From the Desk of the Director – The Virus of Hate

The world is several months into a pandemic, and the true scope and impact is beginning to fully reveal itself throughout the United States. The novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is deadly, and in the United States, thousands are dying. The disease has already killed more Americans than our adversaries did on September 11, 2001.

The United States has never seen anything like this, and it’s all anyone speaks or writes about. Unfortunately, this pandemic has also facilitated a global classroom for extremists to watch and learn how we are responding to this challenge. Every week reveals new flaws in our decision-making, policies and operations that are analyzed by astute and adaptive adversaries. Violent extremists are using this time to calculate vulnerability, plot future attacks and recruit new adherents as part of a larger asymmetric strategy.

This is precisely why in this time we must remain vigilant and dedicated to addressing and stopping homegrown violent extremism (HVE). Extremists exploit times of discord, disunity and fear, particularly when public priorities are squarely in the realm of public health. They seek to kick us while we’re down as they realize, ultimately, there is no public health without public safety and security.

Hate and extremism are infectious, sometimes as difficult to identify as a microscopic virus—until the symptoms of HVE emerge in the form of attacks. We are already seeing the kinds of activities our adversaries are engaged in while Americans shelter at home.

  • The FBI’s New York Field Office issued an alert that white supremacists and neo-Nazis are encouraging members to spread coronavirus to law enforcement and Jewish communities.
  • A 36-year-old man described as a “potentially violent extremist known to express racial and religious hatred and antigovernment sentiment” plotted to bomb a Kansas City medical center and was killed in a shootout with FBI agents.
  • FBI analysis is warning of an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans, noting there has been a surge in reports of hate crimes and incidents from Los Angeles to Texas to New York.
  • With thousands of organizations and businesses shifting to online meetings, there are a growing number of “Zoombombing” instances, in which extremists join public online meetings through the Zoom videoconferencing tool and bombard the group with extremist images and propaganda. Numerous cases are being reported by synagogues, Jewish organizations and schools.

In this time of national crisis, our attention, our resources and our priorities are in flux. It’s easy to lose sight of the reality that eventually the coronavirus infection curve will flatten, treatments and a vaccine will be developed and deployed, and we will return to a more normal existence. And when we do, the virus of hate and the extremists who carry it will still be here, perhaps emboldened after a period of exploiting pain and suffering to advance their evil ideologies and goals.

So what do we do? How do we preserve public safety in the face of a persistent extremist threat when the clear national priority is (rightfully) stopping the spread of infections to save thousands of American lives?

Vigilance: Suspicious behavior, communication and statements are revealing. No extremist operates in a vacuum. They have family, neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances in their community who can identify troubling signs that an individual is trending toward violence. While law enforcement organizations across the country are not sheltering in place, the numbers of first responders with COVID-19 continues to rise. We should not be motivated by fear and unnecessarily call law enforcement at a time when officers and others are already over-burdened with the impact of the pandemic, but we should also never assume that troubling words and actions are innocuous. We must be vigilant in reporting suspicious activity to enhance our public safety.

Online Security: Extremists engaging in “Zoombombing” are preying on users unfamiliar with videoconferencing program security protocols. There are several simple steps that can allow a meeting host to deny access to a bad actor. The simplest way to overcome this extremist exploit is to become more educated about the online program and extremist activity and take appropriate precautions. There are resources online that can help.

Continued Education: At the Safe Communities Institute, we are continuing to work with houses of worship to increase awareness about the violent extremist threat. We are also pursuing grant opportunities to conduct threat assessments and educate public safety officers so they can better understand and respond to complex challenges. In the short term, we have shifted all of our programming online. Neither extremists nor COVID-19 can stop our focused effort to work toward a new understanding of public safety. It is important for us to be as adaptive and versatile as they are.

Continuity of Research: Our current projects examining the Impact of Building Design Attributes on Occupant Behavior in Response to Active Shooter Incidents in Offices and Schools, as well as the Neighborhood Data for Social Change Criminal Justice Data Initiative have transitioned the analysis phases to an online platform to mitigate the loss of valuable research momentum. These anticipated project outcomes are essential to a variety of entities responsible for the safety and security of students, building occupants and our communities.

In these dark times, we must rally to one another and demonstrate to ourselves and our adversaries that we have the capacity and capability to address simultaneous challenges. We may never find a vaccine for hate and extremism, which is why we cannot forget that extremists don’t take a day off, no matter what other challenges we face. To be sure, America is in the middle of a firestorm, but we have encountered calamity before. United, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.

Stay safe, stay vigilant and stay connected.

Erroll Southers

Dr. Erroll Southers is USC Associate Senior Vice President of Safety and Risk Assurance. He is the former Director of the Safe Communities Institute, a former FBI Special Agent, Presidential nominee for TSA Administrator and California Governor’s appointee to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. He holds roles around the world and throughout the international counterterrorism and national security arena.

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