This article is part of Flashpoint’s 2021 Intel Wrap-Up series. To read our report on holiday retail fraud, including an outline about how retailers can mitigate these threats, click here.
Anti-Mask tensions: Based on recent altercations between anti-mask protesters and frontline employees in the retail, hospitality, and public transportation sectors, analysts assess with high confidence that the frequency of these assaults will likely continue or increase during the holiday season.
Merchandise shortages: The global supply chain is struggling to recover after COVID shutdowns, which has resulted in retailers across the country experiencing merchandise shortages throughout the holiday season. This will likely lead to an increase in confrontations with retail staff or physical altercations between customers.
Vulnerability of public holiday gatherings: Large holiday events and public gatherings may become a target of opportunity due to the concentration of crowds at celebrations, the perceived vulnerability of those partaking in festivities, and the inherent significance of holidays. While the November 21, 2021 vehicular ramming that occurred at a Wisconsin Christmas parade was reportedly the result of a getaway and not an act of terror, it highlights the vulnerability of public holiday events.
Jihadist threat endures: The jihadist threat to holiday celebrations, locations, and events remains elevated. Moreover, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the civil and political unrest around the world has further galvanized terrorist groups and presented them and prospective attackers with new opportunities to incite and carry out attacks. As such, vigilance in public spaces, including at holiday events and markets, should remain high.
Potential physical threats: Overview
Twenty months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, frustration with public health measures, widespread online misinformation, and growing political polarization—combined with a pandemic-driven economic downturn and supply shortages—continues to heighten social tension and potentially induce public unrest.
Flashpoint analysts assess with high confidence that these social, political, and economic factors will likely contribute to a tempestuous physical threat environment during the 2021 holiday season.
Furthermore, given the symbolism of the holidays and the opportunities afforded to illicit actors by concentrated crowds in a relaxed posture, Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate confidence that the jihadist threat this holiday season will remain elevated.
Vulnerability of public gatherings
Large holiday events and public gatherings—like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and US and European Christmas markets—may become a target of opportunity; such events allow threat actors to target large groups of concentrated crowds who have minimal ability to escape.
There are both tactical and symbolic considerations for threat actors’ interest in targeting the holidays: the concentration of crowds at celebrations; the perceived vulnerability of those partaking in festivities; and the inherent significance of holidays—both religious and cultural.
The intrinsic importance of holidays also offers a symbolic value for striking such targets and increased exposure for “successful” attacks.
Individuals expressing opposition to mask wearing have staged mass protests, targeted businesses mandating masks, and assaulted employees enforcing mask policies. Physical threats posed by anti-mask protesters include disruption of business operations, vandalism, and assault. In some incidents, anti-mask protesters have used lethal force against individuals who asked them to wear masks.
Mass protests in the U.S.
Since the pandemic began, individuals who oppose COVID-19 health measures—including the use of face masks—have organized and attended protests to voice their grievances. Since April 2021, groups of individuals who oppose these measures have promoted “worldwide freedom rallies” to protest lockdown policies, face mask mandates, and vaccine campaigns.
On at least one occasion, analysts identified the leader of a US anti-government militia, Chris Hill of the Georgia-based “Three Percenters,” promoting these events.
Mass protests: International
Demonstrations against face masks and other COVID-19 health measures have also taken place outside the United States. Since July 2021, protesters have staged weekly protests across France to voice their opposition to lockdowns, masks, and vaccines. In August, the French Interior Ministry estimated that between 160,000 and 200,000 individuals attended each weekend of protests held around the country that month.
Similar protests in the summer and fall of 2021 attracted significant crowds in other countries, including Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. Most recently, over the past week, anti-lockdown protests erupted across Europe, some even turning violent. Groups of protestors in the Netherlands, for instance, reportedly threw large projectiles at law enforcement and first responders, set fires, and battered drivers. As numbers across Europe rise and governments respond with new measures to combat the virus, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in these events.
Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate-to-high confidence that these events will likely continue over the winter months, and will likely incur traffic disruption, vandalism against public and private property, and confrontations between protesters, counterprotesters, and law enforcement officers.
Some individuals who oppose face masks have willfully refused to comply with public and private mask policies. In an apparent attempt to create a commotion and draw attention to their cause, these individuals have often intentionally confronted employees enforcing the policies, recorded their tense interactions, and shared the videos online.
While some of these incidents appear to be unplanned, others have been planned and promoted online. On February 13, 2021, an online network of California-based anti-mask protesters organized a maskless walk-in at a Santa Cruz, Calif. grocery store that had a mask policy. Naming their disruption “Operation Cash Drop,” the protesters uploaded videos of the incident to video-sharing sites and created a website with a manual on how to conduct similar activities.
In April 2021, a network of anti-mask protesters operating on Telegram and Instagram began promoting maskless walk-ins targeting US-based stores with mask policies. On the group’s Telegram channel, members share videos of incidents in which they enter businesses without wearing masks and proceed to harass and confront masked employees and customers; they also hawk their own merchandise.
Based on anti-mask groups’ continuous use of Telegram and other online platforms to plan and promote maskless walk-in protests, Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate to high confidence that individuals associated with these groups are likely to stage protests during the holiday shopping season to attract attention to their cause.
Physical violence in the U.S.
On occasion, hostile interactions between anti-mask individuals and employees enforcing mask policies have escalated into physical assault and even homicide. None of these incidents appears to be linked to organized anti-mask groups. In May 2020, in one of the earliest reported such incidents in the United States, four people in the same family were charged for fatally shooting a grocery store security guard who asked one of them to wear a mask.
Since then, news outlets and law enforcement authorities have reported multiple violent cases involving mask disputes across the country, including the January 2021 killing of a Baltimore bus driver by a maskless passenger and the February 2021 killing of a police officer by a maskless attendee of a New Orleans high school basketball game.
Physical violence: International
Similar outbursts of violence have also occurred outside the United States. In March 2021 in Brazil, a man fatally shot a business owner who had asked him to wear a mask.
In October 2021, a subway passenger in Spain punched another passenger who asked him to wear a mask; the person who was attacked later lost sight in one of his eyes.
Flashpoint analysts assess with moderate-to-high confidence that built-up frustration over mask policies, poor economic prospects, and widespread product shortages will likely lead to increased tension during the holiday shopping season—potentially leading to violent altercations between shoppers and employees.
Merchandise shortages, record out-of-stocks
As the global supply chain is still struggling to recover after COVID-19 shutdowns, retailers across the country are very likely to experience merchandise shortages throughout the holiday season. Foot traffic in stores is expected to increase as COVID-19-related restrictions are lifted. The heightened tension surrounding holiday shopping combined with customers’ inability to obtain the items they seek will likely lead to an increase in confrontations with retail staff or physical altercations between customers attempting to purchase the same item.
According to Adobe Analytics, apparel is anticipated to have the highest out-of-stock margins, followed by sporting goods and electronics. Merchandise shortages are very likely to increase shipping times; it is possible that a large number of packages will not reach their destination in time for the intended holiday. This will likely result in customers harassing employees of post offices and delivery services out of frustration over late packages.
Black Friday and “doorbusters”
Large and unruly crowds are an inherent component of Black Friday “doorbuster” sales. As of this writing, Black Friday shopping events since 2006 have led to approximately 14 deaths and 117 injuries.
To ensure the safety of employees and customers, retail establishments are advised to design, review, and practice store opening procedures before the holiday shopping season. The National Retail Federation is projecting holiday retail sales for 2021 to set an all-time high as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Implementing the following security measures may increase the safety of retail employees and customers.
Entry and Exit Control: Employees are frequently injured during the initial door opening on Black Friday due to stampeding customers. Facilities should ensure that employees can open the doors remotely or from a safe or elevated position. Stores should ensure that customers can only enter through designated entry points; exit, employee, and delivery doors should be secured to prevent unauthorized access.
Strategic Merchandise Placement: Strategic placement of merchandise—specifically Black Friday deals—may reduce large pile-ups of customers at entrances, increase traffic flow, and increase visibility on pilferable items. Retailers should consider spreading the sales items throughout the store and keeping these items clear of checkout counters to reduce customer density in high-traffic areas.
Recently, in an attempt to mitigate the chaotic rush of people on Black Friday, retail establishments began opening their doors in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, which is becoming known as “Brown Thursday.”
In addition to taking advantage of the extended shopping hours around Black Friday, many shoppers elect to forego brick-and-mortar establishments and conduct their holiday shopping online the Monday after Thanksgiving—Cyber Monday. Shopping online this holiday season will present its own complications—shipping delays are highly likely due to the above-noted merchandise shortages.
Blackout Black Friday
This year, the movement “Blackout Black Friday,” which has gained traction across various digital platforms, is calling for a boycott of Black Friday on November 26, 2021. Followers of the movement are advocating for retail workers to stay home and for patrons to avoid shopping—both in-store and online—and dining out.
The ensuing possibility of staff shortages at retail establishments on Black Friday may combine with the likely frustrations surrounding merchandise shortages to cause increased confrontations between customers and retail staff.
The warning came less than two weeks after police in northern Virginia announced that they were increasing security around malls after what was described as a credible ISIS threat that specific weekend. Outside the United States, at least five attacks (and attempted attacks) in Europe were linked to individuals with potential jihadist motives over the last month. There is no evidence to suggest that these incidents were related.
These threats are likely to increase as the holiday period nears; historically, there is an increase in jihadist propaganda and physical attacks and attempts around this time. Flashpoint analysts continue to observe online attempts by both ISIS and al-Qaeda (and supporting media entities) to inspire their supporters to commit attacks, especially in the West. Notably, several of these attempts focus on the opportunities presented by ongoing worldwide protests and holiday crowds.
Annual jihadist threat
Jihadist threats to holiday celebrations, locations, and events are commonplace. Though such threats largely consist of inflammatory rhetoric aimed at inciting supporters and antagonizing enemies—leveraging the holidays to garner more attention—there is precedent of jihadists striking holiday targets. These incidents include the December 12, 2018, shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, and the December 19, 2016, attack in Berlin, Germany, in which an ISIS supporter drove a truck into crowds at a Christmas market. Flashpoint analysts assess with high confidence jihadists are likely to issue more holiday-themed threats as the upcoming holidays near.