, a masked assailant entered a party at the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., and stabbed five people, killing one. He was blocked from then attempting to enter the synagogue next door. Grafton Thomas, who has a history of antisemitic writings and browser searches, was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was committed.
Important days in the Jewish faith are a potential target for extremism rooted in antisemitism – including white supremacists, neo-Nazis, conspiracy theory extremists, and Islamist extremists – but the threat is especially concerning in today’s environment of rising antisemitic attacks not necessarily linked to holy days. At an August Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the domestic extremist threat, Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, warned that antisemitic hate crimes were up 135 percent in New York City and 53 percent in Los Angeles and “heading for records.” Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that a “drastic and disturbing rise in anti-Semitic activity across America” has been fueled by social media and “the problem we see is that violence motivated by hate, antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry increasingly has been normalized.”
Robert Bowers, who stands accused of picking Shabbat services in 2018 to launch the deadliest attack on the American Jewish community, is hailed as a hero in the antisemitic cesspool of meme culture, with domestic extremists urging others to emulate his actions and Nike “Just Do It” branding superimposed on his mugshot. And the pre-attack open letter attributed to 2019 Poway synagogue shooter John Earnest, who chose the last day of Passover for his attack and wrote that there is “no other option” than to kill Jews while asserting that his motive was based in Christianity, also has shown that manifestos have legs among domestic extremists. While this antisemitism unfortunately flourishes year-round and has been getting worse, particular attention to security is warranted on holidays because of the demonstrated penchant extremists have for openly admitting they draw inspiration from each other’s crimes.
In the run-up to and during the holidays, ISIS supporters have historically churned out calls to action that have promoted Christmas market attacks in Germany (2016) and France (2018) as well as the 2015 attack on a county employees’ holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif. Propaganda has run the gamut from depicting jihadists next to Christmas trees, to bombs in Santa’s bag of gifts, to Santa running from an ISIS truck while lugging a flaming Christmas tree. “Beat him violently,” said one image in French depicting a dead Santa in Strasbourg, scene of the 2018 attack. “Be sure to inflict the greatest losses on the enemy.” Another suggested planting explosives in public Christmas tree displays, while yet another propaganda poster depicted blood-spattered angel lights on Regent Street in London.
These calls that circulate among ISIS channels have not always fallen on deaf ears: Everitt Aaron Jameson, a Modesto, Calif., tow-truck driver and former Marine, pleaded guilty in 2018 to planning a Christmas-season attack on San Francisco’s Pier 39; he had “liked” on Facebook an ISIS propaganda image depicting Santa with a box of dynamite in New York’s Times Square. And while the internet isn’t as saturated with calls for Christmas attacks as in ISIS’ heyday – when the terror group expressly issued many threats to the Vatican – these calls are inevitably released by ISIS supporters trying to urge others to take advantage of the symbolism of the Christian holiday. An English-language message to the “lone wolves and hungry lions” that circulated online among ISIS supporters as “new year is at the door” last December called on would-be attackers to use the holiday season and specifically target American and French civilians with a variety of tactics including arson and poisoning.
Christmas attacks have also served as a reminder that lone attackers, regardless of group loyalty or even ideology, have a well of open-source terror tutorials and advice from which to draw. The Dec. 11, 2017, bomber in the New York City subway tunnel, ISIS supporter Akayed Ullah, used an al-Qaeda pipe bomb recipe featured in the summer 2015 issue of Inspire magazine that incorporated a Christmas light, but the device didn’t work as intended.
New Year’s Eve
Just before the turn of the millennium, Ahmed Ressam, detained at a port of entry while trying to cross into the United States from Canada, revealed a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport as 1999 turned into 2000. Officials would say that terror cells had been disrupted in multiple countries as the would-be LAX bomber claimed other millennium attacks had been planned worldwide.
Areas traditionally known to be crowded with revelers on any New Year’s Eve quickly become high-security locations as authorities wisely put extra preparation and manpower into hardening these party spots, such as Times Square. And the timing doesn’t need to be as monumental as the millennium: multiple New Year’s Eve plots linked to ISIS in the last days of 2015 spurred stiff security around that year’s celebrations in Europe. The threat could also be connected to additional motivating factors; for example, personalities billed to appear at New Year’s celebrations or specific scheduled locations for festivities could also inspire domestic extremists driven by politics, religion, or conspiracy theories to attack.
But the symbolism of New Year’s to extremists, often expressed in propaganda, can make a multitude of targets – including more accessible ones with less of a police presence – attractive to a would-be attacker as the clock nears midnight. This symbolism can be considered similar to anyone who would make a New Year’s resolution to start the fresh year on a high note – except to extremists that fresh slate means making their cause or ideology infamous and potentially doing it with a bang, drawing new recruits to pump up the movement’s strength, and essentially claiming the new year as their own.