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DHS Warns Of Heightened Threats From Violent Domestic Extremists

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Department of Homeland Security says the country faces a heightened risk of attack by domestic extremists in the coming months. Such warnings have been rare in recent years, but DHS says the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol may have emboldened radicals across the U.S. For more, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So is the Department of Homeland Security citing a specific threat here?

MYRE: No, they aren't. This bulletin doesn't name any individual or any group or any specific threat. It's a very generalized warning. It's clearly referring to the far right, though it doesn't mention anybody by name. And there is this sense that there's an elevated threat for the next few months. It talks about domestic extremists who may be fueled by what they say is false narratives related to the election last November, the January 6 assault on the Capitol and even last week's presidential transition.

MCCAMMON: And people may remember Homeland Security was known for its warnings in the past, those color-coded warnings about jihadist groups like al-Qaida, for instance. But is this new, to warn about domestic far-right groups?

MYRE: Yes, it really is. DHS was created after the 9/11 attacks almost 20 years ago. And those color-coded warnings were around for nearly a decade. They were often mocked. It was hard to understand. Is this an imminent threat? Should you avoid airports? And they faded away. And we don't see a lot of these warnings anymore, but it really is unique and new here to see the government issuing a warning about the far right. President Biden clearly believes that his predecessor, President Trump, didn't deal with this and played it down despite mounting evidence. There was no strong public warning leading up to the January 6 events. And Biden clearly wants to get ahead of this. His Homeland Security nominee for secretary of that department, Alejandro Mayorkas, hasn't been confirmed yet. But the Biden administration has already asked for DHS and FBI to have an intelligence assessment about this threat. And now we see this warning issued by DHS.

MCCAMMON: OK, so what do we know about what we should make of this warning? What should the general public think?

MYRE: So I spoke about this with Daniel Byman. He's a Georgetown University professor who studies terrorism. And he says the Biden administration is sending a message to several groups. It's telling law enforcement this is going to be a priority. It's telling far-right groups they're going to be under scrutiny. But he says it's also important to see this as a message to the public.

DANIEL BYMAN: It's a warning to the broader public. It's trying to say that this is a genuine threat on par with other forms of terrorism and is trying to say the new administration is going to emphasize not only jihadist terrorism like groups like ISIS, but it's going to focus on a much wider range of domestic threats.

MCCAMMON: There have been a growing number of arrests, Greg, since the January 6 violence at the Capitol. How is the far right responding?

MYRE: Well, on social media, we see that there is a lot of talk that they know they're being watched. It may be a good time to be cautious and stay under the radar. There have been about 150 arrests related to the January 6 events, and hundreds more cases are under investigation. Now, we still have several thousand National Guard forces in the D.C. area. They're expected to stay here through the Trump impeachment trial next month and maybe well into March just to make sure the atmosphere stays calm. Biden really appears to be laying down a marker and declaring that this issue is going to be a priority throughout his entire tenure.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much for talking with us.

MYRE: My pleasure, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.