In the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, global terror groups who took no part in the storming have found a point of admiration in the tactics of domestic extremists, a news story to hold up as justification in their claims that America is weak from within and vulnerable, and a model of inspiration for their own operatives to similarly target locations that hold deep symbolism and may not be as secure as once thought. Writes Bridget Johnson
Domestic terror movements and Islamist terror groups have long shared similar themes and memes in the ways they recruit and incite as extremists of varying ideologies feed off each other’s best practices. These include using current events to stoke grievances and appealing to existing grievances to reel in sympathizers and recruits while encouraging revenge, promoting the accelerationist belief that societal collapse will hasten their aims to construct a civilization with their ideology dominant, promising training and operations intended to appeal to recruits’ feelings of inadequacy, and heavily promoting successful attacks – regardless of the perpetrators – in order to encourage both cells and lone actors to learn from the attacks’ flaws and emulate the high points.
The Capitol attack has shown how these can intersect in one ideology holding aloft the operations of another, with both ISIS and al-Qaeda hailing the storming of the Capitol and expanding discussion of the events to help advance their own operational goals.
Two weeks ago, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s al-Malahem Media released a 20-minute video, “America and the Painful Seizure,” that started with two minutes of footage from the attack on the Capitol – starting with the shooting of Ashli Babbitt by Capitol Police as she tried to climb through a door’s shattered window to breach the speaker’s lobby. “Do not be afraid of the night; the dawn is about to loom… the puppets of injustice will fall,” a nasheed intoned as AQAP showed scenes of the Capitol breach, rioters inside the Senate, and attackers searching Capitol offices.
AQAP leader Khalid Batarfi began the video with a dig at America’s toll in the COVID-19 pandemic that “paralyzed the strong” in which “the politicians and doctors were in disagreement and those who claim knowledge failed to tackle it and reduce its risks.”
“So starting with the hurricanes and tornadoes that Allah sends to them, which destroy houses and displace many people from their lands, in addition Allah the exalted afflicted her people with diseases and epidemics which are concentrated on them, such as anthrax,” Batarfi continued. “Also Allah afflicted her with economic crises, which paralyzed her and baffled her politicians.” He continued by listing episodes of “torment” against America in the first bombing of the World Trade Center, embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole bombing, and the 9/11 attacks, culminating in U.S. military forces “bleeding in Iraq and Afghanistan, which forced her to negotiate with the Taliban movement.” The terror leader then referenced “the continuing of individual operations in America”; at the end of the video, Naval Air Station Pensacola shooter Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani was memorialized.
Batarfi said that America’s “haughtiness and arrogance” continued and “unjust and tyranny also befell her citizens,” citing social justice issues, economic inequality, unemployment, crime, and suicide and mental health issues. “Today America takes the lion’s share of epidemic corona and comes at the top of the list of the perished, which has reached more than 400,000,” he said, putting the date of the recording after that Jan. 19 milestone.
“We are also witnessing how America’s politicians started to butt one another like bulls, cursing one another, and her miserable people demolishing her pillars, shaking her entity, and cursing the politicians and the masters,” the AQAP leader continued. “The incident of breaking into the Congress is only a little bit of what will happen to them, by permission of Allah. And whoever thinks that this matter will be ceased at this limit or that somebody can stop the overwhelming imminent collapse of America certainly is mistaken and deceived.”
The video concluded with Al-Shabaab’s drone footage of the Jan. 5, 2020, attack that killed three Americans and destroyed several aircraft at Camp Simba in Kenya. The al-Qaeda affiliate released that new video late last month.
The AQAP video joins ISIS propaganda materials in attempting to use domestic extremists’ attack on the Capitol to their own advantage in multiple ways:
A full-page article in ISIS’ official weekly al-Naba newsletter released the Friday after the attack used a Reuters photo of a police flashbang illuminating the west front of the Capitol in an effort to disperse rioters. With the image of the Capitol shrouded in smoke, flames, and attackers, the terror group hailed the “great” symbolism of breaching the building “during a meeting of the tyrants,” and said the history of America “over the past decades” reveals a pattern of “greater and more serious internal events.”
ISIS admired the Oct. 1, 2017, massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas so much that the group claimed for months that shooter Stephen Paddock was “a soldier of the Islamic State who carried out the attack in response to calls for targeting coalition countries,” even as it became readily apparent that Paddock had no apparent ideological motive. Their motive for the disinformation campaign was clear: Paddock and his crime were held aloft as inspiration for jihadists, from his high sniper vantage point to the choice of target. Their campaign had many months to gain traction and plant seeds in the minds of would-be jihadists before the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department report revealed Paddock “was not a religious person, did not believe in any higher power, and found religious people to be ridiculous.”
ISIS’ circulation of warnings against Las Vegas, photos depicting crosshairs on the Strip, and beseeching Western supporters to “answer the call” and attack underscored their reliance on high-profile attacks to stir lone actors to action. The Vegas mass shooting – even after ISIS stopped insistently calling Paddock “Abu Abdul Barr al-Amriki” – was used as a tactical example for would-be jihadists to emulate. The 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting is similarly held aloft by the terror group as an example of a lone supporter attacking a soft target with devastating results, and the November 2015 Paris attacks are still referenced as a blueprint for complex coordinated attacks.
In short, high-profile attacks regardless of the perpetrators serve as training for lone or cell operatives – as details of the attacks are laid bare in media reports and judicial proceedings, and open discussion about these details is abundant on the airwaves and online, ISIS and al-Qaeda adherents in addition to domestic terrorists can listen and learn both best practices and pitfalls. As what was believed to be a hard target is breached, it serves as a recruitment tool for all of these groups with a message of “if these attackers can do it, so can you.” In a special Inspire magazine supplemental released after the Orlando attack, AQAP stressed that Omar Mateen “capitalized on the means available at his reach” and inspired “every new lone mujahid [to] try to do his best to realize and attain similar or more fatalities in his operation…especially when they see how easy it is to execute an operation.”
Al-Qaeda and ISIS also try to use these attacks to not just inspire their faithful but propel them into the attack stages. To incite, they highlight the cost suffered by those targeted – in the AQAP video, the scenes of attackers in the halls of the Capitol – and the relative ease with which the attack was conducted, along with hailing the act of the attack itself and underscoring what such an attack could do to buoy a movement or group. ISIS declared in al-Naba that rioters “being seen breaking into one of the most important centers of sovereignty in America” signaled that domestic unrest left the country vulnerable. “What matters to us in all of this is that America the crusader will be busy more with herself and that political struggle inside it will pay off,” ISIS added, predicting fewer resources would be dedicated to fighting international terror groups in terms of funding and forces.
Batarfi said in the AQAP video that they could “fill the vacuum America will leave,” and called for “mobilizing the mujahedeen to support the religion and sacrifice for the sake of Allah.” He called for operatives to be focused and not distracted from their mission, and told followers to “beware of the repeated abortive experiments in the past.”
ISIS supporters in India who publish The Voice of Hind magazine online each month declared last week that the Capitol attack showed that America was now in an “ever fragile state and the worst is yet to come.” The article, which declared President Biden an enemy because of his legislative career and son Beau Biden’s military service in Iraq, further called it “incumbent upon the Muslims to fight these devils and not to fear their might in terms of their technology, weaponry and military capabilities.”
Declaring justification for their raison d’être
Islamist terror groups use unrest in the United States to support their declaration that democracy is a failed endeavor and their vision of theocratic rule is the right path.
“The events that unfolded after the election of the president of the United States in 2020 exposed the western systems and reminded all of us that no matter what system the mankind comes up with against the system of Allah is hell bent to fail,” the ISIS Voice of Hind article stated, slamming former President Trump and adding that “the attack on Capitol Hill – the temple of western democracy by his people was as disgraceful as it could ever be in their eyes.”
They also use the suffering at the Capitol to feed their revenge narrative that Allah punishes their enemies while paving the way for their theocracy to emerge victorious. “What is happening today in America is a definite result and an inevitable destiny of its unjust policies and its continuous support to every criminal and enemy not only to Islam and Muslims – rather, her unjust crimes extended to whoever refuses to be completely dependent on her and on her policies,” Batarfi said.
Exploiting unrest to create or exacerbate fissures
Batarfi’s video claiming that al-Qaeda victory “will make every oppressed in this world happy” and stating that “racism and ethnic discrimination of non-whites is continuing and supported by her senior politicians” falls in line with the terror group’s history of trying to exploit unrest in the United States. Over the summer al-Qaeda’s general command tried to take advantage of the nationwide protests after the killing of George Floyd by encouraging rebellion within the United States as the government was “subjugating and killing poor, impoverished Christians, the helpers of Jesus.” The terror group called for “all-out revolt” against the government and the “narrow class of capitalists and financiers that holds the reins of the global economy,” claiming that al-Qaeda’s war against the United States “is aimed at bringing an end to injustice and oppression” and is “similar to your reaction” against Floyd’s killers.
ISIS’ al-Naba issue after the Capitol attack declared that it’s “not the first U.S. election whose results are contested and questioned,” and “it will not be the last.” They predicted that Biden would be preoccupied with domestic strife as “the conflict is between the two parties and their supporters.” In a June issue of al-Naba, ISIS argued that the unrest arising from Floyd protests could pull America’s focus away from assisting countries that were fighting ISIS.
Yet while these terror groups have tried to use unrest to paint their jihad as a struggle comparable to civil rights protests and tried to stoke greater unrest, they have also made clear that they would not be sparing civil rights advocates or anti-government protesters in their attacks: AQAP said in a 2015 issue of Inspire magazine that sympathies notwithstanding they were justified in killing all who didn’t heed the call to “move out of big cities that represent the economy, politics or military strength of America like New York and Washington.”
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.