US issues terrorism advisory over ‘heightened threat’ following Biden inauguration

DHS bulletin warns ‘ideologically motivated violent extremists’ could ‘continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence’ – signaling administration’s willingness to characterize domestic terror threats

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 27 January 2021 18:53 GMT
Related video: Susan Rice discusses threats of white nationalist violence
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The Department of Homeland Security has issued a terrorism advisory bulletin due to a “heightened threat environment" across the US in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Federal law enforcement has warned that anti-government “ideologically motivated violent extremists” motivated by “perceived grievances fueled by false narratives” could “continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence”, the agency announced on Wednesday.

The advisory follows a deadly insurrection among far-right supporters of Donald Trump at the US Capitol on 6 January. DHS officials warn that the riots could “embolden” others to carry out similar attacks against elected officials and government buildings.

A bulletin “describes current developments or general trends regarding threats of terrorism” but is not an “elevated” or “imminent" warning. The bulletin remains in effect through 30 April.

The bulletin says "domestic violent extremists" motivated “by a range of issues” – including racism, Covid-19 “lockdown” measures, the results of the 2020 presidential election and “police use of force” – have “plotted and on occasion carried out attacks against government facilities”. 

DHS “is concerned these same drivers to violence will remain through early 2021”.

Federal law enforcement has warned for months about the rising domestic threat of white supremacist violence during congressional testimony and in internal reports, including FBI field office warnings in the days leading up to and after the riots in the halls of Congress.

Last year, FBI director Christopher Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that the threat of far-right domestic violent extremism had risen to a "national threat priority" and will continue to pose a "steady threat of violence and economic harm" to the US as long as its underlying drivers – including "perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, sociopolitical conditions, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions" – persist.

A 2020 Homeland Security report claimed domestic violent extremist groups remain the nation's largest security threat. An intelligence bulletin shared among federal law enforcement agencies in the days after the Capitol attack warned that those groups "very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021".

The DHS bulletin on Wednesday signals the administration’s willingness to characterize and address politically and ideologically motivated violence as a form of terrorism.

Several lawmakers have called for stronger domestic terror laws to prosecute rioters and target would-be threats.

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the "assault on the Capitol and the tragic deaths and destruction that occurred underscored what we have long known … The rise of domestic violent extremism is a serious and growing national security threat. The Biden administration will approach this threat with the necessary resources and resolve.”

The president has also ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to conduct the national threat assessment with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

"We have seen and it’s been plain for all Americans on their television sets just how serious a problem we face from nationalists and white supremacists who have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence in some instances," domestic policy adviser Susan Rice told reporters on Tuesday.

A “comprehensive assessment of the nature of this threat and challenge” will help determine policy to address it, she said.

But dozens of civil rights groups, legal scholars and progressive lawmakers have argued that the nation’s already-extensive national security apparatus and existing criminal statutes  are well-equipped to combat acts of domestic terrorism.

Introducing new domestic terror laws – echoing fears over the Patriot Act and strong-arm Justice Department policies under the Trump administration – could compromise Americans’ civil rights, they argue.

US House Rep Rashida Tlaib and at least nine other House Democrats have urged congressional leadership to “resist the erosion of our civil liberties and Constitutional freedoms, however well-intentioned proposed security reforms may be."

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