The Department of Homeland of Security is cautioning that violent domestic extremists could exploit the easing of COVID-19 restrictions to plot attacks in the United States.
“Violent extremists may seek to exploit the easing of COVID-19-related restrictions across the United States to conduct attacks against a broader range of targets after previous public capacity limits reduced opportunities for lethal attacks,” said an official bulletin posted by the agency on Friday.
The update comes shortly after the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance allowing for vaccinated individuals to go maskless indoors, and several cities begin to loosen the restrictions on the capacities for gatherings.
The notice warned that while mass-casualty attacks have often targeted “houses of worship and crowded commercial facilities or gatherings,” government officials and facilities are also targets.
The guidance comes on the heels of the “heightened threat environment” warning issued after the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which expired at the end of April.
“Through 2020 and into 2021, government facilities and personnel have been common targets of DVEs, and opportunistic violent criminals are likely to exploit Constitutionally-protected freedom of speech activity linked to racial justice grievances and police use of force concerns, potentially targeting protestors perceived to be ideological opponents,” the bulletin reads.
“Ideologically-motivated violent extremists fueled by perceived grievances, false narratives, and conspiracy theories continue to share information online with the intent to incite violence. Online narratives across sites known to be frequented by individuals who hold violent extremist ideologies have called for violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious or commercial facilities, and perceived ideologically-opposed individuals.”
The notice also warned that new challenges have risen in detecting threats due to the use of encrypted messaging in addition to s uptick in foreign adversaries attempting to sow discord in the country.
Concern over the domestic extremists has to a certain degree eclipsed the focus on foreign terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, though the alert warns that both groups still try to inspire homegrown attacks.
“Messaging from foreign terrorist organizations, including al-Qa‘ida and ISIS, intended to inspire U.S.-based homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) continues to amplify narratives related to exploiting protests. HVEs, who have typically conducted attacks against soft targets, mass gatherings, and law enforcement, remain a threat to the Homeland,” it said.
Added to the mix are adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran, which the alert says are amplifying conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 and calls for violence against people of Asian descent.
“Nation-state adversaries have increased efforts to sow discord. For example, Russian, Chinese and Iranian government-linked media outlets have repeatedly amplified conspiracy theories concerning the origins of COVID-19 and effectiveness of vaccines; in some cases, amplifying calls for violence targeting persons of Asian descent.”