DHS warns of copycat attacks after hostage standoff in Texas synagogue
▶ Watch Video: Texas synagogue hostages detail hours-long standoff from inside building
Washington — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a terror threat bulletin Monday warning that supporters of foreign terrorist organizations have encouraged copycat attacks following last month’s hostage standoff crisis at Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.
“The recent attack on a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas highlights the continuing threat of violence based upon racial or religious motivations, as well as threats against faith-based organizations,” the department cautioned in its latest National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletin.
The warning said that the “primary terrorism-related threat to the United States continues to stem from lone offenders or small cells of individuals” whose grievances are increasingly “cultivated through the consumption of certain online content.”
“Prior to the events in Colleyville, we were seeing a significant level of activity by media operations associated with al Qaeda and ISIS where they were seeking to inspire followers to conduct lone offender attacks in the U.S.,” a senior homeland security official told reporters during a briefing Monday. The official stressed that government analysts have observed a “greater level of specificity” in calls for targeted violence against faith-based institutions, government facilities and institutions of higher learning.
The official ticked off a list of possible threats: “Mass shootings, using vehicles, knife attacks.”
Following the Texas hostage standoff, homeland security analysts observed content by ISIS- and al Qaeda-aligned commentators pointing to Colleyville as a shining example of the types of attacks that should be carried out within the U.S. in support of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence in a federal prison in Texas for trying to kill U.S. officers in Afghanistan. The Colleyville gunman repeatedly demanded her release.
Senior homeland security officials also observed “reflections on white supremacist platforms where they were complimentary of the targeting of [Beth Israel] synagogue, but they noted that the hostage taker didn’t kill anybody,” raising concerns of even more lethal violence in the future.
The bulletin also follows a string of bomb threats against historically Black colleges and universities at the start of Black History Month, prompting shelter-in-place orders and canceled classes as authorities swept campuses looking for devices.
Monday’s terrorism advisory noted that “threats directed at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other colleges and universities, Jewish facilities, and churches cause concern and may inspire extremist threat actors to mobilize to violence.”
Violent extremists inspired by a range of grievances and ideologies continue to target crowded venues traditionally perceived to be soft targets, such as commercial and publicly accessible facilities, public gatherings, certain government and state facilities, and houses of worship, the advisory warned.
As FBI and federal law enforcement continue to investigate approximately a half-dozen persons of interest suspected of making the threats to HBCUs, officials underscored the rising challenge of encrypted communications used to disguise the source of threats online.
“We’re increasingly seeing the utilization of digital tools, technological tools, whether it’s encrypted communications, or in this case, potentially the use of technical capabilities. It’s a real challenge for law enforcement to stay ahead of those tools by threat actors,” the senior homeland security official added.
Recent threats directed against HBCUs dated back to December, according to another official, noting that “bomb threats did affect other entities and institutions.” DHS officials have not seen calls for “copycat attacks” following last week’s bomb threats, but vowed to “remain vigilant” in providing information to all of the impacted targets.
Recent threats directed at both places of worship and universities have also underscored homeland security officials’ calls for greater funding for a program that provides grants to nonprofits to help boost security.
“That program is referenced in this bulletin because it’s so critical to ensuring that nonprofits including faith-based organizations have the access to funding that they can use, for example, to invest in physical security enhancements,” the senior homeland security official told reporters Monday. “The synagogue in Colleyville, Texas that was unfortunately targeted, had in fact received one of these grants in a previous funding cycle.”
In the days following the hostages’ escape, leaders of the faith community have revisited calls to double funding for the security grant program from $180 million to $360 million. CBS News was the first to report on calls for greater funding by DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The House Homeland Security Committee is slated to host a hearing on the program on Tuesday featuring Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was among the hostages held by the Texas gunman.
Although U.S. officials have witnessed an increased level of specificity in calls to violence, as of Monday, DHS is not aware of any imminent and credible threat to a specific place within the homeland.
The new bulletin expands on an NTAS bulletin released in November that was set to expire on Tuesday.
And while the U.S. continues to face similar “conditions underlying the heightened threat landscape,” according to the bulletin, the environment has become increasingly volatile, unpredictable and complex in recent weeks.
“There are certain factors that are causing us more concern,” compared to three months ago, according to a senior homeland security official.
Yet officials stress that the federal law enforcement and intelligence communities are better equipped to deal with the threat compared to a year ago. “I don’t want anybody to be depressed after I go through the threat,” one official told reporters. “Because I think that while the threat is very serious, on the other hand, our efforts to deal with the threat are much improved.”
According to Monday’s bulletin, foreign terrorists have also consistently expressed a desire to stage retaliatory attacks on Americans following a counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria last week that led to the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who U.S. officials say blew himself up as troops closed in.
NTAS bulletins are designed to illustrate current developments or trends about terrorism threats to the public. But Monday’s advisory is not to be confused with an elevated alert, which informs law enforcement of a credible terrorism threat, or an imminent alert, which warns of a credible, specific and impending terrorism threat.
Wednesday’s NTAS bulletin remains in effect through June 7, 2022.