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.