Federal law enforcement has once again warned members of Congress that white supremacists and other domestic extremists pose as great a threat to the US as Islamic State militants, a familiar warning to lawmakers after repeated advisories have pointed to the rise of racist violence and conspiracy theories that have proliferated online.
Officials with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security also told lawmakers on 3 November that the attack on the US Capitol has prompted changes in how law enforcement reviews online threats and their push to be more proactive against them.
“Covert collection may often not be necessary to capture valuable intelligence, but analysts need to be able to distinguish ... between constitutionally protected speech and threat-related activity,” Homeland Security intelligence official John Cohen told members of a House Intelligence subcommittee on Wednesday.
FBI assistant director Timothy Langan of the agency’s counterterrorism unit said in his prepared remarks that the “greatest terrorism threat” to the US comes from “lone actors or small cells who typically radicalize online and look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons,” defined as domestic violent extremists and homegrown violent extremists.
Domestic threats include individuals who “commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of social or political goals stemming from domestic influences – such as racial or ethnic bias, or anti-government or anti-authority sentiments” whereas “homegrown” threats emerge from individuals potentially tied to foreign groups “but not receiving individualized direction from those groups,” he explained.
He said the FBI is investigating roughly 2,700 cases tied to domestic violent extremism following an uptick in threats over the last 18 months.
Threats are motivated by a toxic mix of grievance-based violence as well as “biases against minorities, perceived government overreach, conspiracy theories promoting violence, and false narratives often spread online,” Mr Cohen said in his prepared remarks.
So-called racially motivated violent extremists “espouse an overlapping mix” of nationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideologies, he explained.
Their testimony is the latest in a series of updates from federal law enforcement warning about potential threats from conspiracy theory- and political and culture war-related violence.
The latest National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin that was issued in August and is set to expire on 11 November signals that “racially- or ethnically-motivated violent extremists ... and anti-government/anti-authority violent extremists will remain a national threat priority for the United States.”
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 tied to Covid-19 and surrounding the baseless “stolen election” narrative promoted by Donald Trump and his allies.
“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.
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