9-11 anniversary and religious holidays could be ‘catalyst’ for targeted terror attacks, DHS warns

Threats ‘exacerbated’ by pandemic restrictions and grievance-based violence, Homeland Security advisory says

Alex Woodward
New York
Friday 13 August 2021 21:54 BST
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An updated advisory from the US Department of Homeland Security warns that upcoming religious holidays and the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks “could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence” among domestic violent extremists and other groups, whose heightened threats have been “exacerbated” by the coronavirus pandemic and grievance-based violence.

The message from the National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin is the latest in a series of advisories from federal law enforcement warning about potential threats from conspiracy theory- and political and culture war-related violence that has proliferated online.

Through the remainder of 2021, “racially- or ethnically-motivated violent extremists ... and anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists will remain a national threat priority for the United States,” according to the bulletin.

Extremists may seek to exploit public health restrictions and re-openings “as a rationale to conduct attacks” as “pandemic-related stressors have contributed to increased societal strains and tensions, driving several plots by domestic violent extremists, and they may contribute to more violence this year.”

DHS also warns that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula recently released an English-language copy of its Inspire magazine for the first time in several years, “which demonstrates that foreign terrorist organizations continue efforts to inspire US-based individuals susceptible to violent extremist influences.”

Foreign and domestic threats continue to “introduce, amplify, and disseminate narratives online” that promote violence, including violence against elected officials, religious communities and perceived ideological and political opponents, according to DHS.

Officials also said that observed, nonspecific threats continue to stem from conspiracy theories surrounding the baseless “stolen election” narrative promoted by Donald Trump and his allies, as well as another fraudulent conspiracy theory that he would be reinstated in the White House on 13 August.

“Law enforcement [has] expressed concerns that the broader sharing of false narratives and conspiracy theories will gain traction in mainstream environments, resulting in individuals or small groups embracing violent tactics to achieve their desired objectives,” according to the bulletin.

The bulletin updates a previous advisory issued in May. That bulletin updated an advisory issued in the wake of the insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January and President Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January. The latest bulletin expires in November.

Federal law enforcement officials have routinely warned about the rise in white supremacist violence as well as violent threats observed across online communities promoting QAnon, the decentralised belief system that has laundered disinformation and conspiracy theories tied to violence from obscure corners of the internet into mainstream channels across social media.

A DHS spokesperson told The Independent in June that the agency “is enhancing its ability to prevent acts of domestic terrorism inspired by disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives spread through social media and other online platforms”.

The vast online-driven movement, growing frustrated with calls to “trust the plan” as its predictions fail to materialise, may begin to engage in “real world violence” against lawmakers and perceived political enemies, according to an unclassified report from the FBI issued in June.

QAnon proponents may begin to believe they have an “obligation” to accelerate beyond “digital soldiers” to carry out their prophesied violence rather than continue to wait for instruction, according to a document prepared by the FBI and DHS and viewed by The Independent.

In an interview with CNN, Homeland Security Intelligence chief John Cohen said online extremist rhetoric echoes calls for violence ahead of the Capitol riot, as the persistent lie that Mr Biden was not legitimately elected is paired an increase in threats.

“Concern from a law enforcement perspective is at a certain point in time, all of the conspiracy theories that point to a change occurring through process are going to sort of wear out,” he told the network. “And the question is going to be, are people going to try to resort to violence, in or in furtherance of, that false narrative?”

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