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FLASH ALERT: CONGRESSIONAL STAFF MEMBERS ATTACKED AMID RISE IN VIOLENCE AGAINST POLITICAL FIGURES

Lydia Baccino, Agathe Labadi, Virginia Martos Blanco, Giulia Provenza NORTHCOM

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

May 15, 2023


US Flag[1]


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT to all political representatives after two congressional staff members were attacked at the Fairfax office of Representative Gerry Connolly. The suspect, identified by U.S. Capitol Police as the local 49-year-old Xuan Kha Tran Pham, is in custody and faces charges of aggravated malicious wounding and malicious wounding. The attack occurred at around 1040 local time when the individuals entered the office with a “metal bat” and struck two staff members in the upper body. Both victims were left unconscious due to injuries sustained. The motive of the attack is still unknown. During the attack, the attacker also caused damage to government property by breaking glass and computer software devices, a federal crime under Title 18 U.S.C. 1361. This attack is the latest attack towards political officials following a rise of violent threats and hate speech.


CTG is on HIGH alert for the safety of all political figures, their staff, and government buildings that will likely be targets of further threats and violent attacks in the run up to the 2024 elections. The high unpredictability online and physically will LIKELY require additional security forces and measures to increase surveillance, frisk, protection, prevention, and intervention. Attacks will LIKELY include defamation, extortion, stabbing, shooting, and violent protests. The anti-government rhetoric that is ALMOST CERTAINLY the root cause of attacks will VERY LIKELY continue to grow with the help of social media, where the limited to no content moderation ALMOST CERTAINLY allows hate and threatening posts to grow. Political staff should be on HIGH alert during this upcoming election campaign as threats and attacks will likely be more frequent, with a HIGH LIKELIHOOD that a large scale attack planned close to Election Day and the days following, dependent on election results.


An individual, identified by US Capitol Police as 49-year-old Xuan Kha Tran Pham, entered the Fairfax Office in Virginia on Monday morning at approximately 1040 local time.[2] The suspect asked directly for House Representative Gerry Connolly before assaulting two congressional staff members, striking them with a metal bat.[3] The victims were left unconscious until first responders arrived shortly after. It has been reported that both victims are doing okay and suffered non-life threatening injuries.[4] Connolly described the 49-year-old as “filled with out-of-control rage,” and now faces charges of one count of aggravated malicious wounding and one count of malicious wounding.[5] During the attack the accused also caused material damages on government property by breaking glass and computer software devices, a federal crime under Title 18 U.S.C. 1361, but charges for this are unknown presently. CBS reported that an individual with the same name filed a lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a substantial sum of $29 million for “brutally torturing” him “from the fourth dimension.”[6] The US Department of Justice dismissed this claim earlier in the year.

US Capitol Police, responsible for the protection of Congress members, have stated that threats against political officials have been on the increase in recent years. 2022 saw this law enforcement agency investigate approximately 7,500 potential threats. Data provided by the Capitol Police proves this claim; cases relating to threats made towards political officials rose from 3,939 in 2017 to 9,625 in 2021. Especially in times of social and political tensions, political representatives can be the target of attacks and hatred. There have been several threats and violent incidents against political representatives. In 2022, Paul Pelosi, the husband of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was hospitalized after authorities say a hammer-wielding man assaulted him during a break-in early in the morning.[7] In 2022, a Pennsylvania resident pleaded guilty in court to making threats to shoot and kill an unidentified member of Congress.[8] These events show the seriousness of the crime and how it is underscored by the potential risks that public officials face in carrying out their responsibilities. Threats against elected officials not only jeopardize their personal safety but also undermine the fundamental principles of democratic governance.

The US intelligence community will very likely prioritize the development of strategies to ensure the safety of politicians during their engagements in upcoming election campaigns. There is a roughly even chance that the they will allocate significant resources during election campaigns to detect and identify potential threats emanating from the public. By focusing on proactive threat detection, they will very likely ensure the safety of political candidates, campaign events, and the overall integrity of the democratic system. There is a roughly even chance that the intelligence community will provide additional authority to law enforcement to improve the detection system and conduct more comprehensive citizen background checks. This will very likely contribute to a more transparent electoral process, thereby protecting the integrity of elections.


Anti-government hate speech will very likely be spread on social media platforms, helping to shape the political landscape and spread misinformation among citizens. Malicious actors experienced in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will very likely facilitate and increase the volume of disinformation campaigns through the sharing of fake content, including images, videos or texts. Social media algorithms, designed to customize the content to each user according to their interests, are very likely to boost their spread by reaching a wide audience that will likely include vulnerable groups already discontent with the political environment. The proliferation of disinformation is likely to contribute to political polarization and deepen divisions within society, reinforcing individuals' existing beliefs. Disinformation will very likely be exploited by extremist groups to manipulate public opinion and organize anti-government protests and violent attacks against political representatives. By doing that, extremism groups will exploit the social media to recruit and attract new joiners who are already not satisfied with their own government. Extremist groups will very likely continue using memes and posts to capture the attention of a wide and younger audience. The US Intelligence community, along with security companies, will very likely monitor social media platforms to detect and avoid online radicalization.


In response to the increased risks and potential threats to political representatives, law enforcement and security personnel are likely to increase their presence and efforts to ensure their safety during upcoming elections. The accessibility of political officials makes them very likely to be vulnerable targets for different security threats, including physical attacks, harassment, shootings, and other types of violent acts. There is a roughly even chance that security personnel and law enforcement officers will closely collaborate with political officers to enhance personal security protocols, perform risk and threat assessment of public events in the upcoming elections, and secure transportation arrangements.


CTG recommends that government offices should monitor individuals' access to political buildings. This could be achieved by requiring constituents to make appointments to meet with their political representatives. Before allowing them to visit, security officers should conduct basic background checks on them to gauge their propensity towards violence. Security officers attached to these governmental areas/places should strengthen measures to detect and deter violent attacks by conducting physical checks with the assistance of metal detectors. We recommend that security officers stand guard at entrance doors to regulate access to each individual to help monitor who has access to said government space. CTG recommends that political representatives, staff, and security guards should be trained to confront violent/aggressive altercations. These training sessions should help them to control the situation and intervene in case of violence.


CTG also recommends that social media companies assist in the monitoring of online violent threats towards political staff and their closer family members as they have a high likelihood of occurring. This can be achieved by social media companies operating a shared hash database containing key terms and phrases that ease monitoring, making data available on who is engaging with these posts and any similar posts attached. Users should also report any violent threat or content posted online to the company’s own content moderation and to their local law enforcement. CTG’s NORTHCOM and Extremism teams will continue to monitor this rise in violent threats directed at political representatives and work with our OSINT team to gather information posted online about possible attacks. The W.A.T.C.H. (Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime, and Hazards) Officers will continue to monitor, record, and share any further developments.


CTG assesses that the current threat climate is HIGH given the ease of accessibility to political officials and their staff. Violent threats will almost certainly continue to grow, with physically violent attacks very likely to occur. All political candidates for upcoming elections should be put on HIGH alert due to the large quantity of constituents they will be engaging with. It is likely that candidates will interact with political dissenters who have the likelihood of turning violent. As election season begins and more proposals are put forward by candidates, it is likely that political representatives will gain more opposition, opening themselves to criticism and potential violence. Online hate and anti-governmental discourse will very likely increase until the end of election season. Online hate will likely encourage the posting and carrying out of threats towards political candidates and the perceived opposition of the dissenter, who likely believes is preventing favorable policies for them. During elections, candidates, political representatives, their staff, and followers should be on HIGH alert for a potential attack in the near future. Attacks could very likely take the form of destruction of government buildings, assaults, shooting attacks and large scale violent protests, as seen on January 6 during the Capitol Hill Riots.


Analysis indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY of online and real-life attacks against political figures, and their staff. There is a HIGH PROBABILITY that the violence will increase during election season, likely targeting high-profiles. There is a HIGH PROBABILITY this threat will very likely spread around the world, likely encouraged by online extremist and anti-government protests and groups. Sympathizers to these anti-governmental movements will likely support violent attacks and protests, likely raising hate discourses online and with growing copycat attacks increasing in likelihood.

 

[2] Bat-wielding attacker injures Virginia congressman's district office staff, NBC News, May 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/person-attacked-virginia-congressmans-staff-baseball-bat-district-offi-rcna84505

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Two congressional staffers attacked with baseball bat, BBC News, May 2023, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-65602907

[6] Ibid

[7] Paul Pelosi, husband of Nancy Pelosi, in hospital with skull fracture after attack, The Guardian, October 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/28/paul-pelosi-nancy-pelosi-attack-san-francisco-home

[8] Factbox: Threats and attacks on members of Congress, Reuters, October 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/us/threats-attacks-members-congress-2022-10-28/

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