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Assessing Terrorist Threats to the Current U.S. Election

Alex Kassirer
Terrorism

Key Takeaways

  • Despite recent media reports citing a specific al-Qaida terrorist threat to New York, Texas, and Virginia on the day before the 2016 US elections, Flashpoint analysts have seen no specific threats from official terrorist groups nor sources in the online jihadi community to this effect.

 

  • There is nonetheless a tradition within the jihadi community of promoting the US electoral process and polling stations as valid targets.

 

  • Chatter that has taken place in the online jihadi community, on social media, and behind closed forums, confirms that members and sympathizers of al-Qaida, as well as ISIS, have taken at least a moderate interest in striking such a target.

 

  • Update: On November 5, 2016, ISIS’s official al-Hayat Media released a special-issue article titled, “The Murtadd Vote,” focused on the upcoming US elections. The seven-page release discouraged Muslims from voting and called on supporters to attack those who do.

     

Background

Despite recent media reports citing an al-Qaida terrorist threat to New York, Texas, and Virginia on the day before the 2016 US elections, Flashpoint analysts have seen no specific threats from official terrorist groups nor sources in the online jihadi community to this effect. Though Flashpoint has yet to identify any relevant chatter substantiating these specific claims, there is nonetheless a tradition within the jihadi community of promoting the US electoral process and polling stations as valid targets. Broadly speaking, jihadi activists view attacks targeting the US election as beneficial not merely for their symbolic value, but also the logistical advantages they present — as such events tend to draw concentrated crowds amid intense media focus.

Key influencers within the jihadi community have routinely condemned the American electoral process as illegitimate and have even characterized voting as a form of shirk (idol worshipping). In 2008, arguably the most prominent voice within the English-speaking jihadi community, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki, issued a two-part verdict on “Voting for the American President.” Awlaki sternly warned American Muslims to stay away from voting booths and villainized US elections:

Democracy is an un-Islamic system and we as Muslims should have nothing to do with it… Can’t you see that the West in its war against Islam is offering the democratic system as an alternative to Sharia? …Muslims should seek to avoid any forms of participation in Western democracy…No matter how irrelevant your vote is, on the Day of Judgment you will be called to answer for it. You, under no coercion or duress, consciously chose to vote for the leader of a nation that is leading the war against Islam…There is no benefit for the Ummah in voting for the new American Pharaoh.

According to Awlaki, “the issue is not simply dropping a vote in a ballot box. It is much more than that. It is the whole mindset and the actions that come with it.”

The jihadi rhetoric regarding US elections is not, however, merely limited to discouraging Muslims from voting and delegitimizing the underlying process. In fact, al-Qaida leaders have actively called on their followers and “lone wolf” supporters to operationalize these sentiments and actively target the election process. In March 2014, AQAP released the twelfth issue of its infamous English-language Inspire Magazine, which featured a section titled, “Open Source Jihad (OSJ),” which offered readers “a resource manual for those who loathe the tyrants; includes bomb making techniques, security measures, guerrilla tactics, weapons training and all other jihad related activities.” The magazine encouraged readers to detonate “car bombs inside America,” advising that the best location for such an attack would be “places flooded with individuals” – including “election campaigns.” The magazine further noted that “choosing the place and time is a crucial factor to success in any operation.” In fact, according to Inspire, among the best “specific times” to launch a car bomb attack would be “during the election seasons, both presidential and Congress.”

This message has trickled down from community leaders and clearly resonated with supporters, as has been observed by Flashpoint analysts. For example, on May 7, 2015, an Australian ISIS supporter issued a slew of tweets urging attacks on UK polling centers and voters on Britain’s election day:

Today is election day. It’s the perfect day for jihad, brothers… Brothers in UK: get your bombs, knives, & guns. Go to the voting places. Kill every single kafir [disbeliever] you see there… UK brothers: voting is shirk [idol worshipping]. Kuffar who vote need to be punished. Grab your weapons, go to voting places, and kill every kafir there.

More recently, on August 4, 2016, an administrator on ISIS’s most elite deep web chat forum issued a message about “the nearing of the American elections,” admonishing other forum members to “make it bloody.” The individual used the thread as a venue in which members could brainstorm “ways and suggestions to make the occasion [of the elections] bloody.” The accumulated ideas included “attacking their crowds when voting, to attack all of them” and to “booby trap polling stations with [explosive] devices and detonate them consecutively, creating a huge frenzy, many casualties, and terror that will impact security, the economy, and politics.”

Assessment

While Flashpoint cannot confirm the accuracy of the latest reported al-Qaida threats to the 2016 US elections, these threats closely dovetail with past statements made by senior al-Qaida leaders, and appear to reflect instructional material distributed by al-Qaida to its homegrown supporters. Chatter that has taken place in the online jihadi community, on social media, and behind closed forums, confirms that members and sympathizers of al-Qaida, as well as ISIS, have taken at least a moderate interest in striking such a target. Flashpoint will continue to monitor such chatter and statements from the official representatives of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in the coming days as the election nears.

20161104_elections_img1

An excerpt from the Open Source Jihad section of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine No. 12

Update: ISIS Releases Special-Issue Article Regarding the US elections

On November 5, 2016, ISIS’s official al-Hayat Media released a special-issue article titled “The Murtadd Vote” focused on the upcoming US elections. The seven-page release discouraged Muslims from voting and called on supporters to attack those who do.

Despite an abundance of rhetoric asserting that ISIS favors Trump, the group denounced both sides of the Presidential election as a means of further discouraging Muslims from voting:

… thirty years of history [have proven] to the entire world that there is no difference between the American Republican and Democratic parties in their policies against Islam and Muslims…

It continued:

Also, after both Trump and Clinton committed themselves to the Jewish state and the war against Islam (especially through their vows to continue the war against the body of Islam, the Khilafah), the only differences between Trump and Clinton are that Clinton is more skilled in ‘political correctness,’ giving her leverage in the sorcery of hypocrisy, that she is a female feminist – and the Prophet said, ‘Never shall a people who give their leadership to a woman be successful’ – and that Trump is impulsive and unpredictable.

Demonizing those who vote and showing a knowledge of the candidates’ rhetoric, ISIS proclaimed: “Accordingly, one who votes in the democratic system is an apostate, even if he fears that the victory of one candidate or nominee will lead to the deportation and abuse of Muslims.”

The group closed with an overt threat to voters:

As it is clear that the voter is a part of the taghut of democracy – ‘the power of the people’ – and that the voters are directly involved in the decision making process by choosing delegates to represent them and their whims executively, judicially, and legislatively, the blood of Crusader voters is even more deserving of being spilled than the blood of Crusader combatants. The same would apply to the blood of female voters, as they are no longer mere wives serving Crusader husbands and raising cross-worshiping children, rather female voters are part of the democratic taghut that decrees the crusades to be waged against Islam and the Muslims, and are thus just as actively responsible for the Muslim blood being spilled as the male, Crusader soldier on the frontlines. May Allah make this year’s US presidential election a dreadful calamity like no other to have struck America throughout its pathetic history. Amin.

Although Flashpoint has not observed specific threats of attacks for Election Day or the day prior, ISIS has used this release to encourage and mobilize its supporters by building upon previous anti-elections rhetoric that has reverberated throughout the jihadi community for years.

isis-elections

Sources

  • Voting for the American President. October 31, 2008 – الجمعة 03 ذو القعدة 1429 by Anwar alAwlaki Filed under Imam Anwar’s Blog
  • Part 2: Voting for the American President. November 3, 2008 – الاثنين 05 ذو القعدة 1429 by Anwar alAwlaki. Filed under Imam Anwar’s Blog
  • hxxps://ia801509.us.archive.org/31/items/afdfadf_201611/TheMurtaddVote.pdf

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About the author: Alex Kassirer

Alex Kassirer
Alex is a Senior Counterterrorism analyst at Flashpoint and on-air analyst for NBC. She has assisted law enforcement and intelligence agencies in terrorism investigations and prosecutions, and consults private sector organizations on both physical and cyber security. Ms. Kassirer has presented to various audiences, including law enforcement, on monitoring and addressing the threat that stems from jihadists. Ms. Kassirer holds an MS in Global Affairs with a concentration in Transnational Security from NYU and BA in International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict & Security and a Minor in Religion from the Elliott School of International Affairs at GW, where she also studied Arabic.

About the author: Evan Kohlmann

Evan Kohlmann

Evan Kohlmann, Chief Innovation Officer, focuses on product innovation at Flashpoint where he leverages fifteen years' experience tracking Al-Qaida, ISIS, and other terrorist groups. He has consulted for the US Department of Defense, the US Department of Justice, the Australian Federal Police, and Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Command, among others. Mr. Kohlmann holds a JD from the Univ. of Pennsylvania Law School and a BSFS in International Politics from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown Univ.