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Homegrown Violent Extremists Are Biggest Threat, New Jersey Terrorism Report Finds

This year's annual Terrorism Threat Assessment from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness ranks homegrown violent extremists highest, but also acknowledges violence against law enforcement.

The Sept. 17 Seaside Park bombing immediately before a five-kilometer U.S. Marine Corps charity run confirmed that terrorism has “… arrived here in our backyard,” the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (NJOHSP) wrote in the foreword to the agency’s 2017 Terrorism Threat Assessment released early Tuesday, Jan. 17.

The report gave homegrown violent extremists its highest threat designation for the second consecutive year, a ranking shared by no other group.

However, the deaths of nine law enforcement officers nationwide last year during incidents in response to perceived police brutality — all but one attributed to black separatist extremists — prompted NJOHSP to also elevate the threat level posed by black separatist extremists from low in 2016 to moderate this year.

Writers of the report — an agencywide effort that included counter-terrorism analysts — also elevated from low to moderate the threat posed by anarchist extremists; and ranked anti-abortion extremists a low threat. In 2016, anti-abortion extremists had not made the list.

The agency’s director, Christopher Rodriguez, said plainly that homegrown violent extremists pose the greatest threat, as evidenced by last fall’s bombing at New Jersey’s Seaside Semper Five run, the Pulse nightclub shooting in June in Orlando, Fla., and attacks abroad.

“This is largely because the violence some individuals are committed to carrying out is so difficult for homeland security and law enforcement to detect and deter,” he wrote.

ISIS has lost about 40 percent of the territory it held since 2015, and the group lost 120 leaders last year, the report’s authors wrote. But Rodriguez told Government Technology that as the group has increasingly lost ground and seen contributions and influence wane, it has worked to inspire attacks elsewhere.

“When that is happening, the group is pulling in less recruits, it’s pulling in less money and it needs to engage in activities that demonstrate to its followers that it’s still relevant,” Rodriguez said. “We expect as ISIS loses more of its territory, as it loses more of its leaders, it will increasingly call on its followers to conduct more of the attacks we’ve seen.”

Radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi also continues to be an influence on attackers more than five years after being killed in 2011 in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen, and has been named in more than 20 U.S. terrorism cases.

“Many jihadists view Aulaqi as a martyr because he was killed in a U.S. airstrike, boosting his reverence and credibility among followers and potential recruits,” the report points out, noting the gunman in the Pulse nightclub shooting had reportedly viewed Aulaqi video sermons on violent jihad and martyrdom.

The report also revealed that like ISIS, al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula (AQAP) continues to exploit “events it views as successful to motivate homegrown violent extremists in the west.”

AQAP “remains a persistent threat to the west because of its proven ability to incorporate, train and deploy operatives abroad,” the report found. As it did in 2016, the group earned a moderate threat ranking.

Domestically, homegrown violent extremists like Seaside Park bomber Ahmad Rahimi exhibited several common tactics identified by authorities, the report found. These included choosing targets near their homes and in familiar areas; displaying troubling behavior to friends, family and associates; and being influenced by multiple terrorist organizations.

Last year saw an alarming spike in fatal attacks on law enforcement officers during incidents in response to police brutality. Attacks rose from eight in 2015 to 12 in 2016 — but deaths jumped from zero in 2015 to nine in 2016.

Race-based supremacist groups are committing most of the violence, Rodriguez said, noting that in some cases extremists of different varieties may team up in “coalitions of opportunity.”

“The difficulty for us as well as law enforcement and (federal) homeland security … is a phenomenon we refer to as ‘blended extremism,’ folks committing acts who adhere to multiple ideologies,” Rodriguez said. “That is, again, very difficult for us to classify and again very difficult to develop strategies to counter ideologies.”

The report defined domestic terrorism as “violence committed by race-based, single-issue, anti-government, and religious extremists without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist organization.”

An NJOHSP nationwide review found that domestic terrorists engaged in 22 attacks and were responsible for another 17 plots last year, up from 16 attacks and 16 plots in 2015. Attacks by race-based extremists more than doubled, from five in 2015 to 13 in 2016, with most attributed to white supremacists.

Attacks by white supremacists rose slightly last year to seven, from five in 2015. Anarchists posed a slightly more formidable threat in 2016, leading counter-protests during white supremacist rallies and inciting violence during anti-law enforcement protests and similar events after the recent presidential election.

NJOHSP began examining anti-abortion extremists, the report said, following a national increase in threats against abortion facilities in 2015. That year, an extremist killed three people and wounded six others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

The threat of cyberterrorism wasn’t ranked, but Rodriguez said it continues to be a concern to the agency — despite a report finding that terrorist groups aren’t capable of damaging New Jersey’s critical infrastructure.

Of particular concern, the director said, are terrorists’ increasing use of the dark Web, which gives them a digital safe haven for logistics and financing, and their use of encrypted applications that can be impossible to bring to light.

So-called “kill lists” that contain personal information belonging to thousands of U.S. citizens are worrisome as well. Last year, pro-ISIS hacking groups released two dozen such kill lists, which included information on about 500 people in New Jersey.

That said, Rodriguez added: “All of those individuals were notified and we’ve seen no evidence of violence against them.”

The report’s writers found the threats posed by militia members and jihadists returning to the U.S. to be potentially low. As it had in 2016, this year’s assessment ranked militia extremists a moderate threat.

But three bills in Congress due to be reintroduced this year would transfer federal acreage in Nevada to state control and let all states regulate oil and gas development on federal land inside their borders. This could, Rodriguez said, help to bring about a decline in run-ins by militia members with the federal government.

As for returning jihadists, the report noted the comparatively low number of Americans who have traveled or tried to travel to Iraq or Syria. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, just around 270 Americans have done so since 2011 compared to an estimated 4,200 “foreign fighters from Europe.”

The number of known Americans who tried to travel to join ISIS or who were successful has also declined, from 32 in 2015 to just seven last year, according to an NJOHSP national review.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.