- It is every person’s right to protest against, or petition their government for, whatever issue is of concern.
- In Charlottesville, an act of low-tech terrorism in the form of a vehicle-as-a-weapon (VaaW) attack resulted in the death of one individual and injuries to dozens of others.
- The continued rise in violence – especially when involving politically-sensitive events and not limited to one ideology, race, or religion – is cause for concern.
- The ability for a group(s) to quickly mobilize or respond to events through social media platforms or networks, has also worked to escalate tensions and overwhelm security and local law enforcement.
- With regard to upcoming protests, and given the high level of attention and emotion relating to Charlottesville and associated events, coupled with high levels of political tensions, as well as the already observed hostilities between groups and individuals on both sides of the associated issues, the potential for significant participation and potential escalation is very possible. It is possible that groups may form to counter protesters and confrontations could ensue.
- More concerning is the potential for extremists on any side of these issues, or others simply seeking the mass gatherings and tensions as opportunities, to use these events to conduct acts of low tech terrorism.
- VaaW, use of firearms, small explosives, edged weapons or even less sophisticated weapons, and other incidents of low tech terror can quickly cause chaos, further escalation and violence.
- Measured reaction to those that would seek to escalate tensions, maniputlate events or otherwise dimish protest with violence, is an important individual responsibility.
- Protest particpants and onlookers should maintain awareness for potential violence, suspicious individuals, or items that may be intended to cause harm, avoiding anything that will diminish the ability to stay aware and quickly react.
- It is important to understand the strong feelings and emotions on all sides of the issue and to be humble enough to recognize we may not be able to appreciate or empathize with the feelings and perspective of others and should therefore respect their stance, even if we respectfully disagree with their preferences.
Background. Starting on 12 August and culminating the following day, a planned protest against the removal of a statue of a Confederate Civil War hero, Robert E. Lee, broke out in violence resulting in the death of one individual and injuries to dozens of others as a result of low-tech terrorism in the form of a vehicle-as-a-weapon (VaaW) attack. The issue has been largely reported as white nationalism and white supremacists run amuck and, rightfully, there has been tremendous outcry against this type of behavior. However, it is important to note that the continued rise in violence – especially when involving politically-sensitive events and not limited to one ideology, race, or religion – is cause for concern and impacts security at peacefully intended protests and the surrounding areas. While the political spin and branding has begun throughout the various seats of government, the larger context might be that whether it is the issue of Confederate memorials or statues (US), the G20 (Germany), immigration policies (worldwide), tourism (Spain), or perceived abuses in power (Venezuela, most recently), the ability for a group(s) to quickly mobilize or respond to events through social media platforms or networks, has also worked to escalate tensions and overwhelm security and local law enforcement. And while these events may be directed at issues or positions of power, the impacts are felt by surrounding organizations in terms of physical and monetary damage.
In the span of a couple of hours beginning Friday night, both sides were able to quickly mobilize and easily overwhelm the security and law enforcement agencies assigned to control the situation. In addition to being overwhelmed by initial events, law enforcement appeared to underestimate the subsequent activities, as well as the potential threats. More supporters from both sides emerged, some with weapons and body armor. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe acknowledged the challenge posed by armed protestors, telling the New York Times Sunday, “They had better equipment than our State Police had.” Law enforcement struggled to assert or gain control and the situation spiraled with fights and confrontations occurring before the VaaW attack resulted in the death of a counter-protestor.
Analysis of previous events could have helped anticipate or predict group behavior. In 2017 alone, several politically charged events have resulted in situations that should have helped prepare law enforcement and security personnel.
- February: The University of California – Berkeley (UC-B) campus was the site of violence as protestors rioted against a planned speech by Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Protestors dressed in black, and using black block tactics, destroyed property and threw Molotov cocktails, resulting in the cancellation of the event. (Black bloc tactics include the use of street fighting, vandalism of private property, and illegal demonstrations.)
- April: UC-B cancelled a speech by conservative personality Ann Coulter due to perceived threats and potential acts of violence.
- April – July: The country of Venezuela rallied against governmental reforms and a national election that left dozens killed and thousands injured.
- May: Social media was a catalyst for organizing and coordinating May Day activities worldwide.
- June: Smaller scale violence broke out over free speech protests and around LGBT Pride Month events. President Trump supporters rallied in Oregon and were met with counter-protestors and ultimately violence ensued resulting in arrests and further exasperating tensions….during the increased exchanges between protestors and counter-protestors, groups started throwing bottles and bricks, as well as used balloons full of “foul-smelling liquid” that were aimed at police officers. In Salt Lake City, the Utah Pride Festival was met with counter-protestors, who cited their freedom of speech to disagree with the events.
- July: Police and security officials were prepared for the protests and ensuing violence at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. Using past events as a guide, security officials set up security zones and enforced strict rules of engagement to minimize the activities. This did not stop all violence, but it did help coordinate and mitigate the potential for violent activity.
- Over the course of the year, strong opinions over confederate monuments and flags have been documented throughout the US, including South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida.
Things to Consider. In almost all of these events, social media was used in advance of, and during, the event to maintain organization and sometimes provide direction for activities. However, despite being planned and well-publicized, which should have allowed law enforcement and security elements time to prepare, responding officials did not appear to be sufficiently prepared for the large numbers of attendees, nor the violent tactics that ensued. This does not mean that the social media platforms were specifically advocating violence, but the platforms were very active to help organization. While being careful not to infringe on First Amendment or privacy rights – which we at Gate 15 strongly support in both physical and cyber space – maintaining situational and threat awareness in real time, as well as ahead of, and particularly during these events, can help event organizers, participants, and security personnel maintain control of the security situation and identify potenital hot-spots where violence or other escalation may occur.
It is also important to point out social media can cause confusion, and at times deliberately mislead. Because of the speed in which social media is delivered and posted by multitudes of unique users, it can make validation difficult. Additionally, images have been purposely posted to incite more emotion and misrepresent events to encourage more support for one issue or another. Such misleading antics are not limited to any one side or issue. This is coupled with voices on both sides of the argument who will try to seed doubt into the discussion. Conspiracy theorist commentator Alex Jones tried to do this with the Charlottesville violence, claiming the KKK members shown at similar type of events were really just Jewish actors trying to stir things up.
Another factor to consider, specific to this event, are the repercussions and retaliation that could lead to increased security concerns. On Monday, 14 August, “part of a group of more than 100 that included anti-fascists and members of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, the Workers World Party and the Industrial Workers of the World, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh — toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood in front of the old Durham County Courthouse for nearly a century.” The inscription on the statue read, “In memory of the boys who wore the gray.” The City of Baltimore removed all of their Confederate statues by the end of the day on Wednesday. And there have been protests across the United States over the Charlottesville event, as well as cancellations of previously planned rallies and speeches. This may lead to other protests or attacks in response to these actions and likely will disrupt organizations and individuals in the affected areas.
Global News Canada has reported, “The hacker collective Anonymous has vowed to attack white supremacist and alt-right websites in the wake of the racist violence in Charlottesville, VA and urged followers to ‘tear down symbols of hate’ in an operation dubbed ‘Denouncement Day.’ On Wednesday, the so-called ‘hacktivist’ group urged its followers to take part in operation Denouncement Day, and dismantle remaining Confederate symbols still standing in the U.S. on August 18.” The report includes a video shared by individuals associated with the group.
In an excellent write-up, Bridget Johnson adds, “Supporters plan to gather at 6 p.m. EST (Friday) at:
- the statue of Rear Adm. Raphael Semmes in Mobile, Ala.,
- the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Little Rock,
- the Jackson Guards Memorial in Jacksonport, Ark.,
- the Searcy Confederate Memorial in Searcy, Ark.,
- the Our Confederate Dead Monument in Munn Park in Lakeland, Fla.,
- the Confederate Monument in Piedmont Park in Atlanta (which was defaced with spray paint this week),
- the Corinth Confederate Monument in Corinth, Miss.,
- the Confederate Soldiers Monument at the Bryan County Courthouse in Durant, Okla.,
- the Confederate Monument in Lynchburg, Va.,
- the Mecklenburg Confederate Soldier in Boydton, Va., and
- the Robert E. Lee sculpture in Charlottesville, Va.”
In addition to the protests, the Washington Post has reported that, “A group affiliated with the online activist group known as Anonymous today posted what it says are the private cell phone numbers and email addresses for 22 Republican members of Congress in a bid to push for President Trump’s impeachment, reigniting the use of hacked information in U.S. political battles… The release by Anonymous marks an end of nearly two years of near-total silence for the decentralized group. Anonymous was mostly absent during last year’s presidential campaign as leaks from online groups Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0 featuring Democratic officials’ emails dominated headlines and, in the eyes of many, altered the course of the election. That changed only in recent days.”
Given the high level of attention and emotion relating to Charlottesville and associated events, coupled with high levels of political tensions, as well as the already observed hostilities between groups and individuals on both sides of the associated issues, the potential for significant participation and potential escalation is very possible. It is possible that groups may form to counter protesters and confrontations could ensue.
More concerning is the potential for extremists on any side of these issues, or others simply seeking the mass gatherings and tensions as opportunities, to use these events to conduct acts of low tech terrorism, such as the vehicle-as-a-weapon (VaaW) attack observed in Charlottesville. VaaW, use of firearms, small explosives, edged weapons or even less sophisticated weapons, and other incidents of low tech terror can quickly cause chaos, further escalation and violence. Organizations and businesses with interests in the areas of protests are strongly encouraged to reach out to local law enforcement and neighborhood partners for threat and security coordination and awareness.
It is every person’s right to protest against, or petition their government for, whatever issue is of concern. However, with peaceful protest, measured reaction to those that would seek to escalate tensions, maniputlate events or otherwise dimish protest with violence, is an important individual responsibility. For those participating in events this weekend and otherwise, we strongly encourage maintaining awareness for potential violence, suspicious individuals, or items that may be intended to cause harm. avoiding anything that will diminish your ability to stay aware and quickly react, and practice self-control when faced with those that seek escalation. It is important to understand the strong feelings and emotions on all sides of the issue and to be humble enough to recognize we may not be able to appreciate or empathize with the feelings and perspective of others and should therefore respect their stance, even if we respectfully disagree with their preferences.
Gate 15 provides intelligence and threat information to inform routine situational awareness, preparedness planning, and to penetrate the decision-making cycle to help inform time-sensitive decisions effecting operations, security, and resources. We provide clients with routine cyber and physical security products tailored to the individual client’s interests. Such products include relevant analysis, assessments, and mitigation strategies on a variety of topics.
This blog was coauthored by David Pounder and Andy Jabbour.
Dave is a Gate 15 Senior Risk Analyst for Intelligence and Analysis. Dave provides expert threat and risk analysis, assessments and special project support for internal activities and client needs.
Andy is Gate 15’s Co-Founder and Managing Director. Andy leads Gate 15’s risk management and critical infrastructure operations with focus on Information Sharing, Threat Analysis, Operational Support & Preparedness Activities (Planning, Training & Exercise). Andy has years of experience working with partners across the critical infrastructure and homeland security enterprise to support national security and client business needs.
Additional References. These links provide some additional background and highlight just some of the big name events that are occurring as part of Pride Month.
The seeds of the alt-right, America’s emergent right-wing populist movement
NJOHSP: The Face of White Supremacy in 2017
NJOHSP: Anarchist Extremists: Antifa
What Is the Alt-Left? 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know