US facing ‘complex and volatile’ threats from domestic extremism: DHS

(WASHINGTON) — The United States is facing “threats that have evolved significantly and become increasingly complex and volatile in 2021,” according to an updated National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin on domestic violent extremism issued Friday by the Department of Homeland Security.

“These threats include those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or influenced by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences,” the bulletin reads. “Social media and online forums are increasingly exploited by these actors to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and activity.”

Shortly after President Joe Biden was sworn into office, DHS issued the first NTAS bulletin on domestic violent extremism in years. The bulletin the agency issued in January ran out April 26.

DHS also notes in its new bulletin that violent extremists could seek to exploit the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention introduced new mask guidelines, which stated that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask inside or outdoors.

“Violent extremists may seek to exploit the easing of COVID-19-related restrictions across the United States to conduct attacks against a broader range of targets after previous public capacity limits reduced opportunities for lethal attacks,” according to the bulletin.

Elizabeth Neumann, a former DHS assistant secretary, told ABC News that reopening will create counterterrorism concerns for law enforcement.

“Counterterrorism, law enforcement and mental health professionals have been concerned since last spring that the stress caused by the pandemic, and all of the associated mitigative actions, were likely to lead to an increase in violence when we reopen and return to large, group gatherings,” Neumann, an ABC News contributor, said.

Additionally, DHS writes that “ideologically-motivated violent extremists fueled by perceived grievances, false narratives, and conspiracy theories continue to share information online with the intent to incite violence.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called the threats facing the country “more dynamic, and more diversified than it was several years ago.”

“We know that providing timely and useful information to the public is critical as we all work together to secure the homeland,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “With the issuance of today’s NTAS Bulletin, we are advising the public to be vigilant about ongoing threats to the United States, including those posed by domestic terrorism, grievance-based violence, and those inspired or influenced by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences.”

The department has made combatting domestic violent extremism a priority.

On Tuesday, the secretary established a domestic terrorism branch in the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis and established the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships in an effort to combat terrorism and targeted violence. DHS previously used Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to combat domestic terrorism by having each recipient allocate at least 7% toward combatting domestic terrorism.

The Department of Homeland Security also warned that certain websites could be advocating for violence against government officials. It does not, however, name any specific officials.

“Online narratives across sites known to be frequented by individuals who hold violent extremist ideologies have called for violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious or commercial facilities, and perceived ideologically-opposed individuals,” the bulletin issued on Friday reads.

DHS mentions in the bulletin that the use of encrypted messaging could make it harder for law enforcement to track these cells.

The agency also writes that nation states are continually amplifying messages to sow discord in the United States.

“For example, Russian, Chinese and Iranian government-linked media outlets have repeatedly amplified conspiracy theories concerning the origins of COVID-19 and effectiveness of vaccines; in some cases, amplifying calls for violence targeting persons of Asian descent,” according to the bulletin.

Javed Ali, a former top counterterrorism official on the National Security Council, said that Friday’s bulletin shows the concern agencies have about domestic violent extremism.

“While the bulletin does not appear to be based on a single and specific credible threat, it notes a range of factors and grievances that could drive individuals or groups to attack plotting,” said Ali, a Towsley policymaker in residence at the University of Michigan. “The use other similar NTAS bulletins over the past year shows a more mature and disciplined use by DHS for this product, with the goal of educating and informing multiple stakeholders.”

DHS writes it remain “committed to identifying and preventing domestic terrorism.”

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