Posters are displayed as Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.,…
FILE - Posters are displayed as Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Vice Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., listen during a Senate Appropriations committee hearing on domestic extremism, May 12, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The easing of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic has U.S. counterterrorism officials holding their breath, worried an increasingly lax environment could make it easier for a variety of extremists to try to launch new attacks across the country.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued the updated alert Friday, warning the threats environment had grown “increasingly complex and volatile."

“Violent extremists may seek to exploit the easing of COVID-19-related restrictions across the United States to conduct attacks against a broader range of targets after previous public capacity limits reduced opportunities for lethal attacks,” according to the bulletin.

The alert does not cite any specific threats but notes that a range of ideologically motivated extremists – including those classified as Domestic Violent Extremist (DVE) and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) – have historically targeted houses of worship, crowded gatherings and government facilities.

It also warns that a range of extremists have continued to push out propaganda on a variety of online and social media sites, and that a growing number of online narratives are seeking to exploit “racial justice grievances and police use of force concerns."

Overseas actors

While some of the narratives are being pushed by homegrown actors, others are being pushed from overseas, both by terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida and by countries like Russia and China.

"We are advising the public to be vigilant about ongoing threats to the United States, including those posed by domestic terrorism, grievance-based violence, and those inspired or influenced by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in statement. “In this evolving threat environment, DHS is redoubling our efforts to detect and disrupt all forms of foreign and domestic terrorism and targeted violence, while safeguarding privacy protections, civil rights and civil liberties.”

The updated terror alert comes just days after DHS announced it had created a new unit tasked specifically with focusing on domestic violent extremism.

The unit, located within the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, aims to galvanize “the expertise necessary to produce the sound, timely intelligence needed to combat threats posed by domestic terrorism and targeted violence,” according to a statement by DHS this past Tuesday.

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Fears that the easing of COVID-19 restrictions could unleash a new spate of terrorist incidents is something some experts and analysts have been warning about for months.

“As much as we all want to get back to normal life, once we do there are vulnerabilities associated with that,” Colin Clarke, the director of policy and research at The Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy, told an online forum in February.

Fast start expected

“Once COVID restrictions start to become eased, and in some cases, lifted, we're going to see people shot right out of the cannon,” he said. “We're going to see the acceleration of networking, of recruitment, of fundraising and financing. And we're going to see once people start traveling in earnest again – that face-to-face kind of bonding.”

A previous DHS terrorism advisory, issued in January in the wake of the siege of the U.S. Capitol, warned that extremists motivated by “perceived grievances fueled by false narratives” could mobilize to incite or commit violence.

But while domestic terrorists have been getting more attention of late, a just-released intelligence assessment from the FBI and DHS shows the threat has been building steadily. 

The report, issued late Friday, said between fiscal 2015 and 2019, the FBI and partner agencies arrested 846 individuals on federal and state domestic terrorism charges. 

Fiscal 2016 saw the greatest number of arrests, with 229, of which 169 involved federal charges, though the report warned fiscal 2019, with only 107 arrests, was the deadliest. 

During fiscal 2019 there were five separate attacks by domestic violent extremists, resulting in 32 deaths, 24 of which occurred during attacks conducted by extremists advocating for the superiority of the white race, the report said, making it the deadliest year since 1995. 

It also warned that both the FBI and DHS concluded back in 2019 that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, "primarily those advocating for the superiority of the white race, likely would continue to be the most lethal DVE threat to the homeland."