By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a new terrorism warning bulletin, said violent extremists could view the reimposition of COVID-19-related restrictions following the spread of coronavirus variants as a rationale to conduct attacks.
The new DHS bulletin also warned of the risk of "targeted violence" around the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington and around religious holidays.
The department said that COVID-19-related stress has "contributed to increased societal strains and tensions, driving several plots by domestic violent extremists, and they may contribute to more violence this year."
In a bulletin issued in May, DHS had warned that domestic extremists could take advantage of moves earlier this year to ease COVID-19 restrictions to launch attacks on a broader range of targets.
In an interview with CNN, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said his department considered domestic violent extremists to constitute "the greatest terrorist-related threat to our homeland." He said the Department was seeing expressions of extremism fueled by "false narratives" and "ideologies of hate."
U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, welcomed the DHS warning but said it was "troubling that the terrorism threat increasingly is based on grievance-based violence and conspiracy theories, especially related to the election and former President Trump."
The rapid spread of the Delta variant and a related spike in COVID-19 infections has caused some U.S. states to reimpose stiffer guidelines related to mask-wearing and gatherings.
The latest DHS bulletin also noted that al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula branch had recently released the first English-language version of its "Inspire" magazine in four years, which DHS says is evidence that violent foreign militants are still trying to inspire U.S. followers to engage in attacks.
DHS said it was promoting "authoritative sources of information" in order to "debunk" and if possible "pre-empt" disinformation.
DHS warned that media outlets linked to the Russian, Chinese and Iranian governments had "repeatedly" amplified conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of vaccines.
(Reporting by Timothy Ahmann and Mark Hosenball in WashingtonEditing by Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)