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What law enforcement needs to know about COVID-19 and violent extremism

10 Aug 2020 9:26 AM | IPSA Leadership (Administrator)

By Stephanie R. DeRiso, Captain, United States Army, IPSA Member

Social, economic and political instability is often identified in developing countries as a major risk factor for the talons of violent extremism to take hold.  As the country faces widespread civil unrest amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, similar contributors to instability are now present in America. In considering this context, public safety professionals must be aware of the pernicious threat of violent extremism growing within American communities.

As disease control and quarantine regulations have forced many out of work and in to their homes, the internet has become a viable meeting place for many Americans facing the physical, social and psychological factors that make people especially vulnerable to the propaganda and manipulation tactics of violent extremists. Vulnerability factors that can be exacerbated by pandemic conditions include feelings of isolation and loneliness, a desire for guidance amidst too much and often inaccurate information, a low sense of self-worth, a feeling of loss of control and a need for excitement. The internet provides an easy, anonymous forum for violent extremists to groom vulnerable recruits, spread overt and covert propaganda, and even raise funds to support and enhance operational capabilities.

Awareness, community trust and partnerships

Public safety professionals, especially law enforcement officers, have a duty to be aware of the threat of violent extremism and its growing capabilities. Law enforcement must pay special attention to disrupt violent extremist organizations and movements as recruiting and operational planning increasingly fester in the virtual realm before actualizing in the real world.

Common venues for radicalization, like social media accounts and gaming platforms, inhibit the ability of law enforcement to readily identify the signs and indicators of violent extremism that are no longer quite as overt and traceable. As such, law enforcement must be deliberate to enhance trust and communication within and across their jurisdictions to establish and work toward the collaborative goal of countering this concerning trend.

Community members must feel safe and empowered to bring a potentially troubling Facebook post or Instagram direct message to those tasked with protecting the public and trust that it will be taken seriously. Public safety professionals must also be diligent in developing mutually supportive relationships between public safety, law enforcement and homeland security agencies at all levels.

Deliberate, enduring partnerships across agencies and echelons is especially critical as stove-piping information, as famously identified in the 9/11 Commission Report, is an unnecessary and unacceptable barrier to ensuring community safety. Additional guidance on leveraging community policing concepts to counter violent extremism can be found in this 2014 Department of Justice publication.

Recognizing threats

In tackling increased threats gaining momentum on the internet, public safety leaders must ensure their employees are educated and trained to recognize the unique verbiage, symbolism and rhetoric that indicate affiliation with and a call to action for violent extremism. Recall when the FBI was mocked for an arguably inaccurate and out of touch glossary of almost 3,000 entries of supposed internet slang maintained by the Intelligence Research Support Unit. Senior leaders must leverage the unique access, awareness and understanding within the junior ranks to keep their finger on the pulse of trends and nuances of social media within the evolving, increasingly complex ecosystem of the internet. This is especially important when higher echelons and formal research have not caught up.

Targets for attacks

While protecting the public is top priority, public safety professionals must also be diligent to protect themselves across their ranks. Not only are law enforcement professionals viable targets for attacks perpetrated by violent extremist individuals and organizations, but current and former law enforcement present a lucrative recruiting pool.

Historically, current and former military members have been recruited to enhance the operational and strategic capabilities of criminal gangs and racial supremacist groups. Public safety professionals trained in military and policing tactics are also especially attractive enlistees in movements emerging from internet forums and materializing in the real world. One such virtual-to-reality movement is the far-right, libertarian, anti-government leaning and largely internet born and bred Boogaloo Boys.

Members previously trained and experienced in military and police tactics represent an opportunity for violent extremists to leverage these skills to enable operational capabilities to enhance the spread and validation of group ideology. Further, it is not a stretch to say that many public safety professionals are especially interested in firearms and protecting the rights afforded to Americans within the Second Amendment. Connecting with likeminded individuals, familiar and amenable to organizations built on camaraderie and hierarchy, on internet forums can lead to subtle indoctrination, slow creep toward radicalization and deliberate grooming of even the most ideologically moderate of people.

It cannot be emphasized enough that all disasters are local. Public safety professionals at the local level must be especially diligent to seek out information and understand the threat landscape emerging on the internet; state and federal authorities are not always in tune with local nuances or as readily able to notice shifting dynamics as so many communities have moved online in the current pandemic context. Local interference cannot be accomplished without leveraging community support, pursuing awareness of the virtual domain, and understanding the vulnerabilities and motivations that lead individuals and groups towards violent extremism.

About the Author

Stephanie DeRiso has served in the U.S. Army for 8 years. She enlisted as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist and served at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware before earning her commission in to the Military Police Corps. As a Military Police Officer, she led law enforcement operations in Fort Stewart, Georgia and across Europe in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. She was selected as a Joint Special Operations Command Cultural Support Team Specialist and served on training and combat operations alongside special operations units throughout Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Most recently, she is pursuing qualification as an Army Special Operations Civil Affairs Officer at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Criminology, Law, and Society from George Mason University and is nearing completion of her Master of Professional Studies in Emergency and Disaster Management from Georgetown University.

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