Ongoing efforts by foreign intelligence services and global terrorist organizations to seed the United States with disinformation appear to be working, raising new fears of a terrorist attack in the coming weeks, according to a senior Homeland Security official.
The warning, while largely consistent with the department’s most recent anti-terrorism bulletin issued in November, comes as the country prepares for the Christmas holiday and New Year celebrations, along with the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.
“The threat is more volatile,” John Cohen, the senior most official at DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, told a virtual forum Wednesday.
“We’ve made progress. We’re continuing to make progress on a day-to-day basis,” Cohen added. “But we still have a ways to go.”
November’s anti-terrorism bulletin warned that the U.S. was facing “a significant threat” from domestic extremists for the remainder of 2021 and extending into early 2022.
But Cohen told the forum, hosted by the George Washington University Program on Extremism, the risks have become more unpredictable due to “a significant level of activity by foreign intelligence organizations,” many gaining traction with unrelenting disinformation campaigns that he described as both persistent and highly sophisticated.
“What makes the environment more volatile, from my perspective, is that the narratives that are being promoted by these threat actors are rapidly finding their way into the mainstream media ecosystem where they’re being amplified by public figures, in the media, in government,” he said.
“Their objective may be political or ratings-based,” Cohen said. “But in the current threat environment, the broader that these narratives are shared and spread, the higher the likelihood that they will be consumed by an individual who will use it as a justification for violence.”
This is not the first time Cohen has warned about the dangers of disinformation from foreign intelligence services and terror groups. Nor is he alone in his concerns.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas warned Tuesday of “serious and significant” ramifications from the spread of disinformation.
“False narratives present a threat to our security,” Mayorkas said during the Bloomberg Technology Forum. “We need our leaders to step up and fight against it because the words of leaders, they matter quite a bit. They can be very influential in the public discourse.”
Former intelligence officials and analysts have told VOA the groundwork for the latest destabilizing efforts was laid before the 2020 election, with Russia in particular finding ways to ingratiate a stable of influence peddlers to U.S. audiences on the far right and the far left.
“Generally speaking, getting Kremlin- or Beijing-friendly narratives to be repeated by mainstream outlets is the ultimate end goal of those running malign influence campaigns,” Bret Schafer, a digital disinformation fellow with the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, told VOA via email.
“It’s far more effective to have messages come from known and trusted sources within a society than from without, so influential figures and outlets have long been targeted by those seeking to influence American public opinion,” he added.
U.S. officials believe Iran and China have copied the Russian playbook, with varying degrees of success.
This past July, social media giant Facebook announced it took down an Iranian campaign known as Tortoiseshell, which aimed to manipulate American military personnel and defense contractors on social media.
That effort by Tehran followed an email campaign launched just ahead of the U.S. 2020 elections aimed at intimidating U.S. voters.
And as far back as March 2020, senior State Department officials said Russia, China and Iran were finding ways to amplify each other’s disinformation campaigns regarding the origins and the spread of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
According to U.S. officials and analysts, these sorts of efforts have only continued to gain in popularity, with a variety of adversaries focused on using many of those same issues to reach and possibly influence vulnerable Americans.
“The first part is, can you rally an audience to do something awful or change a vote or that sort of thing, which is an enduring sort of campaign,” Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA.
Watts, a former FBI special agent, said the second part of these influence operations is potentially even more dangerous.
“It’s the acute scenario, which means putting [social media] accounts under cover to look like and talk like Americans into spaces where they know there are people that have a propensity to violence,” he said. “It’s a numbers game. … You throw the idea out and if your audience is large enough, and the larger audience gets it, the greater the chance that one of them will pick up on that and run with it.”
Best defense: informed citizens
Top U.S. law enforcement officials have raised concerns, though this past March, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau’s efforts can only do so much.
“At the end of the day, no amount of FBI investigating can by itself sufficiently insulate our country from this threat,” Wray said at the time. “Our best defense is a well-informed public.”
Nonetheless, Cohen, the senior intelligence official at the Department of Homeland Security, said Wednesday that helping make sure the American public can see through some of these influence operations has been difficult.
“Trying to educate the public that, depending on where they get their information, they may be specifically being targeted with disinformation, that is the biggest challenge we’re facing right now,” Cohen said. “For a subset of our population, they’re not going to believe what the government is telling them.”