On Tuesday, March 24th in the small suburban town of Belton Missouri, members of the FBI initiated the sale of inert explosive devices to the suspect, Timothy Wilson, who had been under FBI surveillance for the past 18 months. During the resulting staged transaction, Wilson was injured during a shootout as FBI agents attempted to apprehend him, Wilson was then transported to the hospital and later pronounced dead. This incident occurred roughly two days after the Mayor of Belton announced a stay at home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sources close to the investigation stated that it was this announcement that caused Wilson to move up his attack timetable and select his target: a local hospital that was currently testing patients for COVID-19.
Though Wilson was under investigation for expressing extreme anti-government and far-right beliefs, plans, and threats online, it was eventually the stay at home order brought about by COVID-19 that caused Wilson to actively seek out explosive devices with the intent to move into the next phase of his attack.
When more confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to rise in the first half of 2020, countries worldwide acted by issuing stay at home orders for their citizens in hopes to flatten the curve of the virus. As many government agencies unified to combat COVID, The Department of Homeland Security announced on February 17th that there has been an uptick of chatter among extreme Right/Neo-Nazi groups that are planning to weaponize COVID-19 to capitalize on the fallout from COVID-19 in order to carry out attacks. The world became focused on finding a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic which allowed many extremist groups to continue to exploit the virus in an attempt to increase attacks on an already weakened and scared population.
Though there has been an increase of chatter and incidents involving both far left and right domestic extremist groups, groups inside of the United States are not the only threat. International groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda have dubbed COVID-19 a “Soldier of Allah” and claim that a massacre will make the martyr immune to the virus. In addition to this claim, the official ISIS newsletter known as Al-Naba called for followers to use the current opportunities to free Muslim prisoners and continue their jihad against non-believers.
In recent weeks US media outlets have been largely covering internal civil unrest movements across the nation. Such media saturation has led to some headlines not gaining as much attention and possibly falling through the cracks. For instance, because of the Al-Naba decree, ISIS backed violence has increased dramatically in countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Philippines. Countries such as Mozambique are seeing ISIS activity and attacks for the first time, whereas West African counties like Nigeria are seeing multiple attacks on villages at the hands of ISIS aligned Boko Haram.
While providing the highest level of monitoring, ESOC analysts use a wide variety of open source, human intelligence, and threat data feeds to deliver constant monitoring for threats directed at our clients. During daily web sweeps, ESOC analysts are able to look for any sort of indicators that would suggest pre-operational planning towards a registered client. If a person of interest (POI) shows unusual activity or fixations through social media or web forums, additional information is gathered on the subject and a specialized report is sent directly to the client. In addition to the daily searches performed by the analyst, ESOC also makes use of constant monitoring programs that immediately alert ESOC if certain threatening parameters or key phrases are identified. It is then up to the analyst to verify the threat and alert the client of any possibility of an incident.
Many borders are still closed, but travel is slowly starting to regain the momentum it once had. Knowing this, the threat of extremist incidents as a result of COVID-19 is still a reality, especially as the world braces for a possible second wave of COVID-19. ESOC clients require up to date information and threat monitoring in order to detect signs of pre-operational planning against family, co-workers, or their business. Monitoring is not limited only to an individual person. ESOC has the capability to monitor specific addresses, neighborhoods, or regions using threat detection programs and gathering intelligence from multiple sources. This capability can give the client peace of mind for upcoming events, meetings, or simply knowing that their personal residence is secure.
If ESOC is notified that a client will be traveling, the exact locations are then added to the monitoring programs even if the trip is weeks or months out. This allows analysts to give constant updates on potential threats as well as monitor local intelligence sources prior to the client’s trip. With the surge of extremism during COVID-19, these are crucial steps necessary for planning a safe journey. This level of monitoring continues well before and during the trip with specialized alerts directly notifying the client or security team of any immediate threats that ESOC detects.
ESOC’s tailor-made capabilities extend to the specific needs of the client which allows detailed analysis of specific regions of travel. Travel Risk Assessments (TRAs) are custom made reports sent out in advance for each trip that the client is scheduled to take. Instead of receiving a generalized regional assessment, ESOC analysts take multiple parameters into accounts such as client itinerary, time of year, political climate, and level of potential threat to ensure that each TRA is based exclusively on the individual client. The TRA covers many topics that are beneficial not only to the client but to any security teams that may be assisting with the trip for example safety and security, potential civil unrest, current and historical terrorism, health, cybersecurity, infrastructure concerns, and current COVID-19 guidelines.
During these uncertain times as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that vigilance remains not only from a medical standpoint but a security one as well. Unfortunately, the threat of domestic and international terrorism is not disappearing any time soon. With this in mind, ESOC analysts are here to help mitigate such threats to give the client peace of mind both at home and abroad.