By Geneva Sands, CNN
One year after the attack on the United States Capitol, homeland security and nationwide law enforcement officials brace themselves for potential “unprecedented” levels of violence this year as midterm elections kick off and the pandemic continues to affect the country. everyday life.
The country remains polarized and many people are angry and frustrated with themselves or the conditions in society after two years of Covid-19 upheaval, turbulent economic conditions and government restrictions, sources told CNN and non-governmental researchers.
At the end of last month in a chain of unrelated incidents, a a gunman killed five people in Denver area, a man was arrested on his way to Washington, DC with weapons and a “hit list,” and a New Years Eve fire at Planned Parenthood facilities in Tennessee was declared arson. All of these incidents come as authorities are already preparing for protests in the nation’s capital later this month.
Societal divisions associated with online and media content saturated with conspiracy theories and disinformation have led officials to fear levels of violence in 2022 will be “unprecedented,” a federal law enforcement official said .
While much attention has been focused on the January 6 anniversary, “from a law enforcement perspective, it goes way beyond that,” the official said. Another concern is that volatility will only increase as the electoral cycle progresses and we move closer to the 2022 midterm elections, they added.
Fractures in American society and the spread of disinformation are likely to be exacerbated during the electoral cycle, the official said, noting that public figures, such as those who run for office, those who hold elected office and those in the media who comment on these problems will only increase their activities.
“It’s not a pleasant forecast,” said Peter Simi, associate professor at Chapman University who studies extremist groups and violence. “I think we are seeing the threats mounting. And really the transition to what we might call “an everyday insurgency”.
A year after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill, far-right extremists still argue that the 2020 election was stolen, say recent report SITE Intelligence Group, a non-governmental organization that tracks extremist activity online.
However, these extremist groups have dispersed their focus on various issues, such as vaccines, Covid-19 conspiracy theories and the policies of the Biden administration, according to the report.
“To be clear, however, the extremist momentum behind January 6 has not waned – it has spread in all directions,” said SITE director Rita Katz.
That energy has been redirected to Covid-19 mitigation measures, the southern border migrant crisis, critical racial theory and elections, she added.
She also highlighted the upcoming congressional elections, “which will center on the same hot topics to which these violent extremist actors have turned.”
Election conspiracy theories and electoral fraud are a major concern
Hate ideologies, fake news, fake narratives are the main sources of the threat landscape in the United States today, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told CNN on Wednesday.
“The division in our country also feeds it,” he said. “Words matter. And the words of the leaders matter a lot. And it can actually fuel the spread of false information and lead people to violence. “
Election fraud conspiracy theories, which likely contributed to the breach of the United States Capitol last year, continue to resonate among domestic violent extremists, according to a recent DHS intelligence assessment obtained by CNN.
Mayorkas told reporters this week that the department was “very, very focused on the security and integrity of our electoral processes,” when asked if he was concerned about threats related to the upcoming election cycle in mid -mandate.
Over the past year, there has been a dramatic increase in threats against lawmakers, with 9,600 in 2021 alone, US Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said this week. A senior Capitol security official previously attributed this increase in part to “a more bitter and partisan political environment and citizens against whom the issues that irritate them are core issues of value and identity.”
As always, the problem remains to sift through the noise of angry tweets over actual threats, the security official said, adding that the “majority” of threats do not “pose a risk of actual violence.”
DHS chief intelligence officer John Cohen said KNX information radio Wednesday, “What keeps me awake at night, and I know it’s keeping a number of my colleagues across the country, it’s not just the January 6 anniversary, but the threat environment. at the dawn of 2022. “
Cohen highlighted the polarization of American society, as well as the efforts of foreign intelligence services, terrorist organizations and domestic extremist opinion leaders who seek to exacerbate social tensions, undermine the credibility of the U.S. government, and inspire violence in sowing and disseminating content online and in the media.
There continues to be a “constant rate of massive attacks by angry and disgruntled people who are inspired by the content they consume online,” he said in the interview.
Incidents resulting in numerous victims, for example, in Denver, Atlanta, Indianapolis Over the past year, all have shown signs of volatile threats to law enforcement today, with some suspects reported to law enforcement before committing attacks.
Last month, a Californian was arrested by the Cass County Sheriff’s Department in Iowa with a “hit list” of people he intended to kill, including Anthony Fauci and Mark Zuckerberg, according to a report. federal criminal complaint. He had the White House address in his GPS and told investigators he would kill President Joe Biden, according to the complaint. The suspect’s attorney told court he intended to rely on a defense of insanity.
What are the police doing about it?
Mayorkas said DHS has increased and improved information sharing with local communities over the past year to help counter the threat of national terrorism, as well as additional local grants and the creation of a new branch. dedicated to national terrorism.
Many in the police have has worked to intensify information sharing over the past year. For example, law enforcement officials nationwide recently found that there was around 200 threats against schools across the country that had proliferated on TikTok, a law enforcement source said.
“Previously, we didn’t have the ability to see all of these threats at once, where they were and what type of threats there were,” the source said, pointing to the failures leading up to Jan.6, 2021.
That said, there is still on the federal government side, “a big disconnect between the many portals the government manages,” the source said.
DHS, FBI and local authorities all operate different systems which are difficult to coordinate, the source added.
Last month, Cohen raised concerns about the ability of law enforcement to deal with threats in the United States.
“We have not yet, across the United States, a consistent level of capability designed to enable local threat assessment and management activities, ”Cohen said at a George Washington University forum.
Mayorkas agreed last week, saying: “We are actually seeing an uneven level of capacity in local communities.”
Neither official mentioned specific communities, but the secretary said the inequality underscores the importance of information and intelligence sharing between law enforcement and internal security officials.
The suspect in the recent Denver subway shooting, for example, was investigated by Denver Police in 2020 and early 2021, but no charges were laid. The shooter – identified as Lyndon James McLeod, 47, foreshadowed the rampage in a series of books he wrote under a pseudonym, and he used the names of actual victims in his writings, CNN reported.
“This individual was on law enforcement radar,” Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said, without further details.
Five people were killed in the shootings and several were injured, including a policewoman.
Without providing details, Mayorkas said that in recent weeks DHS has seen the benefits of information sharing, in a situation “where a particular community is not necessarily as developed in its device, or evolved as others, but nonetheless, through the information we conveyed to him, he was able to identify a potential threat before that threat materialized and let us know.
‘Asleep at the wheel’
A year after the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill, the landscape of extremism is “all over the map,” Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the extremism program at George Washington University, told CNN.
There are traditional white supremacists, anti-government groups and accelerationists, as well as a “significant group of people” who are interested in ISIS and Al Qaeda, he said. The goal of accelerationism is to foment the division and polarization that will bring about the collapse of the existing order and start a civil war, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, who recently wrote on the perils of movement.
The lack of large-scale events similar to the Jan.6 riot over the past year is a reflection of a fracture movement combined with law enforcement efforts, according to Hughes.
Looking ahead to the election season, Hughes stressed that although there has been an increase in threats against election officials and public officials, several elections have been held safely since last January.
On far-right extremism, Chapman University professor Simi told CNN, “We have been sleeping behind the wheel for a long time,” making it difficult for the public to understand the multiple threats to which are faced the United States. .
“Partly because it is an internal threat. It’s easier to point the finger at something from the outside, those who attack us from the outside, ”he said, referring to the 9/11 terrorism.
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