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Eased Pandemic Restrictions May Embolden Violent Extremists, FBI Warns

COVID-19 restrictions are easing across the United States, as mask mandates are lifted for vaccinated people and restaurants, houses of worship, and event venues reopen. However, the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warned that violent extremists may take advantage of these changes to conduct attacks when public capacity limits are lifted.

According to a National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin update released 14 May, “Historically, mass-casualty Domestic Violent Extremist (DVE) attacks linked to racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) have targeted houses of worship and crowded commercial facilities or gatherings. Some RMVEs advocate via social media and online platforms for a race war and have stated that civil disorder provides opportunities to engage in violence in furtherance of ideological objectives.”

Additionally, a joint report from the FBI and DHS released this month showed that 2019 was “the most lethal year” for domestic violent extremist attacks since 1995—32 people were killed, including 24 by white supremacists. Between 2017 and 2019, the report found, there were 57 domestic terrorism-related deaths, and 47 were racially motivated.

Meanwhile, as the number of deaths associated with domestic extremism increases, the number of arrests has decreased—in fiscal year 2016, approximately 229 arrests were made, compared to 107 in fiscal year 2019, CNN reported. The FBI conducted approximately 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations every fiscal year from 2017 through 2019.

“The threat posed by international domestic threat actors has evolved significantly since 9/11,” the report said. “The greatest terrorism threat to the Homeland we face today is posed by lone offenders, often radicalized online, who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons. Many of these violent extremists are motivated and inspired by a mix of socio-political goals and personal grievances against their targets.”

Before 2019, nonlethal DVE activity was driven by traditional motivations, including changes to abortion or environmental laws, but DVE activity is increasingly seen as a way to achieve social and political goals—which could impact public safety and critical infrastructure moving forward. The divisive political climate of recent years may exacerbate the challenge. “Political disagreements within the United States could present opportunities for DVEs to engage in violence against individuals perceived to have opposing ideologies, prominent political or public figures, or members of the media covering these events,” according to the report.

Themes like gamification—where fatality counts are referred to as “scores” and the malicious actor desires to accomplish “achievements” or high kill counts—and accelerationism partly inspired some attacks in 2019 and will likely continue to inspire future attacks. “Widely disseminated propaganda on online forums and encrypted chat applications that espouse similar themes regarding kill counts could inspire future attackers to mobilize faster or attempt increasingly lethal and more sophisticated attacks,” the report said.

Both the FBI and DHS assessed that DVEs would likely continue to focus on soft targets, using gamification to encourage higher fatality attacks.

According to the threat bulletin, “DHS is collaborating with industry partners to identify and respond to those individuals encouraging violence and attempting to radicalize others through spreading disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives on social media and other online platforms.”