Domestic security threats, a hot topic in the Sept. 29 Presidential debate, are issues New Jersey’s law enforcement officials were already preparing for.
In the portion about law enforcement, President Donald Trump declined to condemn white supremacy and right-wing extremist groups when offered the opportunity. After former Vice President Joe Biden named the far-right group Proud Boys as an organization to denounce, Trump did not do so and even suggested they be at the ready.
“Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” stated Trump. “But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this is not a right wing problem, this is a left wing (problem).”
The President later said F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray was “wrong” after Biden noted Wray viewed the radical left group Antifa as more of an idea than an organization and the greater domestic threat were from militias and right-wing extremists.
The action of domestic terrorists surrounding election results is one New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) officials raised in a recently released report.
Days before the debate, NJOHSP supplemental threat assessment warned of the numerous threats from domestic extremists and foreign adversaries expected to emerge surrounding the Nov. 3 elections as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. NJOHSP forecasted a variety of potential scenarios through 2020-2021 that could impact the future of the U.S.
Election Tipping Point
The threats will begin with the Presidential election in November “in a manner not previously experienced by our nation. Disinformation has played a vital role in the spread of inaccurate information regarding COVID-19, along with ongoing riots and alleged police brutality that have contributed to the civil unrest,” according NJOHSP director Jared Maples.
Maples wrote that “Since before the pandemic, the spread of falsehoods over the Internet has grown globally. Several near-peer competitor countries engage in these types of disinformation operations to undermine the United States’ credibility on a global front, as well as to induce political contention.”
Maples specifically cited China, Iran, and Russia as countries attempting to sow anti-US sentiments, resulting in NJOHSP increasing its efforts to combat these inaccuracies.
The agency has been focusing on issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic being a driving factor behind public health fears, political dissent, and cultural turmoil expected to impact the country through 2021. Seizing on this, domestic extremists and foreign terrorist organizations, along with China, Iran, and Russia will, are making effort to hinder economic recovery and vaccination efforts with disinformation distributed via social media, contributing to intensifying distrust in government, healthcare, and law enforcement.
The report states the threat of COVID-19 infection will alter the 2020 Presidential electoral process. Changes to voting procedures will lead to disputes or delayed election results. To further destabilize the U.S., nation-states will circulate propaganda to disparage the U.S. response and interfere in the election by criticizing both candidates.
Post-election, NJOHSP is getting prepared for unrest and political violence to occur in the wake of election results. Domestic extremists and foreign terrorist organizations will support protesters seeking to dismantle the electoral system by spreading theories about a rigged election, blame or attempt to recruit minorities, and inspire supporters to incite violence, necessitating law enforcement engagement.
The report states regional differences in response to anti-law enforcement sentiment will dominate the national landscape following the election and through 2021. Domestic extremists will continue to manipulate crises—spreading conspiracy theories and disinformation—to validate their ideologies and incite potential attackers.
Of most concern to the state’s homeland authorities is that domestic extremists—primarily anarchist, anti-government, and racially motivated groups like the Proud Boys—will continue to manipulate national incidents to further their agendas and remain a threat. These extremists will use the confluence of those factors to promote propaganda, encourage supporters to commit attacks, and create unrest in the United States.
Domestic extremists have encouraged supporters to conduct attacks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to NJOHSP officials. Racially motivated extremists have advocated chaos to accelerate their agenda to collapse society and cause racial segregation.
Supporters of these ideologies intend to use the Presidential election as an opportunity to spread extremist rhetoric online that promotes their ideologies, encourages election interference, and motivates followers to conduct violence regardless of which candidate is elected.
Extremists have and are expected to participate in election rallies and protests. Election result delays and recounts could result in protests and attempts to occupy election offices, similar to tactics used at state capitols during COVID-19 lockdowns.
The report explains right-wing extremists and militias will focus on publicly opposing Antifa-related groups, seeking confrontations resulting in street-level violence. Anarchist extremists will seek to injure law enforcement personnel, as well as conduct various forms of property damage, including arson, looting, and general vandalism.
NJOHSP cited incidents in Portland and Seattle, where various domestic extremist groups have contributed to protests and sporadic violence against law enforcement and the federal government since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. The sustained protests in these cities are being driven, in part, by strong anti-government and anti-law enforcement sentiment that makes up the local counterculture.
These domestic issues will allow foreign countries opportunities to expand disinformation campaigns to exacerbate domestic tensions and challenge US global credibility.
If this all sounds familiar, it is—this was the playbook that was used in the run up to the 2016 elections, seeking to polarize political beliefs to divide the United States. Efforts to delegitimize the elections and spread dissent among the electorate are expected to include inventing and circulating conspiracy theories about voter fraud, post office failures, ballot errors, miscounting, and criticism or support of frivolous lawsuits challenging the election.
As an example, Russia targeted the 2020 Democratic primaries, and internet security researchers indicated China-allied hackers engaged in spear-phishing attacks on American political targets ahead of the 2020 vote.
Russian disinformation strategies are currently exaggerating racial and political incidents to influence social discord, while Iran has publicly exploited U.S. domestic tensions to criticize its foreign policy. NJOHSP in its report believes incidents of civil unrest resulting in riots, violent acts, and fatalities will converge with election uncertainty, producing confrontations between protesters and counter-demonstrators challenging election outcomes.