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Homeland Security Official: Worst Terror Environment in 30+ years, Concern for Houses of Worship

Trainees Chris Graves, left, and Bryan Hetherington, right, participate in a security training session at Fellowship of the Parks campus, Haslet, Texas in 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez/File)

A top Department of Homeland Security official calls the current U.S. threat environment the worst he's seen in over 30 years and is urging houses of worship, universities, and public officials to pay attention.

John Cohen, the DHS coordinator for Counterterrorism and assistant secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention Policy, spoke at an online panel hosted by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University on Feb. 15. 

"The threat environment is probably the most volatile and dynamic that I've experienced in my 35+ year career," he said. "We're at a period of time in this country where we have to be very serious, where we can come together and respond to the threat."

Cohen addressed the concerns outlined in a special DHS National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin released Feb. 7. 

The bulletin warned that online misinformation and conspiracy theories are fueling both domestic and foreign threat actors who seek to undermine trust in government institutions to encourage unrest which can lead to political violence. 

The bulletin said that narratives regarding "unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19" led to violent extremist attacks in the past year.

"We have tied those socio-political narratives specifically to the overwhelming majority of domestic violent extremist incidents and/or disrupted attacks through the course of 2021," said Cohen. 

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On Feb. 14, a mayoral candidate in Louisville, Kentucky became the latest target in what DHS calls the rapidly growing terror threat.

A gunman allegedly tried to shoot candidate Craig Greenberg in his campaign office. 

"He pulled out a gun, aimed directly at me, and began shooting," said Greenberg. "I'm shaken up. It was a surreal experience."

Greenberg's staff was able to shut and barricade the office door, preventing any injuries.

Authorities have charged local social justice activist and college student Quintez Brown with attempted murder.

The Louisville shooting comes just weeks after a gunman in North Texas took four hostages at a synagogue.

Cohen said that both Louisville and Texas fit the pattern where multiple ideologies are driving the extremist.  In north Texas, the British gunman identified with ISIS, he said, but also held anti-vaccine and anti-government views.

"There's a level of anger out there," said Cohen. "The anger is being stoked by threat actors."

Cohen also took issue with those who accuse DHS of political discrimination, like Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) who pushed back on the bulletin, saying "they're not just talking about acts of violence, committed to achieving a political or an ideological goal. They are talking about dissent."

"Our job is not to police thoughts, our job is to prevent acts of violence," said Cohen. "We do not monitor individuals as they are involved in constitutionally protected speech. We do not target people for investigations based on their political beliefs."

The DHS bulletin made clear that soft targets and mass gatherings like churches, universities, and government facilities, are the focus of continued calls for violence by threat actors.

"I think churches should be well aware that they're a target," said church security expert and Oasis Safety founder Ron Aguiar.

He emphasized the pattern of lone-wolf attackers. "You can go back in the last 20, 30 years in the violence of churches--it's been one person," he said, speaking of US church-based violence.

Both Cohen and Aguiar urged churches to consider the free resources available to prevent or mitigate attacks. They include FEMA grants to bolster security.

Both also pointed to the need for close working relationships between churches and local police. 

Cohen said that at a deeper level, he'd like to see fewer Americans demonizing their political opponents and refusing to accept political violence.

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