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Heightened threat environment remains a year after Uvalde, DHS says

CBS News 5/24/2023 Nicole Sganga
uvalde.jpg © KCAL News uvalde.jpg

The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a year ago may have altered the conversation surrounding gun violence in the United States. But after 19 4th-grade students and two teachers died in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history, senior homeland security officials say they cannot point to "any dramatic change" in school safety or the threat landscape plaguing educational institutions. 

Schools still at risk from extremists

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a terror threat bulletin Wednesday warning that schools remain at risk of extremist violence, along with U.S. critical infrastructure, faith-based institutions, the LGBTQIA+ community, racial and ethnic minorities, government personnel and law enforcement. 

"It's just a statement of fact that schools continue to serve as potential targets for individuals who are motivated by a range of different grievances," a senior DHS official told CBS News during a briefing Wednesday. 

Assault-style weapons and greater lethality

Senior DHS officials draw a line between assault-style firearms and the lethality of mass attacks. "It's a continuing source of frustration to those of us who work on the targeted violence set of issues that we're not able to prevent these actors from gaining access to high-powered weaponry," said the homeland security official.

"Unfortunately, there is not a single thread … that runs through all of those grievance narratives," the official continued. "In some cases, it's not even clear that the school itself was actually tied to the person's ideological narrative or grievance." 

Online platforms continue to encourage copycat attacks

Last year, DHS issued a terror threat bulletin warning that online forums harboring domestic violent extremist content and conspiracy theories encouraged copycat attacks in the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting.

Now, analysts from DHS' Office of Intelligence & Analysis once more assess that domestic violent extremists continue to use online platforms to attempt to motivate supporters to conduct attacks, "including through violent extremist messaging." Intelligence officials also referenced this year's attack on The Covenant School, a Christian elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee, writing that investigators have "indicated the [gunman] studied other mass murderers."

Lone actor offenders part of "new normal"

Wednesday's latest terrorism advisory marked a shift into a "new normal," senior DHS officials said, outlining a "sustained and heightened threat environment" that is "tied to a range of lone actor offenders and small groups who are motivated in many cases by a range of different ideological beliefs." 

The public memo comes just days after a driver toting a Nazi flag crashed a U-Haul truck into security barriers across from the White House and weeks after an attacker — identified by law enforcement as having "neo-Nazi ideations" — shot and killed eight people at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas.

The gunman's online activity traced an apparent fascination with white supremacy, while photos he posted displayed large Nazi tattoos on his arm and torso, including a swastika and the SS lightning bolt logo of Hitler's paramilitary forces.

"The kind of neo-Nazi ideology that was displayed by the Allen, Texas attacker is something unfortunately, that we are seeing with greater frequency," a senior DHS official said, alluding to both domestic and international imagery. 

The bulletin indicates initial assessments by law enforcement show the gunman "fixated on mass shootings and held views consistent with racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and involuntary celibate violent extremist ideologies."

More audio narrations of neo-Nazi, extremist literature available

Another senior DHS official pointed to the increasing availability of audio narrations of neo-Nazi and extremist literature that "over the last few years, further got the word out in a more sophisticated, refined and perhaps more persuasive way." 

In the coming months, homeland security analysts warn in Wednesday's bulletin that several factors could mobilize individuals towards violence, including: "perceptions of the 2024 general election cycle and legislative or judicial decisions pertaining to sociopolitical issues."

Still, DHS senior officials acknowledge that the "extensive judicial process underway" in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on The U.S. Capitol has served to deter a large swath of the population from following suit. 

Analysts say ahead of the 2024 presidential election, they're on the lookout for online rhetoric that casts election outcomes in "apocalyptic terms."

"It's one thing to be engaged in political debate and disagreement," a senior DHS official said. "It's another thing if political activity is recast as existentially threatening to somebody or a community. And so if we see language like that routinely used that will heighten our concern about those kinds of attacks materializing."

The latest National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin expires on Nov. 24. 

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