We assume that you saw the recent media report that the U.S. intelligence community has alerted law enforcement to potential al-Qa’ida attacks in the U.S. planned for Monday, November 7, the day before Election Day. This threat is reportedly still being assessed and its credibility has not yet been validated. However, the counterterrorism and homeland security communities remain vigilant and well-postured to defend against attacks here in the United States.
According to a statement from the FBI, the Bureau shares and assesses intelligence on a daily basis and will continue to work closely with law enforcement and intelligence community partners to identify and disrupt any potential threat to public safety. The NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau continues to work closely with federal, state, local, and private sector partners to maintain situational awareness of the current threat environment.
For more information on the current situation scroll down below the “What should we do?” section.
What should we do?
In police speak, we should “remain vigilant” and “maintain situational awareness of the current threat environment.” How does that translate to your site? What should you be doing? You should “step up” your security profile and maintain heightened vigilance through the election and the days thereafter.
- Pre-determine how you will step up your game. Don’t wait for an emergency. Consider the steps you should take when the experts advise you to go to “high alert”, e.g., add guards, close doors, more-thorough bag checks.
- Increase visible security measures. Someone planning an attack should look at your facility, conclude that it is defended and decide to go elsewhere. While the presence of armed security and law enforcement personnel and the placement of security checkpoints do not guarantee that an attack will be averted or interrupted, their presence can enable the timely discovery and quick resolution of potential threats and reduce the lethality of terrorist attacks.
- Test your systems. OK, you’ve identified systems to screen your mail, respond to bomb threats and suspicious objects and you have an active shooters plan. The key question is: “Will they work in reality?” Do your panic buttons function? Test them (after you first alert the alarm company). Have you had tabletop exercises and drills covering multiple hazards? How can you make sure that your entire staff and constituencies are on their collective toes?
- Check in with your local police. Reach out to your local police and make sure that they know about the times of services, events, school arrivals and dismissals. Offer them the opportunity to get to know your programs, your rhythms, your people and your building. Ask them for suggestions as to how to make your people safer.
- If you see something, say something. Think how to build a culture of security, because security is everybody’s business. If any of your staff, students, volunteers, congregants or clients sees or hears something suspicious they should feel comfortable to report it to the appropriate person in your facility and the information should be passed on to the police. Make sure all of the key staff have the right contact info in your jurisdiction. (In NYC, 1-888-NYC-SAFE/in NYS, 1-866-SAFE-NYS).
The information below is adapted from NYPD Shield’s analysis from the NYPD Counterterrorism, Bureau Terrorism Threat Analysis Group.
Foreign violent extremists
Recent propaganda produced by al-Qa’ida’s Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have made reference to the upcoming U.S. presidential election; however, the group, which has previously launched multiple plots against the U.S. homeland, has not voiced any specific threats in these publications.
When commenting on the prospect of either a Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump presidency, a March 2016 issue of the group’s Arabic-language al-Masra newsletter argued that a Clinton victory would mean “an extension of the policy of Obama and the Democrats in the region,” while Trump being elected would mean “a drastic change in American policy towards Muslims, since the hostility that Trump bears and the Islamophobia from which he suffers will have a huge impact in the conflict in the Middle East region and the Muslim countries in general.”
Meanwhile, in May 2016, an issue of the group’s English-language Inspire magazine included a reference to the presidential election by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who argued that the outcome was irrelevant since it will not impact “inhuman American policies in Islamic lands.” Historically, there have been other indications that al-Qa’ida and its sympathizers have viewed elections as significant events.
For example, the 2004 Madrid bombings were carried out by an al-Qa’ida-inspired cell three days before Spain’s general elections. The coordinated blasts, which targeted Madrid’s commuter railway system, killed 192 people and wounded an estimated 2,000 others.
Meanwhile, declassified documents recovered by U.S. forces in the May 2011 raid on Usama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, revealed that the topic of U.S. elections was discussed among al-Qa’ida’s leadership in the context of the group planning its propaganda releases.
Domestic violent extremists
The 2016 presidential campaign has included unprecedented divisive political rhetoric, sparking occasional violence from supporters of both the Democratic and Republican candidates. Throughout the campaign, a wide range of organizations—from non-profits to media outlets—as well as the candidates and delegates have received harassing messages, including threats of violence. Election Day 2016 comes at a time of heightened tension throughout the country, including perceived public unrest over law enforcement activity and mistrust of government institutions. Exacerbating this tense political climate are the recent assertions that the 2016 election may be “rigged,” potentially undermining the legitimacy of the presidential election process. Several domestic armed militias and extremist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and prominent anti-government forces such as the Oath Keepers, have used the accusation of election fraud to announce their intention to overtly, or covertly, monitor voting sites, stoking concerns that organizations may intimidate or coerce voters at the polls.
The election is also taking place at a time of elevated concern over attacks in the west perpetrated by terrorist organizations and their sympathizers such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qa’ida, both of which have experienced recent territorial defeats and leadership losses. Of note, an April 2016 issue of Dabiq, ISIL’s English-language magazine, specifically named Huma Abedin, Clinton’s vice chairwoman for her campaign, as a target for assassination. The continual threat of homegrown violent extremism remains a key concern as evidenced by the recent bombings in Seaside Park, NJ, Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and the attempted bombing in Elizabeth, NJ. Though the suspect in these incidents was apprehended and there is no indication that he was part of a broader conspiracy, the September 17 blasts serve as a reminder that New York City remains a top target for extremists.
- “Sources: U.S. intel warning of possible al Qaeda attacks in U.S. Monday,” CBS News, November 4, 2016.
- Tharoor, Ishaan, “Al-Qaeda’s analysis of the U.S. election is actually pretty accurate,” Washington Post, March 30, 2016.
- “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?,” Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, May 3, 2012.
- “Editor’s Letter,” Inspire Magazine, No. 15, al-Malahem Media, May 2016.