Iran, the Islamic State group, and domestic extremists: These are just a few of the myriad potential threats to the Super Bowl this year, according to a government threat assessment obtained by Yahoo News.
The Jan. 27 document, a product of federal agencies, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, and local law enforcement, notes that there is no information on a specific credible threat planned against the Super Bowl but outlines a variety of potential threats, from terrorists poisoning the food or water supply to an attack using commercial drones. It also states “the FBI and DHS remain concerned about potential retaliatory attacks” by Iran in response to the U.S. assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani last year.
“Although security measures will be in place around Super Bowl LV and adjacent areas on the day of the game, Super Bowl LV and associated events are likely an attractive target due to the relatively high concentration of attendees, symbolism of the event, and the significant national media attention the event will receive,” the assessment says.
The report, called a Joint Special Event Threat Assessment, is produced for a variety of high-profile gatherings and distributed to local, state and federal agencies.
Tom Warrick, a former senior Department of Homeland Security official, says the idea of a threat against the Super Bowl is not surprising given events in recent years. “Decades ago, NFL security’s worry was someone running onto the field,” he said. “Today they’re already thinking about militia groups and lone wolves — whether they’re listed in a DHS threat assessment or not.”
The Kansas City Chiefs will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa on Feb. 7.
In 2020, more than 60,000 people attended the Super Bowl, but due to current COVID-19 restrictions, only about 25,000 are expected this year.
While the report references the threat from domestic violent extremists, in addition to foreign terrorist organizations, it makes no specific mention of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The Department of Homeland Security did, however, issue a general advisory bulletin last week warning about the heightened threat from violent extremists objecting to the presidential transition or fueled by conspiracy theories.
Former FBI Agent Mike German, who reviewed a copy of the Super Bowl threat assessment provided by Yahoo News, criticized the the document for referencing “black separatism” among domestic extremists, but not mentioning white supremacists. He said the document’s citation of extremists motivated by “racism or injustice in American society” appeared to be a “clearly inappropriate reference to Black Lives Matter activists peacefully protesting police violence.”
“The report basically says, ‘We don’t have any specific information about a particularized threat, but here are a hundred things that could go wrong.’ How could that be useful to anyone but an agency that wants to be able to say ‘We told you so’ if any one of the hundred possible threats is realized?” said German, who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.
German said the report’s grab bag list of threats was not helpful for law enforcement, whose job it is to help secure the event. “It would be silly if it wasn’t so dangerous,” he said. “What is the point of including the detailed warning about the radio broadcasted threat that Iranians would fly a plane into the U.S. Capitol to avenge Soleimani’s death, only to say the government does not regard the threat as credible? Why recirculate and amplify it through the intelligence network if it isn’t credible? Especially because the report doesn’t even mention the actual attack on the U.S. Capitol by white supremacists and far-right militants that killed five people on that same date, which seems an odd omission.”
It’s unclear why authorities singled out Black separatists as a potential threat, but not white supremacists or right-wing extremists, who conducted the majority of domestic attacks last year. The FBI’s official categorization for such threats is “racially motivated violent extremists,” which it has used as an umbrella term for both white supremacists and a variety of groups associated with Black Americans.
The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment. The FBI told Yahoo News that the FBI routinely shares information on domestic extremists, but “does not track and monitor groups.”
“The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security, and we cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s exercise of First Amendment rights, race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion,” an FBI spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Our focus is not on speech or membership in particular groups, but on individuals who commit violence and other criminal acts. We do not police ideology.”
Yet the FBI’s conflation of these groups has drawn criticism from civil rights organizations, lawmakers and others, and a former Obama counterterrorism official, who asked not to be named, said the threat assessment follows this same faulty logic.
“The product conflates two distinct threats: domestic white supremacist terrorism and a non-threat of social justice, police brutality protester,” said the former Obama administration counterterrorism official, who reviewed the document for Yahoo News. “Domestic white supremacist terrorism has been the most lethal threat for the past 10 years compared to any other group,” including al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
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