WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security issued a warning Wednesday to alert the public about the growing threat of “ideologically-motivated violent extremists” agitated about President Joe Biden’s inauguration and “perceived grievances fueled by false narratives.”
DHS periodically issues such advisories through its National Terrorism Advisory System, but the warnings have typically been generated by concerns about attacks by foreign governments or radical groups, not domestic extremists.
In a statement, the department said the purpose of the new bulletin was to warn the public about a “heightened threat environment” across the United States “that is likely to persist over the coming weeks.” The bulletin is a lesser-status warning designed to alert the public about general risks, rather than an imminent attack or a specific threat.
“DHS does not have any information to indicate a specific, credible plot; however, violent riots have continued in recent days and we remain concerned that individuals frustrated with the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances and ideological causes fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize a broad range of ideologically-motivated actors to incite or commit violence,” the statement read.
The most recent bulletins DHS has issued – both in January 2020 – warned the public about an elevated threat from Iran. No other bulletin in recent years has been issued to alert Americans about violence by domestic extremists, records show. The new bulletin will remain in place through April 30. It does not mention any specific right-wing or left-wing groups and instead describes the intensification of a broader agitation that built up over the past year.
“Throughout 2020, Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs) targeted individuals with opposing views engaged in First Amendment-protected, nonviolent protest activity,” the bulletin states. “DVEs motivated by a range of issues, including anger over covid-19 restrictions, the 2020 election results, and police use of force have plotted and on occasion carried out attacks against government facilities.”
It added: “DHS is concerned these same drivers to violence will remain through early 2021 and some DVEs may be emboldened by the January 6, 2021 breach of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to target elected officials and government facilities.” The assault on the Capitol left a Capitol Police officer and four rioters dead.
After the inauguration, left-wing groups smashed windows, set fires and battled police in Portland and Seattle, two cities where street violence erupted last year after the police killing of George Floyd. DHS responded to often-violent protests last summer at federal buildings in Portland by sending armored officers and agents to repel crowds, which triggered criticism of heavy-handed tactics and overreach by the department.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected the idea that the Biden administration has been solely focused on threats from pro-Trump groups.
“President Biden condemns violence and any violence in the strongest possible terms,” Psaki told reporters. “Peaceful protests are a cornerstone of our democracy, but smashing windows is not protesting, and neither is looting, and actions like these are totally unacceptable.”
Tom Warrick, a career counterrorism official at DHS who served under Democratic and Republican administrations, said the purpose of the bulletin was to send a clear message about the “return of the bright line between protected speech and acts of violence that are considered domestic terrorism.”
“There does not appear to be anything alarmist or should cause people concern, but there is an increasing stridency after Jan. 6 by violent groups promising to carry out more acts of violence in Washington and state capitals,” said Warrick, now a fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Jan. 6 is seen by these groups as the start of something, not the end of something, and that’s another thing motivating what DHS put out today,” he said. “People who cross the line into acts of violence need to be treated as domestic terrorists, and you’re seeing counterterrorism officials going back to terminology that existed under (George W.) Bush, under Obama, and that was the prevailing view until very recently.”
Warrick and other former DHS officials could not recall the alert system being used to warn the public about a domestic threat, however, in one measure of the extent to which domestic threats are unfamiliar for an apparatus built after the 9/11 attacks.
“Bringing to bear the tools that we used against foreign terrorist attacks is really fraught when you’re talking about domestic violence and disturbance,” said Stewart Baker, former general counsel to the National Security Agency and a top policy official at DHS during the Bush administration.
“The opportunity to go wrong here in a way that will discredit DHS and the tools we used successfully to protect against foreign terrorism is very real, and there needs to be great care throwing around terrorism language and tools too freely,” Baker said.