The 2020 United States Presidential election will take place on November 3th, 2020. Voters will have a choice between incumbent President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President and Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden. The 2020 Presidential election season is taking place under a cloud of a global pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans, and during a time of heightened political and racial tension throughout the country. The Counterterrorism Group has assessed, along with partner agencies, companies, and organizations (AOCs), that the threats surrounding the 2020 Presidential election are enhanced compared to previous election cycles. There are several forms of these threats to security and public safety of the United States facing both our electoral process, and the general public. This threat assessment was completed in response to those emerging and ongoing threats facing the United States in the lead up to the 2020 election and beyond, and CTG assess these threats as follows:
The Threat of Domestic Terrorism - LIKELY/PROBABLE
The Threat of COVID-19 - ALMOST/NEARLY CERTAIN
The Threat of Natural Disaster - ROUGHLY EVEN ODDS
The Threat of Civil Unrest - VERY LIKELY/VERY PROBABLE
The Threat of Cyber Attacks - LIKELY/PROBABLE
The threat assessment provides a general overview of the threat, using both historical analysis and predictive analysis to provide a thorough understanding of the details. The assessment also includes several recommendations at the end of each section made by CTG analysts in order to best mitigate these threats in an efficient and effective matter. These recommendations are not an exhaustive list, but rather what CTG analysts assess to be the best methods with which The Counterterrorism Group and partner AOCs can detect, deter, and defend against the threats facing the United States during the election cycle.
The Threat of Domestic Terrorism
Domestic terrorism poses a likely threat to the 2020 US presidential election. In the lead up to the election, the alt-right Proud Boys celebrated after President Trump’s call for them to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate, and the FBI unraveled a plot by the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. The sources of this threat stem from right-wing and left-wing extremist groups in the US. Right-wing extremists encompass a wide range of groups like the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, the National Socialist Order (formerly Atomwaffen Division), the Wolverine Watchmen, QAnon, etc. Many of these groups have collaborated in the past to organize gatherings like the 2017 “White Lives Matter” and “Unite the Right” rallies. Left-wing extremists like Antifa and some anarchist groups are often characterized by a decentralized structure. While left-wing activity has primarily occurred at counter-protests to right-wing events, right-wing groups have organized rallies and plotted terrorist acts. Examples include the Boogaloo Bois arrested in Nevada earlier this year as well as the plot to storm the Michigan capitol building and kidnap the governor. Since right-wing extremist groups like NSO (formerly Atomwaffen) have greater weapons capabilities and have intentionally prioritized the recruitment of military and law enforcement members to improve their tactical knowledge, terrorism by right-wing extremists poses a more probable threat to the 2020 election cycle than terrorism by left-wing extremists.
As evidenced by the Wolverine Watchmen’s plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor, far-right extremist groups could target Democratic policymakers. Terrorist acts may also target practically and symbolically significant landmarks, buildings, and sites. These locations include polling places, candidate headquarters, protest sites, places of worship, and the homes of political opponents. The presence of extremist groups at protest events could escalate post-election tensions, potentially replicating the violence from Charlottesville in 2017.
This year, the mainstream media reported on groups aiming to capture the public’s attention through overt actions like rallies (e.g., Proud Boys) and groups plotting covert actions like kidnapping (e.g., Wolverine Watchmen). Online chatter among extremists on the messaging app, Telegram, shows another side of the threat. On the app, a post on proper operational security (OPSEC) procedures mentions the plot to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer as an example not to follow and writes off the perpetrators as mere anarchists not working for any racist agenda. The post explains how to avoid detection by operating offline, avoiding group chats, and remaining anonymous online. This reveals how alt-right extremists exploit Telegram to share tactics on how to avoid detection by law enforcement and the media.
Extremist Telegram users also share reading lists and memorialize fallen extremists. One reading list includes titles written by Adolf Hitler and members of the American Nazi Party as well as books on guerilla warfare tactics. Other recommended books like The Turner Diaries and Civil War II: The Coming Breakup of America depict race wars in which people of color threaten the power and purity of “the white race.” Some Telegram posts glorify past attackers, such as Anton Lundin Pettersson who killed three people in a hate-motivated attack on a school in Sweden on October 22, 2015. These Telegram posts parallel the historical examples of propaganda by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, extremist groups that also revere past attackers, spread “us vs. them” narratives, and distribute manuals on how to evade the authorities.
Despite the mainstream media’s focus on domestic extremist groups, online chatter indicates that the threat of domestic terrorism in the US will more likely come from a lone-wolf actor or a splinter cell rather than a known domestic extremist organization. Online materials such as the Library of Hate explain guerilla warfare tactics in detail, so lone-wolf actors can teach themselves how to plan an attack alone or in a cell. The sanctification of lone-wolf attackers such as Pettersson also encourages solo attacks as individuals seek glory through their actions.
CTG’s recommendations to combat the domestic terror threat focus on detection and deterrence. Utilizing Threat Hunting and Digital Targeting resources to monitor chatter among extremist groups on social media will enable CTG to be aware of potential movement by these groups. The information gathered in this way could also help to identify certain areas as potential targets, allowing for preventative measures to be taken. Additionally, due to their importance to the election process, preventative safety precautions should be implemented at polling places to make them less vulnerable to common terrorism tactics. Most importantly, law enforcement should monitor the threat of solo or cell-style attacks, despite the media attention paid to extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Wolverine Watchmen.
The Threat of COVID-19
With the 2020 United States election being less than two weeks away, cases of COVID-19 and hospitalization rates throughout the entire nation are continuing to rise, especially in highly populated areas such as New York. As of October 31, 2020, the United States has 9,114,418 total cases of COVID-19 and 230,336 related deaths. It is highly likely that both sets of numbers will continue to increase as the election gets closer. Compared to the daily average two weeks ago, coronavirus cases have increased 25%. It is very likely that there will be a spike in COVID-19 cases due to an abundance of citizens opting to physically go to polling locations, instead of casting mail-in ballots. For residents of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Indiana; an excuse note is needed in order to vote absentee. This restraint will presumably encourage in-person voting, leading to a spread of the virus.
Even with some citizens choosing to vote in-person, this election season has seen a sharp increase in the popularity of mail-in voting, likely to avoid the possibility of becoming infected with the virus. During the primary election, it was reported that over 37 states that utilize mail-in ballots accounted for over half of the total votes casted. The total percentage of mail in votes for the 2020 primary election is double what it was in the 2016 and 2018 election. On April 7, 2020, the State of Wisconsin held in-person primaries. This exposed a considerable amount of people as contact-tracing tied 52 cases to the in-person polling locations.
Due to many states experiencing sharp increases in COVID-19 cases as well as transmission from in-person polling locations, many have opted to vote via mail-in ballots. This is compared to those who voted in the primary election to avoid large gatherings-which are usually seen at polling stations. While many citizens will opt to remain home and vote through the mail, many others will still choose to physically go to the polls to vote. It is likely that by doing so, cases of COVID-19 will sharply increase. Due to how contagious COVID-19 is proving to be, it is likely that polling places will be a hotspot for viral transmission due to the large numbers of people that will come to physically vote.
In order to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 on election day, CTG recommends that polling stations work to increase social distancing measures by having poll workers monitor social distancing of people waiting in lines. In addition to this, regular disinfecting of each individual polling booth will further mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. Face masks should also be thoroughly mandated while inside the polling station. Poll workers should perform temperature checks on each individual that comes to vote along with a contact tracing questionnaire. If possible, polling stations should arrange to provide sterile single-use gloves, or Q-Tips to prevent touching of the voting machines as much as possible, while also offering hand sanitizer at the beginning and end of the voting process. In the likely event of an outbreak, CTG recommends that contact tracing programs are prepared and up to standard to help mitigate any further transmission of COVID-19.
The Threat of Natural Disaster
It is unlikely, but certainly possible, that a hurricane could hit the United States on or shortly before Election Day. Atlantic hurricane season goes from June 1st to November 30. Historically, between the years of 1851 and 2015, there were 58 November hurricanes, 5 of which made landfall in the United States; clearly 2020 is a record year. This particular season has seen a large number of named storms, and it is possible that it will see more before it ends. Voting has already been affected by one hurricane, and another one could further complicate the election.
Hurricane Zeta, the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana and the 27th hurricane of 2020, made landfall in the Gulf Coast on October 28, 2020. Six people were killed and more than 2 million were left without power. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has said that up to eleven polling sites in the city may still be without power on Election Day. Mayor Cantrell has stated that Kyle Ardoin, the Republican Secretary of State, is refusing to provide support for generators to power the polling sites. It is unclear whether these sites will receive generators by Tuesday or if voters will have to be redirected to other precincts. As of 10:00 AM on November 1st, another storm, Tropical Storm Eta, is currently strengthening in the Gulf of Mexico, but its path is uncertain after that.
If Tropical Storm Eta were to hit the United States near or on Election Day, particularly if it hit a state like Florida and was strong enough to force evacuations, it could potentially impact the outcome of the election and create civil unrest. Polling stations could be without power causing chaos and strife among those wanting to vote. It is also unclear if/how the Supreme Court would intervene. There are many questions to be answered, and without historical examples of how to proceed, many are left in the dark.
A hurricane hitting close to, or on, Election Day can be mitigated. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York and New Jersey both took action in order to make sure their citizens could safely vote. In both states, governors allowed people affected by the storm to cast provisional ballots at locations outside of their precinct. The question is whether or not the Republican Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, will take similar action.
Depending on where a potential hurricane hit and what legal actions were taken afterwards, a Florida hurricane could tilt the outcome of the election to President Trump or Vice President Biden. Florida is famously known as a swing state that can determine the winner of the Electoral College in a presidential election. Many of the more rural counties, particularly in the panhandle region, vote Republican by wide margins, and a hurricane hitting this region could give Joe Biden an advantage. On the other hand, the three most populous localities, Miami-Dade County, Broward County, and Palm Beach County, all in the southeast, are more supportive of Democrats, and a hurricane hitting here could seal a Trump victory.
If a hurricane hit, what would play out afterwards would likely depend on who won the state after an election-disrupting hurricane. If an election-disrupting hurricane influenced the outcome to make Trump win, there would likely be widespread protests against the Trump Administration and against Governor DeSantis for using a natural disaster to win an election. Some of these protests would likely have instances of violence or rioting. On the other hand, if the hurricane’s impact caused Biden to win the state, President Trump would likely claim fraud and attempt to inspire supporters to take action.
While losing the state would not spell doom for the Biden campaign, a Biden victory in Florida would almost certainly destroy President Trump’s chances of winning the election. A hurricane preventing Trump supporters from voting would likely breed a festering resentment, akin to a “stabbed in the back” myth, among far-right extremists and strong supporters of President Trump. This narrative would be pushed by Russian disinformation campaigns, as well as President Trump himself, who has so far refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. This myth could inspire individuals to take up arms against Democratic politicians and voters well beyond the end of 2020.
This could drive rising extremism in the United States. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have found, white supremacist violence is the greatest domestic terror threat today., Resentment driven by the aftermath of a vote-disrupting hurricane could likely cement a dangerous narrative as a driver of violent extremism for years.
CTG recommends that partner agencies, organizations, and companies (AOCs) take proactive and preparatory action to deal with such a scenario. Civil society organizations can encourage voting early through social media, digital, and door-to-door campaigns. Companies can use voting early as part of promotional campaigns to further decrease the number of voters who could potentially be impacted by a natural disaster. While it is likely too late for government agencies to change the rules of early voting, they can do what they can to promote it as an option. Additionally, law enforcement agencies can begin preparing for potential unrest now, particularly by coordinating with state and federal officials to ensure public safety after the election.
The Threat of Civil Unrest
Civil unrest surrounding the 2020 presidential election is very likely. Tensions are high, and the political parties are so polarized that many view the result of this election as vital for the future of the United States. Candidate Joe Biden is even campaigning with the claim that this election is a battle for the “soul of America.” Add to this the contradictory messaging about the legitimacy of mail-in voting, and no matter the results of the election, it is highly probable that the United States will experience unrest.
Typically, citizens of the US anticipate two outcomes on election night: a Republican victory or a Democratic win. Partially due to the pandemic and partially due to President Trump’s refusal to state whether or not he will honor the results of the election, there are more outcomes on the table. The 2020 election cycle seems to be much more complicated with the potential for a Republican Party win, a Democratic Party win where Donald Trump concedes, a Democratic Party win where Donald Trump disputes the results of the election and does not concede. Additionally, there are only a few, narrow, paths to a definitive election night win for either candidate due to the massive numbers of mail-in ballots being used this year. This means that one candidate could be in the lead after election night, but then another candidate wins when the results of mail-in ballots are added to the tally.
If Joe Biden wins the election, there is a possibility that Donald Trump could refuse to concede to the results of the election. This could mobilize right-wing groups and other Trump supporters to protest the result on his behalf. Additionally, the counter-protest track record of Antifa would indicate that there is a possibility of mobilization to counter the pro-Trump, anti-election results protesters. A win by Donald Trump also does not guarantee peaceful acceptance. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 is indicative of a growing impatience with the administration’s handling of many issues, and the promise of another four years of a Donald Trump presidency could motivate protests and civil unrest. Finally, the potential for a drawn-out election result means that each candidate could appear in the lead at different points in the counting process. President Trump has a history of claiming that elections are “rigged,” and there is an opportunity for him to claim that mail-in ballots are invalid and the election night results of in-person voting should be taken as the official result if they favor him. These claims could mobilize both his base to support him and his detractors to oppose him.
The best way to counter this threat is a smooth and fair election process to reassure the public that the results of the election are legitimate. This involves monitoring expectations in the lead-up to the election, preparing people to not know the results on election night. Updates by election officials during the vote counting process would also serve to assure people that what is happening behind closed doors is not shady or corrupt. On a more local level, law enforcement should consider implementing curfews and running drills to prepare for protests and other types of civil unrest.
The Threat of Cyber Attacks
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 presidential election has been forced to depend largely on online infrastructures, making cyber attacks a likely threat for both campaigns and citizens. Microsoft has anticipated that a Russian military intelligence unit that conducted a spear-phishing attack on the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election will attempt to target personnel from both Democratic and Republican campaigns during the 2020 election. Chinese and Iranian hackers may also attempt to interfere with the election in order to stage disinformation campaigns and manipulate the election to favor one candidate over another. Spreading disinformation may be done by infiltrating social media sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and hacking campaign email lists, which may confuse individuals or sow chaos. Trickbot, a ransomware distributor and botnet, was recently disrupted for posing as a threat with the ability to infect a computer system used to report election-night statistics or maintain voter rolls. The success of malware systems such as these may expose voters’ personal information, which may erode their trust and lead them to disengage from the election. An advantage to cybercriminals is that voters are already susceptible to cyber attacks because of the pre-established polarization of the American society and the conflicting information regarding voting through mail. It is paramount that cybercrime reporting sites and Big Tech companies strive to quash election-related spoofing created by foreign adversaries in order to ensure that the election is fair and that democracy is protected.
Yet this is not to say that the 2020 presidential election may be targeted only by nation-state operatives. It is also likely that domestic terrorists—radicalized members of the far-right and the far-left—may engage in cybercrime to influence voters. Feeling support from President Donald Trump, far-right groups such as The Proud Boys have been able to recruit new members at a higher rate, which may give them the opportunity to branch out from their usual in-person methods of violence and develop a cybercrime operation during the election. Failing to acknowledge domestic terrorists as potential cybercriminals threatening the 2020 election may guarantee that U.S. election systems remain vulnerable to manipulation both now and in the future.
CTG recommends that AOCs remain vigilant in identifying malware and maintain coordinated information-sharing with Big Tech Companies. AOCs should address propaganda on a widely publicized basis to dispel misinformation and to increase the trust of voters in government systems. Additionally, AOCs should attempt to increase funding for elections and train personnel to report suspicious online activity or information. Elections are heavily underfunded and require financial assistance for upgraded technology with the cybersecurity systems needed to deter skilled cybercriminals. Lastly, AOCs should periodically perform a checkup on official election-related websites and social media pages and update cybersecurity functions if needed. Ensuring that these sources are protected regularly may decrease the rate of voters affected by scams and malware. CTG itself will focus on collecting intelligence on both foreign and domestic cybercriminal operatives by conducting Threat Hunting operations, and will develop analyses useful for law enforcement and other AOCs.
The Counterterrorism Group remains committed to detecting, deterring, and defending against threats to the public safety of Americans until and beyond the November 2020 presidential election. This joint threat assessment report was written in cross-team collaboration with analysts from the CRIME, NORTHCOM, and EMH2 teams. The full resources of these teams and The Counterterrorism Group will be brought to bear in the weeks ahead to meet the need of an election cycle occurring under a heightened threat environment. CTG will continue to collaborate with outside agencies, organizations, and companies, to accomplish the task of countering the threats that arise in the lead up and aftermath of the 2020 US Presidential election.
This report would not have been possible without the hard work of the following analysts:
EMH2 (Emergency Management, Health, and Hazards) Team: Richard Catherina, Erin Zalaoras, Austin Taylor
NORTHCOM Team: Dani Reyes, Nina Smith
CRIME Team: Ephraim Mulugeta, Moon Jung Kim
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