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DHS warns violent extremists may exploit easing of COVID restrictions to plan new attacks

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Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued an updated terrorism advisory Friday, warning of persistent threats nationwide “that have evolved significantly and become increasingly complex and volatile.” 

The latest National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletin comes as the department created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks looks inside its borders to confront an emerging, homegrown threat that bubbled to the surface during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

The bulletin also piggybacks on an earlier NTAS release following President Biden’s inauguration set to expire Saturday. 

“Ideologically-motivated violent extremists fueled by perceived grievances, false narratives, and conspiracy theories continue to share information online with the intent to incite violence,” the bulletin reads. 

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Friday’s threat advisory also warns that violent extremists may seek to exploit eased COVID-19 restrictions across the U.S. “to conduct attacks against a broader range of targets after previous public capacity limits reduced opportunities for lethal attacks.” 

The bulletin alerts the public to extremists’ routine use of social media and online platforms to make claims of “a race war” capitalizing on civil disorder “to engage in violence in furtherance of ideological objectives.” The use of encrypted messaging by lone offenders and small violent extremist cells presents a challenge to law enforcement operations, DHS confirmed in the advisory, as offenders aim to obscure operational signals of future acts of violence. 

“Today’s terrorism-related threat landscape is more complex, more dynamic, and more diversified than it was several years ago,” Secretary Mayorkas said in a statement to CBS News. “We know that providing timely and useful information to the public is critical as we all work together to secure the homeland.”

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Mayorkas continued, “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. In this evolving threat environment, DHS is redoubling our efforts to detect and disrupt all forms of foreign and domestic terrorism and targeted violence, while safeguarding privacy protections, civil rights, and civil liberties.”

Foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, continue targeting U.S.-based homegrown extremists, according to the bulletin, in hopes of amplifying dangerous narratives.  

Nation-state adversaries have also upped efforts to sow discord, according to the bulletin, which singles out Russian, Chinese and Iranian government-linked media outlets for peddling conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 and effectiveness of vaccines, some of  which call for violence against persons of Asian descent. 

The updated advisory also identifies houses of worship, crowded commercial facilities or gatherings and government facilities as historical targets of domestic terrorism, and encourages local law enforcement partners to alert the federal government of online and physical indicators of the evolving threat of violence. 

Earlier this month, the Biden administration completed a 100-day policy review of domestic violent extremism spearheaded by the National Security Council (NSC). 

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“Our ultimate goal from this review has always been to develop a strategy that will convey to the American people an overarching sense of how we’ll be taking on the threat posed by domestic terrorism,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters, earlier this month. “I anticipate an update on that and the policy recommendations will be weeks, not months.  But at this point, that’s the stage of the process.” 

Top counterterrorism officials offered lawmakers a preview of policy tools under consideration at a congressional hearing late last month. 

Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism at DHS John Cohen told the House Homeland Security Committee that the Biden administration has explored leveraging watch-listing authorities of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to help root out the threat of domestic violent extremism. 

John Godfrey, Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department, said in the same hearing that the administration has floated using terrorist designations — in particular, Specially Designated Terrorist Groups (SDTG) authorities — against racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, adding that they are “close in a couple of cases.” 

Friday’s NTAS bulletin underlines findings of a joint report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) in March, which predicted that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and “emboldening impact of the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol” will “almost certainly” spur domestic violent extremists to engage in further violence. 

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Intelligence agencies found that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists presented the “most lethal threats.” Racially motivated extremists were determined to be the most likely to instigate mass-casualty attacks against civilians, while militia violent extremists typically target law enforcement and government personnel and facilities.

And just last month, the DHS secretary launched an internal investigation to address the threat of domestic violent extremism within the department itself, according to a memo to employees obtained by CBS News.  

Since 2015, DHS has used the NTAS bulletin to identify “homegrown terrorists” inspired by foreign states or terrorist groups, but January’s advisory marked the first time the department has issued a bulletin about a wholly domestic threat to the homeland. 

DHS bulletins are designed to illustrate current developments or trends about terrorism threats, and are not to be confused with an elevated alert, which warns of a credible terrorism threat, or an imminent alert, which warns of a credible, specific and impending terrorism threat.

Friday’s NTAS bulletin is set to expire on August 13, 2021. 

Kathryn Watson contributed to this report. 

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