In retrospect, 2020 is critical year for the US in terms of national security lessons. One of the most important take-aways is certainly the importance of agility when dealing with multiple threats at the same time. America faced political turmoil and violence in the streets, as well as the destruction of government infrastructure. And let’s not forget the global pandemic. In the aftermath of 2020, we are left wondering is the US now more susceptible to threats from terrorism and Homeland Security warned us of certain trends.
We need to point out that homeland security is not the same thing as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). However, DHS is the United States’ premier institution for combatting terrorism and other threats to homeland security.
It’s also worth noting that as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, he did not have a single member of his cabinet confirmed by the Senate. This includes his pick for the Homeland Security director – Alejandro Mayorkas. Coincidentally, his candidate spoke before the Senate about cybersecurity, terrorism and Homeland Security.
“The Department of Homeland Security plays a leadership role in the collection of information with respect to the domestic and foreign terrorist threat and the dissemination of that information. I think that we can do a lot better in the distribution of that information to our brave first responders in local communities throughout our country,” Mayorkas said.
However, his replies did not seem to satisfy everyone. Republican Senator Hawley blocked quick consideration of Biden’s Homeland Security nominee.
This left the third-largest US federal department without confirmed leadership as it faces national security concerns, a pandemic and an incoming president prepared to roll out ambitious immigration plans.
Black Swans, Terrorism and Homeland Security
The US Department of Homeland Security arose in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Twenty years ago, the United States were shaken to its very core when terrorists hijacked 4 planes. Three flew into buildings, one into the ground – thousands died.
In fact, homeland security became a national focus following these attacks. Making sure that such an incident never happens again is a foundational truth of DHS.
The National Strategy For Homeland Security tells us that homeland security is a concerted national effort to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage and recover from attacks that occur.
Today, the COVID-19 global pandemic reveals a number of avenues for new threats to manifest. In turn, this emphasizes the need for security professionals, as well as entities to adapt to the new threat landscape.
However, since possibility does not imply likelihood, questions arrise whether the changes in the threat landscape actually represent realistic challenges?
Here is where black swans enter the equation.
Black swan is a term coined by the philosophically-inclined economist Nassim Taleb. It describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
The 9/11 attack is a black swan in its own right. Had they been asked on September 8 2001, most security professionals would argue against the possibility of terrorist hijacking planes and crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
And yet here we are…
ISIS and al-Qaeda
With recruiters and propaganda artists still very active online, ISIS is still a threat to homeland security. A threat that is constantly evolving and increasing its following across the globe. The terror group still publishes their weekly newsletter called al-Naba, reaching out to English-speaking audiences.
To make matters worse, we now have to deal with the concept of a borderless jihad, thanks to the dealings of this insidious organization.
At the same time, Afghan officials report that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are as close as ever, and still hell-bent on bringing “American crusaders” down to their knees. However, al-Qaeda as of recent sees France as its main target.
Lone Actors Self-Radicalizing Online
In September 2020, the Director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, warned that the most significant threat the US faces domestically are individuals who turn to extremism online and take advantage of readily available weapons.
“We assess that the greatest threat to the homeland, to us here domestically, is not one organization, certainly not one ideology, but rather lone actors largely self-radicalized online who pursue soft targets using readily accessible weapons. Those include both domestic violent extremists of a variety of sorts, as well as homegrown violent extremists who are motivated by foreign jihadist type sources,“ Wray said.
Thus, 2021 could bring about a shift, not just who is conducting the attacks, but how they commit them. Calls by extremists for more “revolutionary” attacks could bring about large incidents as a show of strength.
Attacks on Religious Institutions
Its common knowledge that there is more violence against religious institutions in America over te recent years. Attacks on houses of worship, leaving their congregants injured – and often dead.
Remember the machete attack during Hanukah celebrations in New York or the shooting at a Texas church?
COVID-19 left its mark on the religious observances of most individuals. This left many pews empty, not alleviating the threat of attacks. This is because attacks against religious institutions have a very special status and meaning to extremist.
They inspire awe in the attackers’ communities and give symbolic value.
Conspiracy Theory Extremism
During last year, we saw a huge number of conspiracy theories rise to fill the vacuum created by political and COVID-19-inspired upheaval. They had a devastating impact on public life, encouraging individuals to disregard health-precautions, attack law enforcement and storm government buildings.
Deep-state conspiracies, 5G or population replacement theories pushed by white supremacists caused had a worrying impact on public opinion. Due to their effects, we saw maskless protestors endangering store workers and patrons. We even saw people spitting on emergency workers and police officers, screaming conspiracy to justify their behavior.
Homeland Security Magazine warns that 2021 might carry risk of attacks by anti-vaccination individuals and groups. Reportedly, they could target inoculation sites such as drugstores, government offices and healthcare facilities that are instrumental in combating COVID-19.
Terrorism as a global trend is experiencing a resurgence in the aftermath of the crisis caused by the pandemic. In 2021, we will see rise in risk levels because of the opportunities created by COVID-19. Terrorism and homeland security might become words we hear frequently over the coming year.
Government and private entities need to have to create fitting counterterrorism strategies, despite the challenges they face. They need to adapt to new concerns and realities, and overcome evolving tactics and growing extremist groups.