Nothing succeeds like success

(Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At least in the eyes of the motley assortment of violent extremists and groups that participated in overrunning the US Capitol on Jan. 6. And that success is going to be seen as inspiration for more violence.

That is just one of the conclusions reached in the Joint Intelligence Bulletin (JIB) released last week by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and National Counterterrorism Center. This bulletin sounded the alarms that led to a massive security presence at state houses around the country over the weekend and the transformation of the area around the Capitol and the White House into a fortified militarized zone ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration.

With as many as 25,000 troops providing security as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as our next president and vice president, it is the biggest such security presence in US history, eclipsing Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. The Washington Post described that scene the other day. As Lincoln stood to address the throngs arrayed on the lawn outside the East Portico of the Capitol:

… below the platform the Army had deployed artillery. Snipers watched from rooftops and windows, and Lincoln had been guarded by infantry and cavalry on his carriage ride through the streets to the Capitol.

On March 4, 1861, while Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, the country was on the brink of civil war. When Biden delivers his, will we be in similar straits?

The January 13 Joint Intelligence Bulletin is one of the most detailed and specific that I can recall in laying out the imminent and ongoing risks of terrorism committed by what the agencies call DVEs, Domestic Violent Extremists. Before getting into the meat of the bulletin, I want to call attention to the terminological gymnastics that federal law enforcement goes to in order to avoid using the word “terrorist” to label these actors. Here’s a quote from the bulletin’s first footnote:

The FBI, DHS, and NCTC define a domestic violent extremist as an individual based and operating primarily within the United States or its territories without direction or inspiration from a foreign terrorist group or other foreign power who seeks to further political or social goals wholly or in part through unlawful acts of force or violence.

That sounds like the definition of a domestic terrorist to me. But the rest of the footnote adds an important caveat, which helps us understand why the “T” word isn’t in play here:

The mere advocacy of political or social positions, political activism, use of strong rhetoric, or generalized philosophic embrace of violent tactics may not constitute extremism, and may be constitutionally protected.

In principle I get this splitting of hairs. Terrorism is fundamentally an action, a form of political action. It is too easy to apply the label where and when it doesn’t belong, especially since doing so tends to have the intended effect of delegitimizing the ideas and grievances of political opponents branded with that word. But as you read through the JIB, it is very clear that the warnings here are about potential acts of terrorism, not constitutionally protected acts of speech or assembly.

So how does Jan. 6 figure into these warnings? First, as the JIB makes clear, some of these domestic terrorist groups present at the Capitol view the violent breaching of the building as a success to build upon. It united in common action violent extremists across the far-right ideological spectrum — anti-government armed militias, white supremacists and white nationalists, religious extremists, QAnon conspiracists, and pro-Trump extremists.

Second, the death of a QAnon conspiracist shot to death by Capitol Police as she tried to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, adds a new name to the ranks of martyrs venerated by the far right. As the JIB states in a footnote:

The perception that deaths of like-minded individuals at the hands of law enforcement were unjust has historically been a significant driver for DVEs. DVEs have seized on the deaths … at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992; US persons at the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas in 1993; and … [in Maryland] in 2020 to justify threats against law enforcement and government officials.

What are the likely targets should these groups and individuals continue to escalate violence? According to the JIB the list is a familiar one, especially if you’ve read any of posts I’ve written on far-right domestic terrorism over the last five years:

  • Racial, ethnic or religious minorities and institutions
  • Members of law enforcement
  • Government officials and buildings
  • Members of the LGBTQ+ community
  • Members of the press due to perceived complicity in a system hostile to the extremists’s beliefs

But the perceived success of Jan. 6 is only one factor contributing to this heightened threat environment. According to the JIB, the shifting political landscape with Democrats taking control of both White House and Senate, coupled with the ongoing amplification of false claims of fraud surrounding the General Election and proliferation of conspiracy theories, will provide impetus for increased threats of violence. Specifically:

  • “The potential for shifts in various policies many DVEs may perceive to oppose or threaten their ideological goals or agendas, or feed into existing narratives or conspiracy theories many DVEs subscribe to regarding the US government’s exercise of power, influence and initiatives: possibly including gun control legislation, the easing of immigration restrictions, and new limits on the use of public land.”
  • “Ongoing false narratives by DVEs that the 2020 General Election was illegitimate, or fraudulent, and the subsequent belief its results should be contested or unrecognized.”
  • “Some DVEs’ discontent … with renewed measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the ordered dissemination of COVID-19 vaccinations, and the efficacy and/or safety of … vaccinations.”

The outlook, according to the intelligence bulletin, is pretty dark. DVEs continue to use social media to call for attacks on government infrastructure and officials. And there is this chilling statement:

The shared false narrative of a ‘stolen’ election and opposition to the change in control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government may lead some individuals to adopt the belief that there is no political solution to address their grievances and violent action is necessary.

And that conclusion, that violence is the only viable way forward to achieve desired political goals, is the textbook statement of how terrorists justify their actions.

Yeah, I think they are at risk

(Credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Back in October, in response to questions from local journalists, I argued that the risks of reporters and other media figures being intentionally targeted by violent political actors (OK, OK, domestic terrorists) was relatively low.

My thinking has changed in the wake of the escalation of political violence that we saw on Jan. 6 and the continuing dangers of more and greater violence in the coming days and weeks.

A week ago we watched pro-Trump mobs storming the U.S. Capitol pause to assault members of the media, delivering the violence against journalists the president has been inciting literally for years.

To cut to the chase, after last Wednesday I don’t think media organizations can automatically assume that their reporters, photographers, and camera crews will be safe at any pro-Trump demonstration in the future, especially if his supporters show up armed. Members of the media should maintain maximum situational awareness and have a plan for how to get out of harm’s way if they need to.

In short, I think media organizations covering a pro-Trump demonstration need to treat it the same way they’d treat sending their staff into a war zone. The risks are that real.

When I thought about this four months ago, my feeling was that the main danger to journalists covering protests and counter-protests during the summer came largely, and unfortunately, from the police, who we saw intentionally targeting journalists with rubber bullets and chemical irritants both here in Detroit and across the United States. I also knew, and the data backs it up, that the most likely perpetrators of domestic terrorism in the United States were unlikely to intentionally target journalists.

These most-likely perpetrators — white supremacists and white nationalists, neo-Nazi groups, violent anti-abortion activists and groups, armed anti-government militias — have had different targets in their sights. In short, journalists have historically fallen outside their “legitimate target” set. But now that a number of these groups have rallied behind Trump, and that the president has explicitly and repeatedly described journalists as “enemies of the people,” I don’t think we can assume that will remain the case. 

I am not saying this because I have knowledge of any specific plot or threats against journalists. I say this because it would fit the pattern that we see in terrorism generally.

There is a connection between what terrorist groups and violent political actors — so-called lone wolf terrorists — believe and who and what they target for violence.* Their worldview or ideology shapes their identification of legitimate targets. In embracing Trump, his enemies become their enemies.

So that’s Democrats, Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump, public officials who refused to back his attempt to steal the election. And journalists. There is precedent for this. In 2018 Cesar Sayoc, a pro-Trump extremist, mailed letter bombs to more than a dozen politicians, media companies, and prominent Trump critics. 

I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I do think it is important for media organizations to be aware of this changing landscape and to be as fully prepared as possible to keep their people safe.

*It occurs to me that I need to write a post that describes this dynamic. But not this evening.

A warning of ‘war’ unheeded

(Credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The day before the deadly attack on the US Capitol carried out by pro-Trump extremists, the Norfolk, VA field office of the FBI sent this dire warning to the bureau’s Washington, D.C. field office:

As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington. D.C. … An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating ‘Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.

That warning, briefed at the time to officials in the D.C. office and revealed earlier today by The Washington Post, was apparently ignored. Security at the Capitol was woefully inadequate and Capitol Police seemingly unprepared when the building was assaulted by a pro-Trump mob that numbered in the thousands. People died, including a Capitol Police officer, beaten to death by enraged, fanatical followers of Donald Trump.

And there may be worse yet to come. The FBI is warning that armed groups are planning a series of actions at state capitals around the country and again in Washington. D.C. beginning this weekend and continuing through Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. And late Monday, the new leadership of the Capitol Police briefed House Democrats on three violent right-wing plots planned in coming days against the government of the United States. One of those plots describes an armed attack to encircle the Capitol, Supreme Court, and White House. According to lawmakers:

… Capitol Police and the National Guard were preparing for potentially tens of thousands of armed protesters coming to Washington and were establishing rules of engagement for warfare. In general, the military and police don’t plan to shoot anyone until one of the rioters fires, but there could be exceptions.

Lawmakers were told that the plot to encircle the Capitol also included plans to surround the White House ― so that no one could harm Trump ― and the Supreme Court, simply to shut down the courts. The plan to surround the Capitol includes assassinating Democrats as well as Republicans who didn’t support Trump’s effort to overturn the election ― and allowing other Republicans to enter the building and control government.

Before going any further, let’s be absolutely clear about what’s being described here. These are not “armed protests,” the way these plans are being characterized by most of the media and, unfortunately, law enforcement agencies. These are terrorist plots.

Let’s remind ourselves of the definition. As I’ve written before:

Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear, through violence or the threat of violence, in the pursuit of political change.

By this criterion, the simplest and broadest definition that I teach my students and use in my own writing and research, the plans being made for armed actions by pro-Trump extremists in the next several days fit the label. And it fits what happened at the US Capitol last week as well.

My initial take on the attack on the Capitol didn’t go that far. In the moment I interpreted the events as a mob gone out of control, but not pre-planned and pre-meditated. The actions of many of those who breached the Capitol seemed to reinforce that impression, yahoos and clowns aimlessly wandering, taking selfies, and engaging in petty acts of juvenile vandalism.

But within that ludicrous mob were small teams of paramilitary extremists, kitted out in tactical gear, moving with purpose, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and apparently maps of the labyrinthine corridors and tunnels of the Capitol complex.

It is not a stretch to imagine that they had more in mind than spreading their feces in the halls of Congress.

It is not a stretch to imagine that we may have dodged a live-streamed massacre of lawmakers by mere moments.

Last October, my friend and fellow academic Vasabjit Banerjee wrote a piece at Just Security in which he suggested that based on the what we know about rebellion and insurgencies around the world, the dangers of armed insurgency in the United States are more real that most suspect. At the time I disagreed.

I’m starting to think that I was too quick to reach that conclusion. Just as I was too quick to deny the reality that Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was an act of domestic terrorism.

The warnings that preceded Jan. 6, like the warnings that preceded the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were unheeded. Will we make the same mistake over the next 10 days?

Our new old terrorism

Watertown, N.Y., Ku Klux Klan members, c.1870. (Library of Congress)

In April, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security released a report on domestic terrorism in the United States during 2018. They documented 32 terrorist attacks, disrupted plots, threats of violence, or weapons stockpiling by individuals motivated by a radical social or political agenda and who had not been influenced or directed by any foreign terrorist organization or movement.

All 32 cases were driven by far-right political or social ideologies. Thirteen of the 32 were perpetrated by race-based extremists, another 17 by right-wing anti-government extremists. African-Americans were targeted in 29 percent of all incidents, Jews in another 10 percent. Nineteen percent of incidents targeted law enforcement.

In short, what the NJOHS reported in April is perfectly consistent with what I have been asserting for nearly all of the four years that I’ve been writing this blog. The primary threat of terrorism in the United States comes not from wild-eyed jihadists but from the ranks of America’s anti-government and racist far right.

But lest we think this is some kind of recent development, a new dataset on terrorist organizations that formed between 1860-1969, compiled by University of Iowa Ph.D candidate Joshua Tschantret, reminds us that this is nothing new at all. It is, rather, the historical norm.

According to Tschantret’s data, 28 terrorist groups formed and were active in the United States between 1860 and 1969. Of those 28, nearly half, some 13 organizations, carried out acts of violence, including bombings and assassinations, in support of right-wing ideologies. All but one of these were motivated by white supremacist ideology. The lone exception was the Secret Army Organization, formed in California in 1969 and targeting the organizers of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. All of the rest used violence in pursuit of explicitly racist goals.

The earliest of these groups came together in the South during the early years of Reconstruction, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, groups like the original iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, and others such as the Southern Cross and the Knights of the White Camellia. The White Line would spring up a decade later, in 1874 in Mississippi, and the Klan would be reborn in Atlanta in 1915. A decade later would come the Black Legion, a Klan splinter group organized in Bellaire, Ohio by a doctor named William Shephard.

Atlanta would also see, in 1946, the emergence of the Columbians, a racist and anti-Semitic pro-Nazi organization. Edward Folliard of the Washington Post would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his reporting on the group. The 1950s would bring yet another rebirth of the Klan, this one still in existence today, along with more offshoots, like the Original Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy, born in 1955 in Birmingham, Ala., followed by the United Klans of America in 1960.

The 1960s would spawn two more white supremacist organizations. The Silver Dollar Group emerges in Louisiana in 1964 as a Klan offshoot organizing in leaderless resistance cells which assassinated African-Americans and bombed the cars of NAACP organizers. The White Knights of Mississippi, another Klan branch, also organized in 1964 and continues in existence today.

The definitions of terrorism that scholars like me adopt when we study and teach about this phenomenon tend to point to 1860 as the birth of the modern era of terrorism. That brings us face to face with a sad but inevitable conclusion:

Our past history of racist, right-wing terrorism in America is consistent with our present reality of racist, right-wing terrorism in America. El Paso is just the bloodiest, most recent example.