U.S. warns domestic extremists could exploit easing COVID-19 restrictions

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned on Friday that domestic extremists could take advantage of easing COVID-19 restrictions to launch attacks on a broader range of targets.

In a new national terrorism advisory bulletin, DHS said the United States in 2021 is “facing threats that have evolved significantly and become increasingly complex and volatile,” including threats posed by domestic terrorists, by individuals and by “groups engaged in grievance-based violence”.

DHS said social media and online forums “are increasingly exploited by these actors to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and activity.”

The DHS bulletin said that in 2020 and this year, government facilities have regularly been targeted by domestic extremists, and that “opportunistic violent criminals” are likely to try to use public protests “linked to racial justice grievances and police use of force concerns” as a motive for “targeting protestors perceived to be ideological opponents.”

The bulletin said racially motivated extremists have used social media and online platforms to advocate “a race war” and have suggested that civil disorder “provides opportunities to engage in violence in furtherance of ideological objectives.”

Driven by “perceived grievances, false narratives, and conspiracy theories”, ideologically motivated extremists share information online with the intent to incite violence, DHS said, using websites which cater to extremists to call for “violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious or commercial facilities, and perceived ideologically-opposed individuals.”

DHS also warned that foreign militant groups, such as Islamic State and al Qaeda, are circulating messages “intended to inspire” U.S.-based extremists and that such groups and their followers “remain a threat to the Homeland.”

The bulletin said foreign nations, including Russia, China and Iran, had increased efforts to sow discord among Americans by promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, questioning the effectiveness of vaccines, and even amplifying messages calling for violence against Asian Americans.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)