Law enforcement agencies across Northeast Florida are increasing patrols as a precaution after federal authorities warned Friday that Islamic State sympathizers are continuing to call for attacks on churches and other holiday gathering sites.
The bulletin was issued by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security after a publicly available list of United States churches was posted on a militants' social media site.
Just days before Christmas, there was a strong presence of both police officers and sheriff's deputies in St. Augustine Friday evening as visitors packed the historic city for Nights of Lights.
"There’s a much heavier concentration of St. Johns County deputies, St. Augustine Police Department. There’s several firefighter apparatuses downtown. There’s much heavier concentration of public safety infrastructure than you would typically see on a weekend as we get closer to the holidays," explained Rick Parker, a retired assistant chief of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Parker said the warning from national security officials is just a precaution, but one that local law enforcement agencies take seriously.
"You’ll see a heavier concentration of public safety vehicles and people are planning for this. All the regional partners are talking and every year, it’s this way," Parker said.
FBI spokesman Andrew Ames said U.S. citizens are advised to maintain awareness of their surroundings and report suspicious activity. He said the FBI will work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies should there be any potential threat to public safety.
"The FBI is aware of the recent link published online that urges attacks against U.S. churches," Ames said. "As with similar threats, the FBI is tracking this matter while we investigate its credibility."
Parker echoed the same advice. While the warning is not something to lose sleep over, he said, it serves as an important reminder to always be on the lookout for any potential red flags.
"It’s paying attention and reacting quickly and have a sense of your surroundings and be able to react quickly. And those who react quickly and be able to think under pressure do very, very well under dramatic, real-time events," Parker said.
The warning also came just days after Monday's attack at a Christmas market in Berlin that left 12 dead and 56 injured.
Separately on Friday, police in Australia detained five men suspected of planning a series of Christmas Day attacks using explosives, knives and a gun in the heart of Melbourne.
Federal authorities said there have been no known credible threats, but they're using the information they do have to get out in front of any potential attack and prepare for a worst-case scenario.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.