Homegrown Violent Extremism in the United States: Exploiting COVID-19
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has reported two attempted attacks by homegrown violent extremists against medical facilities since the COVID-19 outbreak escalated across the country in mid-March; these incidents indicate an elevated security risk for essential services from homegrown violent extremists throughout the United States (US), who are likely seeking to exploit the ongoing pandemic.
On the 24th of March, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents shot and killed a domestic terror suspect during a sting operation to arrest the individual, who was allegedly planning to carry out an improvised explosive device (IED) attack against a medical facility in the Kansas City area. The incident occurred in Belton, Missouri, which is approximately 19 miles south of Kansas City (30.5 km).
The suspect, who believed that he was obtaining an IED from another homegrown violent extremist, was armed during the FBI raid, which led agents to engage the target in a shootout.
Timothy Wilson, 36, was the subject of an FBI domestic terrorism investigation since September 2019, which revealed that he was highly likely to be a homegrown violent extremist motivated by racial and anti-government sentiments associated with white supremacy. Undercover FBI sources contacted Wilson, who communicated that he had a desire to commit violent acts against minorities and US infrastructure to “kick start a revolution.” During the investigation, Wilson expressed the idea of using a vehicle borne IED to inflict “severe harm and mass casualties.”
On the 22nd of March, Wilson met with an undercover FBI agent, with whom he discussed plans to carry out a vehicle borne IED attack against a Kansas City area hospital, where patients were being treated for the COVID-19 virus. Wilson claimed that he wanted to exploit the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the increased media coverage of the health sector, for his attack. Wilson and the undercover agent conducted reconnaissance of the target hospital before Wilson brought the agent to a storage facility where he kept materials for constructing an IED. The agent took the materials under the guise that he would construct and deliver a truck bomb to Wilson on the day of the attack .
Los Angeles, California
On the 1st of April, authorities arrested an alleged anti-government conspiracy theorist for derailing a locomotive near the USNS Mercy in the Port of Los Angeles. The suspect worked as a rail engineer with the Port of Los Angeles and admitted to authorities that he intentionally caused the incident following his arrest. The USNS Mercy is a US Navy hospital ship currently treating COVID-19 patients at the Port of Los Angeles.
Eduardo Moreno, 44, is unlikely to be associated with any extremist or hate group but admitted to having anti-government views. In an initial interview with law enforcement, Moreno acknowledged that he caused the incident due to his suspicions that the USNS Mercy is stationed in the port for reasons other than the COVID-19 outbreak and is attempting to initiate a government takeover. Moreno also stated that he believed that extensive media attention surrounding the incident would shed light on his suspicions and inspire anti-government sentiments among the public. It's unlikely that Moreno pre-planned the attempted attack or acted in coordination with other individuals.
The attempted attacks by homegrown violent extremists in Missouri and California indicate that there'll likely be an elevated security risk to medical facilities for the duration of the COVID-19 lockdown as domestic terrorists seek to exploit the crisis. Other essential services, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, are also likely to experience this increased risk of being targeted by malicious actors.
The Belton plot indicates that extremists are possibly shifting their targets to conform with the COVID-19 lockdown. The closure of schools, places of worship, and many government buildings due to the pandemic has minimised the ability of extremists to inflict severe damage and maximise casualties in the locations that have been typically targeted by domestic terrorism plots in the past. This therefore narrows the number of attractive targets for terrorist attacks to locations that still have a high concentration of potential victims. However, maximum casualties are unlikely to be the only motivating factor for extremists in selecting a target.
There is also an increased probability of domestic terror attacks because global events are likely to influence actions taken by homegrown violent extremists. Extremists typically commit acts of violence in order to disseminate an ideological message, and they seek to maximize their audience by attacking high value targets. As the media continues to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, extremists are likely to perceive that the media will highlight any terrorist action associated with the virus and the ongoing lockdown. Therefore, they are more likely to select a target that they believe will generate the most public discussion at the time of the attack.
Violent attacks are not the only threat posed by homegrown violent extremists during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 1st of April DHS assessment reported that extremists are encouraging followers infected with Covid-19 to spread the virus to law enforcement and minority communities. Users on Telegrams specifically listed rabbi’s and business owners of Indian decent as ideal targets for infection. Although law enforcement is uncertain about the seriousness of these posts, as many are likely to be instances of online trolling, the possibility of such an attack cannot be ruled out.
In recent years, the US has faced an elevated threat of domestic terrorism because white supremacist terror is becoming transnational; this rising trend of international terror and a continuous growth in followers of white supremacist ideology in the US makes an attack during the COVID-19 pandemic ever more possible. This steadily rising threat is quickly becoming a priority for US law enforcement. During a February 2020 hearing, the FBI and DHS warned members of Congress about the increasing international threat of white supremacist terror and how extremist groups such as Atomwaffen, The Base, and Sonnenkrieg are becoming sophisticated in their online communications and messaging. These groups are thus able to share their ideology across borders and even coordinate potential attacks on online sources commonly used by white supremacists such as Telegram, 8chan, Stormfront, and Gab . Authorities warn that this technological sophistication puts the US “at the doorstep of another 9/11.”
Although domestic terror attacks from white supremacists and the far-right are the primary concern of US law enforcement, the incident in Los Angeles indicates an elevated possibility of anti-government extremists carrying out attacks; this possibility is further supported by the ongoing political demonstrations by small government advocates. The conspiracy theorist who initiated the attack against the USNS Mercy stated that he believes that the government is using the lockdown as an opportunity to expand its powers over society. Similar anti-government views are proliferating on social media and are increasingly being expressed during the anti-lockdown protests that have been occurring across the country since mid-April.
While most protesters are simply demanding that the government reopen the economy, some participants, such as gun rights and anti-vaccine advocates, are expressing concerns about losing civil liberties as a result of the lockdown. These demonstrations indicate that distrust of the government is rapidly growing among the public and that potential extremists are more willing to engage in anti-government political actions.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the leading scientists on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the virus will likely reemerge in late 2020; homegrown violent extremists are likely to see this potential reemergence as another opportunity to strike against medical facilities, supermarkets, and other essential services. If the virus re-emerges and the country experiences another economic shutdown, homegrown violent extremists are likely to enter this phase better prepared to carry out attacks than they were during the initial outbreak in the US.
Written by William Hewitson