The threat landscape has expanded and evolved across cyberspace, critical infrastructure, biological threats, and more as a dedicated team of security professionals across various agencies and disciplines confronts new threat actors, worsening natural disasters, immigration challenges, global instability, threats to election security, drug and human trafficking, and more. As we move further into 2023, Homeland Security Today asked our editorial leaders and experts to share their thoughts on security challenges in the year ahead.
Former Assistant Director for the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and leader of the National Risk Management Center; Senior Vice President for Critical Infrastructure at Exiger, LLC
Last Fall, I wrote about the need for a Homeland Security Risk Register given the range of strategic risks facing the homeland. In 2023, at the top of those risks is the linkage between mis-, dis-, and malinformation and domestic violent extremism. The fraying of the social compact in the United States, coupled with alternative views of accurate information and political tensions, has put the DVE threat at the highest level of the “homeland security era” and presents novel challenges to DHS and the homeland security enterprise. Combine this with access to weapons of mass harm, and you have a significant challenge for communities.
This threat of violence could manifest itself not only in tragedies such as what we have seen in communities around the country involving mass shootings – most recently Monterey Park – but also in renewed pursuit of higher-end weapons by extremists, to include novel explosives and incendiary devices and targeting of critical infrastructure to achieve political effects of targeting. The trending in this direction seems pretty clear at this stage.
Support for community-led engagements to reduce the threat of targeted violence is desperately needed to mitigate this risk; so, too, is enhanced soft- and hard-target protection efforts. Following on “The Twitter Files” there is also a need for a more transparent paradigm of government interaction with social media companies and accountability for promotion of violence. It’s hard to see Congress leading the way on reform but homeland security and law enforcement professionals need additional tools if they are going to keep communities and critical infrastructure secure.
Former Federal Emergency Management Administrator; Executive Chairman, Hagerty Consulting
Today, the threats we face are both natural and manmade and are increasing in complexity, frequency, and magnitude; and, unfortunately, no community is spared. While the prominence and professionalism of emergency management has also changed, the frequency of events has also rapidly expanded and stretched the collective capabilities of our industry and our partners. As our nation’s threat landscape continues to evolve, it begs the question whether the current Stafford Act framework for major disaster declarations and workforce levels will allow us to be successful in the future. A major concern is that while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is already overloaded by mother nature’s fury, the agency has also become responsible for responding to non-Stafford Act disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, to meet the challenges associated with this change, disaster preparedness, response, and recovery must be a shared responsibility – all levels of government, private industry, non-governmental/ nonprofit organizations, and the public all have a role to play to ensure we are ready for the next hazard we may face. Additionally, other federal government agencies should be equipped to handle the changing threat environment as well to reduce the continued reliance on FEMA.
The vulnerability of our nation’s infrastructure is also concerning to emergency managers. After a catastrophic incident, communities are often at risk of losing connectivity to critical infrastructure which serve as lifelines to the continuous operation of critical business and government functions that, if left inoperable, can jeopardize people’s safety and security. Once a severe disruption takes place, response personnel need to be able to identify the highest cross-sector priorities to allocate scarce personnel and resources. This prioritization effort is a shared responsibility between emergency managers and their critical infrastructure partners – public or private. This is particularly relevant when it comes to grid security and energy resilience. While many emergency managers and grid operators alike recognize that, during the response phase of a disaster, restoring power as soon as possible solves many problems across the other critical infrastructure sectors, both parties must continue to leverage existing tools and resources to better prepare for the next incident they may face.
Additionally, we think beyond natural disasters and into the manmade space with the very real threat of cybersecurity. If a catastrophic cyber incident were to take place, emergency managers would likely play an incident management role, but what would that role be? Additionally, if the damage to critical infrastructure from a cyber incident jeopardized life safety and security, would that rise to the level of a major disaster? These important questions must be considered as we look beyond the traditional scope of emergency management to address the issues threatening the greater security of our homeland.
Former Assistant Administrator for Security Operations and Head of Contracting Activity, Transportation Security Administration; Principal at The Chertoff Group
What should law enforcement, first responders, or others involved on the frontlines of homeland security be aware of? There’s a growing concern about the weaponization of critical infrastructure. We are seeing it with the electric grid attacks, as well as in water and pipeline infrastructure. In Africa and Europe, we’ve seen the weaponization of food supplies and that is something that could also happen domestically.
What is the No. 1 challenge before DHS as an agency? The hyperfocus on immigration is the immediate challenge at DHS and it distracts from the other important missions within the department.
While leadership continues to address immigration, they must also ensure that sister agencies remain in focus for budget and policy initiatives.
Processing the mass numbers of immigrants spreads Border Patrol agents thin and detracts from their ability to also interdict drug and human trafficking.
Former Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Administration and Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Senior Vice President and Director, National Resilience, Response, and Recovery Programs, GEI Consultants
Water Security: In America, we don’t think twice about turning on the faucet and having clean water pour out. We take for granted that we will wake up each day and have access to clean, fresh water. But Earth has a growing water problem. Nearly three-quarters of the planet’s surface is covered in water, but our water ecosystems are being challenged. The climate is changing, and weather patterns are becoming increasingly less predictable. The demand for water is increasing as population growth means a corresponding need for more food, more energy, and more industry. Some countries are placing a much- higher demand on water than others: the average American uses 156 gallons of water per day. In contrast, residents of Mali, Africa, use only three gallons a day.
Any day of the week, you can read about water stress in communities, big and small, across the United States. One state experiences flooding (too much water) while another area experiences drought (too little water). Some communities are subject to water rationing or have failing water infrastructure. Other areas are dealing with reduced energy production due to a lack of water. The demand for agriculture is increasing, but reduced irrigation threatens the crops. There is even a lack of access to clean water in some communities, which directly correlates to controlling the outbreak of disease. All of these issues continue to be more commonplace and troubling, highlighting how out-of-balance and vulnerable our water ecosystems have become.
If we don’t start making changes, we’ll find ourselves living under extreme water stress. While it might be hard to imagine what that means, you don’t need a crystal ball. To see what a community under these conditions looks like, we only need to look at North Africa or to the Middle East. In the ongoing conflicts of these regions, many disputes are tied to water access. If Americans want to avoid water stress and potential disputes, we need to do more to proactively regulate and promote policies that improve the management and conservation of water in the United States. Although the current administration has invested in water infrastructure improvement, it’s only a start. Water insecurity respects no border, physical or political. Attempting to isolate ourselves from this problem undercuts all resilience goals.
It’s imperative that we focus on minimizing both the social disruption the lack of water brings and water-related disasters, which come with predictable increased costs. Simply stated, water security cannot be ignored. It is fundamentally intertwined with human security.
Sandra L. Stosz
U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral (ret.), former Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, former Superintendent of the United States Coast Guard Academy
I work in the leadership space, and when asked about the biggest challenges confronting our nation, I think of those that require character-centered leadership to overcome. Heavy on my mind as we enter 2023 is the United States’ fading national identity.
Our nation is built upon a firm foundation of governing documents and institutions, and is held together by a strong national identity composed of inalienable rights and shared values. The Declaration of Independence, adopted in July 1776, promised Americans three inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In September, 1787, our Founding Fathers gave us the Constitution, thereafter supplemented by the Bill of Rights, which united the colonies and people of the new nation.
An Immigrant Nation
America is an immigrant nation, from the time the first people arrived on our shores from where humankind originated in the heart of Africa. The first European settlers fled religious and other oppression. In more modern times, immigrants from all over the world have landed on our shores by the millions, seeking a better life in a new and promising land. In the early 20th century, those arriving from Europe and beyond were greeted in New York Harbor by Lady Liberty. They put forth great effort to assimilate into their new homeland, learning the language and adapting to a new culture. They wanted to be Americans.
When America or her allies were threatened, Americans from all walks of life answered the call to serve their nation. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which precipitated U.S. engagement in World War II, and the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, which led to the Global War on Terrorism, are but two examples of Americans uniting around shared values and focused on a common purpose. On a more local level, Americans rallied to support each other during the natural disasters of recent years, and the COVID crisis. For most of our history, America has been strong because of our shared national identity.
The Decline of Civility
In more recent years, America has become ever more divided, with Americans becoming increasingly uncivil. A more diverse populace naturally results in a wider range of perspectives. But rather than respectfully seeking to understand those with differing views, people instead seek to undermine them. Instead of respectful debate, we’re devolving into disrespectful encounters, and that weakens us as a society.
A Call for Action
Diversity should be a strength, but for people with different views to get along, they must compromise. Compromise requires humility and respect. Those are powerful personal core values that can help us reunite our nation around our shared American values.
The world is a disrupted and dangerous place. We face global challenges such as climate change, conflict between nations, and human displacement. Now more than ever, our nation needs leaders of character, at all levels, who have the ability to unite Americans around a common purpose and shared values. Only with that kind of leadership will we be able to restore our national identity and be capable of doing our part to make our country and our world a safer place.
Former Acting Assistant Administrator for the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Office of Requirements and Capabilities Analysis; Executive Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group
Transportation security, and specifically aviation security, remains a daunting challenge for our national security leaders. The multitude of transportation modalities and systems around the country are, and need to be, accessible, easy to use, and efficient. Unfortunately, satisfying those three requirements can open the door for bad actors whose intent is to carry out heinous acts. The transportation and aviation security enterprise has worked hard over the past 20 years to ensure security mechanisms are in place to deter and defend against those bad actors. However, as we enter 2023, a number of challenges remain.
- Deploying the latest advancements in security technology across the transportation security enterprise while operating within a limited budget.
- Balancing the need to deploy the most effective biometric capabilities throughout the transportation security enterprise to verify and validate identities (travelers and transportation workers) and ultimately provide access, while also maintaining a person’s privacy needs.
- Addressing the security risks of an increasing level of unmanned aircraft operations in the airspace and developing effective detection capabilities and countermeasures to protect critical infrastructure from attacks through the use of drones.
- Developing more cost-effective and efficient ways to screen all inbound and outbound freight and cargo on international passenger and all-cargo aircraft.
- Improving coordination between federal, state, and local homeland security and law enforcement personnel, and among public and private stakeholders, to enhance public area security and effectively deter and respond to criminal and terrorist acts targeting public areas of transportation facilities.
- Enhancing the nation’s capabilities against cybersecurity threats to aircraft, air traffic control systems, and airports.
Founder and CEO, Narrative Strategies; Professor of Practice at the Center for the Future of War and Member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University
A dangerous by-product of a cultural assumption in the U.S. is the cognitive habit of categorizing. The habit is dangerous to defense and Homeland Security as the threats we face don’t easily fit into neat categories and we ought to abstain from trying to squish them in. Domestic and transnational are antiquated categories to impose upon terroristic acts and recruitment. And while the weight of our national security priorities has now shifted to great power competition, a categorical distinction between great power competition and terrorism are anachronisms as well. Our adversaries don’t make those distinctions. Nor should we.
Great powers use terrorism as a tool to serve their foreign policy and have even crossed the borders of the U.S. to dispatch their critics on American soil. Is that domestic or foreign?
Groups like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda are busy recruiting audiences across borders and they are often state-sponsored – major and minor. Decapitation hasn’t proven effective in undermining these groups. At best it has slowed them by a few weeks while they continue to inspire support even from civilians even on U.S. soil. We cannot continue to consider these and groups like them regional threats. Among the third- and fourth-order effects they are causing is the displacement of large populations, which in turn results in destabilization across borders.
Retired Charlottesville, Va., Fire Chief; Director of DroneResponders Public Safety Alliance and Chair of the National Council on Public Safety UAS
First, drones are one of the big challenges ahead. From the experiences within the United States and abroad. Drones have become an effective tool to drop contraband into prisons, carry drugs and explosives, support illegal entry across borders, interfere with law enforcement operations and even aid in the escape from a prison. The use of commercial off-the-shelf drones used in the Ukraine war has demonstrated how effective drones can be used as a threat. This problem is compounded by the indecision by Congress to extend the detect-and-mitigate authorities to state and local law enforcement and the private sector.
Cybersecurity will remain a major concern from the threat of hacking critical infrastructure/systems, electric grid and vulnerability to all companies from ransomware. The biggest and hardest factor to overcome is the vulnerability from people being lazy and not following cybersecurity procedures. Human behavior is the hardest thing to change.
The scariest challenge ahead comes from the breakdown of the legal system. Cashless bail creates a revolving door of offenders, often violent. The blindness to shoplifting, allowance of smash and grabs and unwillingness to prosecute will continue to promote chaos and deterioration of big cities. The attack on law enforcement officers with a 34 percent increase in officers killed. The removal of liability protection rights for law enforcement, cashless bail and defunding police will continue to drive police staffing shortages resulting in increased crime. The massive influx of illegal border crossings overwhelm Customs and Border Patrol and law enforcement in border states, the increase in fentanyl across the border killing 100,000 people/year in the U.S. and the devastation from human trafficking.
Former Chief Information Officer for the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) Office
Quantum Computing: A new year, a new era of challenges for those responsible for safeguarding our assets and protecting our communities. The persistent and rapidly evolving cyber threat landscape for 2023 and beyond will be fueled by new technological advances and discoveries in 2022. Current efforts to improve AI that can autonomously detect and respond to cyber threats may not be enough to keep out sponsored nation-state actors using quantum computing. Quantum computing has the potential of pioneering more unique and innovative methods of attacking our networks.
Ransomware: At the end of 2022 there was a noticeable shift in how cyber criminals are executing ransomware attacks. Cyber criminals are shifting away from the traditional encryption jail to the more direct approach of data deletion threats. Technological advances have equipped us with the ability to quickly thwart cyber ransomware attacks; however, cyber criminals pivoted very quickly and are trying a more forceful approach to meeting their demands by threatening to destroy data. Given current global financial instability and layoffs, I think we will see a rise in ransomware attacks, which may include more attacks on bigger targets such as power grids and water supplies.
Lieutenant (Retired), Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department; Instructor, Safe Communities Institute, University of Southern California
The threat envelope for 2023 is diverse and complex. Four major themes — Division, Disinformation, Disorder, and Convergence — dominate the current and emerging security horizon. All of these themes are multi-dimensional and demand whole-of-society approaches since government action is not enough to stabilize the threat potentials. These potentials may present themselves in a range of scenarios, some familiar and some novel. Hybrid threats and action by foreign powers including Russia and China exploit and exacerbate these risks. Division includes the extreme political polarization resulting in enmity and challenges to political institutions and the rule of law. Identity politics and cultural wars have become means of dividing the nation into competing factions. Internal division expresses itself through dysfunctional politics and drives political violence. This threat became a reality with the January 6, 2021, insurrection and the 2020 plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, as well as attacks on members of Congress and local politicians. Societal division also includes extreme reaction on abortion, LGBTQ issues, COVID-19 response, and climate change.
Disinformation including propaganda, the promulgation of “fake news,” and conspiracy theories, such a QAnon, over social media amplifies societal division to fuel disorder. This disruption of social integrity is increasingly part of a global ecosystem as seen in suspected links between the January 6, 2021, conspiracy and the assault on Brazil’s presidential palace, supreme court and legislature on January 8, 2013. Disorder ranges from subverting legitimate political dissent to suborning sedition and political violence by armed groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Domestic violent extremism potentials including terrorism is on the rise. Currently, the extreme right is responsible for most of these acts, but the extreme left and single-issue groups can be expected to join the fray. This will be complicated by sympathizers with key security agencies demanding enhanced counterintelligence capacity.
Convergence is the final theme. It connects the previous four with other geosocial and technological trends. The Ukraine War exposes the potential for weaponized artisanal drones to become key factors in combat. Transnational criminals including Mexican cartels and Brazilian gangs have also embraced drones. Drone swarms exploiting revolutions in artificial intelligence (AI) may become a near-term realty threatening battlefield and critical infrastructure alike. The Ukraine War also exposed the potential for Russian-sponsored terrorism, including links between Russian hybrid warfare and global right-wing extremists. The use of Chinese Overseas Police Stations throughout the world demonstrates another thread of influence operations challenging human rights and illustrating the hybrid dimension of great power competition. Add to these the threats and opportunities provided by the emerging AI revolution, quantum computing, synthetic biology, increased embrace of cybercrime transnational organized crime, and the stresses from climate change. Threat convergence remains a major theme for 2023. Convergence among actors — criminals and states — is joined by the convergence of physical and cyberspace and traditional and emerging threats. This convergence presents the potential for ‘polycrisis’ where several converging crises within multiple global systems challenge response. Failure to anticipate or mitigate interconnected risks could drive conflict up to and including international armed conflict. Criminal enterprises can be expected to exploit the seams between intergovernmental and societal response. Anticipatory intelligence and collaborative, adaptive response are needed to address these potentials.
Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University
Global terrorism has been listed as one of the top security issues since the September 11 attacks, and the U.S. approach against it has received criticism for being overfocused on terrorism and not giving sufficient attention to the expansion of Russia and China’s influence worldwide. On the other hand, the most recent common approach suggests jihadist groups are confined to their origin countries and are incapable of conducting attacks targeting the western world. However, the activities of jihadist terrorist groups and far-right extremists in 2022 indicated that the U.S. should continue to give its serious approach to counterterrorism. These groups again have the capacity to attack western countries. For example, ISIS-Core in Syria and Iraq and its regional affiliates, such as ISIS-K in Afghanistan, ISIS-GS in the Sahel, and ISIS-West Africa in the Chad Basin, were the perpetrators of thousands of attacks targeting the United Nations missions, state institutions, military, and law enforcement in 2022. Correspondingly, al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups were actively involved in terrorist attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria. In addition, they have extended their influence to the neighboring countries of the Sahel region. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda lost their leaders in military operations in 2022, but it made a limited impact on their capacities. Therefore, 2023 will continue to record violent acts by ISIS and al-Qaeda groups worldwide.
The Biden administration prioritizes promoting democracy worldwide and emphasizes how critical it is to tackle regional and global corruption. As specified in the dirty entanglement theory of Dr. Louise Shelley, crime, corruption, and terrorism are entangled, meaning that corruption facilitates terrorism, and terrorist groups are involved in criminal activities to generate revenue and fund their activities. Countries with the most terrorist attacks and the highest corruption perfectly match each other. Corrupt and non-democratic regimes in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia will continue to harbor these jihadist groups, and it is crucial for the U.S. government to approach terrorism in the context of dirty entanglement theory, which will effectively impact the war against global terrorism.
Self-radicalization has been another issue in the western world. In addition to American- or European-born individuals under the influence of radicalizing effects of Salafi jihadism, far-right ideologies based on conspiracy theories and the superiority of a specific ethnicity or race have been influential in the West. These groups that emulate the jihadist groups’ modus operandi are globally networked and capable of targeting their scapegoated “enemies” as well as the government. Self-radicalized individuals will actively be on the stage in 2023.
Lastly, the world has seen a new way of seeking international influence. Intelligence groups actively involved in politics and serving their governments’ interests during the Cold War have been replaced by so-called private armies operating for today’s authoritarian regimes. Turkey’s SADAT and Russia’s Wagner Groups are two organizations in this context. The Wagner Group is already active in more than 12 countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa. It seems to be providing security for the local governments in these regions but is serving the interests of the Russian government. In 2023, the Wagner Group will continue its activities and aim to expand its influence in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The group, due to its ongoing activities and threat, may end up in the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations List.
Vice President at Narrative Strategies; expert in non-kinetic aspects of conflict
One of our most significant threat streams for the coming few years is the nexus between our most dangerous form of U.S. domestic extremism and its global movement, often hailing from Putin and related far-right partners. Over the past few years, and due to ignoring this threat stream during the generation we spent operating against a global wave of Islamic extremism and similar efforts, RWE/Right-Wing-Extremism has become our primary and most lethal domestic terror threat.
Far-right movements globally have clearly demonstrated their synchronicity of tactics, messaging and sustainability. This threat is significantly higher to the unity of the RBIO/Rules-based, International Order that has played such a powerful role in supporting Ukraine’s defense. Blending similar issues to RWE, like authoritarianism, dictatorship, despotism, populism and rabid nationalism, only compounds the threat to U.S. progress toward achieving the objectives in our NSS/National Security Strategy.
At some point, the U.S. must address this issue resolutely or risk global, collective security, which also plays such a significant role in U.S. national security. We can no longer afford to ignore this threat as being “too political.” It must be treated with the same focus as the generation the world collaborated on Islamic extremism.
Expert on the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Movement, research fellow, and a member of the Advisory Board of EU Modern Diplomacy
Forecasting the threat of Islamic violent extremism and terrorism against the United States for the year ahead is a thankless task when, on the background of a bloody war on Ukraine, Moscow is trying to exploit the Islamic religion to build up its aggressive propaganda in order to damage democratic values and the security of the U.S. and the West as a whole.
Regarding the threat of the global Salafi-Jihadi terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, these challenges will persist and develop depending on the political and economic crises and instability in the regions of their presence. Despite losing their leaders last year, both transnational Sunni jihadi groups, which see the U.S. as their “main enemy and great evil,” will seek every opportunity to launch terror attacks against U.S. interests overseas and its strategic allies in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the African continent.
However, as an expert, I would like to draw DHS’ attention to how Putin’s unprovoked, brutal and unjustified attack and full invasion of Ukraine is creating the foundation of a future threat of Islamist extremism against the U.S. and the EU. Russian top officials from Putin to his Chechen “foot soldier” Ramzan Kadyrov are deliberately spreading anti-American narratives and distorted Islamic thoughts, deliberately inciting religious hatred and anti-Western enmity among the Muslim population of the North Caucasus and Central Russia. This is a very dangerous direction because Russia’s propaganda uses the Islamic religion as a political tool against its Western competitors, which over time can radicalize and transform into a terrorist threat.
For instance, following the bloody invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin amplified conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for inciting the Russia-Ukraine crisis and claiming the U.S. produced biological weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Georgia that could be used against the Slavic population of Russia.
The Muslim republics of Russia, such as Dagestan, Chechnya, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, as well as the Central Spiritual Muslim Board of Russia, in accordance with the Kremlin’s religious strategy, adopted fatwa (decree by an Islamic religious leader) on “holy jihad” in Ukraine, inciting anti-Western religious hatred. Justifying Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, the fatwas portrayed the U.S. as “Iblis’ henchman” (devils in Islamic mythology) and accused them of aiding Ukrainian terrorism, international injustice, perverted depravity, and attempts to destroy Islamic identity and Muslim family values.
Thus, Russia instills in the Muslim population of the post-Soviet space a sense of religious hatred toward the U.S., which in the future, under favorable circumstances, may move from propaganda to practical actions. Theologically defining Putin’s war in Ukraine as a “holy jihad” and the Muslims killed in it as “Shaheed” (martyr), the Grand Muftis of the Russian regions not only justify the bloodiest war of the 21st century but also push the country’s 20 million Muslim population onto the path of religious radicalism.
While ISIS radical Salafists issue takfir (excommunication) to “protect the purity of Islam,” pro-Kremlin muftis have adopted anti-Ukraine and anti-U.S. fatwas on holy jihad in the name of Islam. In this way, Russia is sowing the seeds of anti-American religious hatred, the fruits of which will ripen in the not-too-distant future.
It is quite possible that all these conspiracy theories, Islamic fatwas, and anti-American narratives of Russian propaganda could be used to commit violence against U.S. citizens and its democratic institutions.
Anti-American Khutbah (sermon) speeches of pro-Putin imams and religious clerics may inspire lone-wolf terrorists in the West. It should be expected that the more the Russian economy cracks under the weight of Western sanctions in circumstances of international isolation and the slippage of its so-called “special operation to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine,” the more desperately it will try to exploit the Islamic factor against the U.S.
In this way, Russia unwittingly begins to copy the bitter experience of Iran, which at the state level uses Islam for political purposes to incite anti-American hatred among its supporters and religious radicals. The modern history of the Islamic Republic shows that the use of Islam for political purposes is always fraught with grave consequences, which will push its followers to violent actions and lone-wolf attacks.
It should not be forgotten that lone wolves among post-Soviet immigrants, inspired by violent Salafi-Jihadi ideology but having no specific ties to global terrorist groups (financial, operational, or other specific tasks), carried out high-profile terror attacks in the U.S.:
- The Boston Marathon bombing was carried out by brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from Kyrgyzstan on April 15, 2013.
- A domestic terrorist attack committed by a migrant from Uzbekistan, Sayfullo Saipov, in New York, killed 8 civilians on 31 October 2017;
- Another Uzbek migrant, Ulugbek Kodirov, tried to kill even President Barack Obama in July 2011 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
- More than a dozen Uzbek migrants were charged with the attempt to provide material support to ISIS between 2012 and 2016 in the U.S., which is evidence of the growing lone-wolves among immigrants from Central Asia.
In conclusion, Russia’s exploit of anti-American religious hatred in its asymmetric warfare against the West to inflict damage could have far-reaching consequences, from which it will suffer first. Either way, the U.S. must be ready to respond to any challenges from the direct threat of transnational Salafi-Jihadi terrorism to its sleeping lone wolves at home.
Co-founder and Director of the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute
Trevor Bickford, 19, of Maine is currently facing federal charges for attacking NYPD officials in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Preliminary investigations revealed Bickford became radicalized as recently as a month prior to the attack. He did not appear to be affiliated with any movement or terrorist group. He allegedly remained on the FBI terrorist watchlist after being tipped off by his family members about his militant jihadi viewpoints and the desire to join the Taliban in Afghanistan. The pattern of stalking and attacking law enforcement among those espousing jihadi aspirations in some form or capacity is not confined to this particular attack. The cases of Fareed Mumuni, Awaid Chudhary, Dzenan Camovic, and Xavier Pelkey in recent years come to mind.
Plausible explanations of the recent activities by homegrown wannabe jihadis are not confined to a single-factor explanation. Tendency and willingness to carry out terrorist attacks among those willing but unable to travel to conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan remains a relatively under-researched phenomenon. At least in the case of Bickford — and perhaps several others mentioned above — the extent to which the frustration over inability to travel to conflict zones may have strengthened their extremist inclinations, potentially leading to violence at home, warrants further scrutiny. Additionally, vast swaths of IS and al-Qaeda-friendly territories in Africa — that seem to compensate for the loss of physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq — and the Taliban’s rapid conquest and expansion may have likely contributed to the perception among some of the reemergence and revitalization of militant jihadi agenda and prowess worldwide. Neither the allure of territorial holdings nor a direct tie with a terrorist group in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan is perceived as necessary to engage in terrorist activities at home. In other instances, vulnerable cohorts include individuals who do not hold any ideology, or hold multiple ideologies (e.g., racially or politically motivated), and are simply driven by obsessions and impulses of violence.
The incessant surge of terrorist group propaganda inciting violence remains dangerous and detrimental, particularly in the context of individuals with complex needs and motivations. Terrorist groups like IS (IS-associated) and al- Qaeda (al-Qaeda associated) continue to share officially labeled or officially branded propaganda material. Websites and social media platforms operated by such groups remain widespread and unbridled, despite take-down efforts by governments and social media companies (See below).
Note: Over 50 Websites/Repositories/Telegram channels associated with IS, al Qaeda discovered. Info withheld.
Source: ACTRI & Storyzy
Technologies used by such groups are often deemed “basic” (e.g., bots) and generally serve as repositories of terrorist content on social media platforms. Complementary to law enforcement and intelligence-led efforts, monitoring of social media channels for terrorist content is necessary to discern current trends in the spread of terrorist content online and to understand the extent to which technologies exploited by such groups will likely remain powerful in influencing users towards a certain direction and affect the trendiness of a terrorist group messaging both online and offline.
Our communities have also become alert to the spread of disinformation by state actors like China and Russia. The disinformation campaigns dubbed “digital battlefield” by the Kremlin have proven crucial in its effort to speed up propaganda across foreign and domestic media outlets, ramped up by the digital technologies designed to facilitate the flow of information through a network of traditional media, social media channels (e.g., Telegram), sock-puppets, and fake accounts. As the Kremlin-sponsored news outlets and social media continue to lose steam in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine information warfare in part due to shut down efforts by governments and social media companies, their disinformation campaigns continue to target pro-Russia audiences in Russia, the Russian speaking diaspora, and the West.
The Kremlin’s disinformation ecosystem has become highly adaptive to the global information landscape, manifesting through smear media operations, covert and overt proxy media outlets. Case in point, created on February 24, 2022, a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel “Война с фейками” (“War on Fakes”) we too monitor at our center, has, as of January 16, 2023, amassed 765K-plus subscribers, with a weekly average post reach of 140K-plus. Its content is circulated and/or shared by 7K-plus Telegram channels. With its predominantly English- and Russian-language publications (website included), the channel generates significant amounts of propagandistic content, amplified by pro-Kremlin journalists, major pro-Russian media outlets and news agencies like RT, Tass News Agency, and RIA Novosti, and the Russian Foreign Ministry, among others. A January 14 post (“fact-checking,” real-time trope) addressing the Russian Armed Forces’ hit of a residential building in the Dnieper generated over 630K views and 10K-plus forwards and shares, respectively, and the engagement with the content keeps on growing as we speak.
Source: ACTRI, TGStat
Formally run and orchestrated disinformation campaigns particularly by state actors like China and Russia are becoming a norm. Governments and social media companies continue to demonstrate resolve in both exposing disinformation and building prevention capacities and long-term resilience to it. These promising measures and interventions must also account for complex hybrid traditional and social media environments, rapidly changing internet infrastructure, ever shifting user behavior online, and regulatory actions that often lag vis-a-vis fluid technological changes and transformations. Disinformation discernment and its impact among the general public also calls for concerted government, social media, and academia efforts to better understand and ultimately overcome “definitional, methodological, and stewardship” challenges associated with the expansion and propagation of disinformation.