U.S. officials are warning of a "high risk" from domestic and foreign terrorists for the coming year, part of a new threat assessment released Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security.
The report points to the prevalence of conspiracy theories, personal grievances and what it describes as "enduring racial, ethnic, religious, and anti-government ideologies," often shared in online forums, all serving to motivate small groups and individuals within the U.S.
It also warns that prominent foreign terror groups, like al-Qaida and the Islamic State, are actively seeking to rebuild their brands and will be looking to inspire followers to carry out acts of violence.
"Foreign terrorists continue to engage with supporters online to solicit funds, create and share media, and encourage attacks," according to the 2024 Homeland Threat Assessment, calling out the Islamic State's Afghan affiliate, also known as IS-Khorasan or ISIS-K.
IS-Khorasan "has garnered more prominence through a spate of high-casualty attacks overseas and English‐language media releases that aim to globalize the group's local grievances among Western audiences," the report says.
Additionally, the new assessment warns that foreign terrorists appear to be probing the U.S. for soft spots.
"Individuals with terrorism connections are interested in using established travel routes and permissive environments to facilitate access to the United States," it says.
The latest assessment is largely consistent with a National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin that DHS issued in May, when it warned the U.S. was stuck in a "heightened threat environment."
But the warnings about IS-Khorasan and potential attempts by foreign terrorists to infiltrate the U.S. stand out in the wake of recent statements by DHS officials and those from other U.S. agencies that seemingly sought to reassure Americans about their safety.
In March, for example, DHS counterterrorism coordinator Nicholas Rasmussen said the possibility of an attack resembling the one on Sept. 11, 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four aircraft and killed nearly 3,000 people, was "almost inconceivable."
"We have achieved what I would call [a] suppressive effect on the ability of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida to carry out large-scale attacks here in the homeland," Rasmussen said at the time, using an acronym for Islamic State.
And Monday, on the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack, National Counterterrorism Center Director Christy Abizaid said al-Qaida in Afghanistan is practically dead.
"Its revival is unlikely," she said. "It has lost target access, leadership talent, group cohesion, rank-and-file commitment, and an accommodating local environment."
Other U.S. officials have cautioned that while groups like al-Qaida are unlikely to be capable of carrying out what they describe as spectacular attacks, it is difficult to eliminate the threat of attacks from followers inspired by their propaganda or attacks carried out with minimal direction from a terrorist operative working online.
The biggest danger, according to the new report, is "marked by lone offenders or small group attacks that occur with little warning."
Homeland Security officials also argue that while the number of encounters with individuals on the department's Terrorist Screening Data Set trying to cross into the U.S. has been increasing, it is still rare, and comes as the overall number of encounters at the border has been rising.
"These encounters represent significantly less than 0.01% of total encounters per fiscal year in recent years," a DHS official told VOA, agreeing to share the data only on the condition of anonymity.
"These encounters may include individuals who are not known or suspected terrorists, such as encounters with family members of a [known and suspected terrorist]," the official added. "We work closely with our interagency and international partners to detect and prevent people who pose national security or public safety risks from entering the United States, often receiving intelligence before they attempt to enter the United States."
Some U.S. lawmakers have voiced growing concern, especially after an August report by CNN that more than a dozen migrants from Uzbekistan traveled to the U.S. southern border to seek asylum with the help of a smuggler connected to IS.
"Just when it seems President Biden's border crisis can't get any worse, it does," said Republican Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement last month.
"The federal government is now scrambling to find individuals who traveled and entered the U.S. with help from an ISIS-linked smuggler," McCaul added. "It is way past time for this administration to secure the border and protect Americans from criminals and terrorists seeking to do us harm."
In addition to the threat from domestic and foreign terrorists, the latest DHS assessment renews the department's warning about Iran.
"Among state actors, we expect Iran to remain the primary sponsor of terrorism and continue its efforts to advance plots against individuals in the United States," the DHS assessment said.
"Iran relies on individuals with pre-existing access to the United States for surveillance and lethal plotting — using dual nationals, members of criminal networks, and private investigators — and has attempted plots that do not require international travel for operatives," the report added.
FBI officials warned in April that Iran, along with China, has been ramping up operations to target individuals on U.S. soil.
Some of Iran's attempts have made headlines, including multiple plots targeting Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American human rights activist and VOA Persian TV host.
In a separate plot last year, U.S. prosecutors charged a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a murder-for-hire plot targeting former U.S. national security adviser Ambassador John Bolton.