Nebraska and Pennsylvania National Guard members stand in formation to take the special police oath near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, 2021. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Devlin Drew)

How the Heightened Domestic Extremist Threat Could Materialize in Attacks

“The storm is upon us, we are prepared for the days of darkness,” declared one recent tweet in a stream of self-identified QAnon adherents. “They wants to stop Patriots? Nothing can stop what is coming,” stated another. “They wont be able to walk down the streets or any where else,” another said of declared foes.

The nation’s capital was heavily locked down for the presidential inauguration after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol sparked hundreds of investigations and fears that any of the participating groups or movements could attempt to use the date or location of the swearing in of our new president to launch new attacks. The mishmash of extremists at the Capitol and heavy chatter preceding and following the attack rightfully have law enforcement on edge – not just through Jan. 20, but in the year ahead as emboldened and inspired militia groups, accelerationists, white supremacists, conspiracy theory extremists, anti-government extremists and more take their own unique cues from the insurrection and potentially decide to make their own terrorist statements through new or copycat attacks.

In a sea of bellicose online threats, the challenge is finding those that may be put into action within the aspirational, knowing that post-inauguration domestic threats will likely follow some patterns.

Inspiration from the Jan. 6 Attack

There’s a good reason why ISIS became masters of propaganda, utilizing multiple platforms, mediums, languages and styles to reach their target audience, and there’s an even better reason why much of that propaganda has been saturated with glorification of past attacks, pictures of “martyrs” who died fighting for the terror group, and trumpeting of perceived wrongs to whip up the base into a frenzy. By quickly seizing on successful attacks like Paris 2015 or Orlando 2016 – even, for a time, purposely wrongly claiming the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting as their own – ISIS reached out to adherents far and wide with a full-court press, including flowery prose and beauty shots of the terrorists and pictures of the carnage, to inspire others to commit similar successful attacks. On the flip side, unsuccessful attacks by those claiming loyalty to ISIS receive scant, if any, praise or recognition in both official and unofficial media channels of the terror group.

The attack on the Capitol was viewed as a success not just for insurrectionists hellbent on stopping the counting of electoral votes in that moment but for accelerationists who embrace this sort of violence as a way to hasten the fall of our government. Many of those who stormed the building filmed their actions and bragged about it on social media, to the delight of their ideological brethren. Memes and imagery advocating retribution and further insurgency quickly sprung up declaring QAnon adherent Ashli Babbitt a “martyr” after she was fatally shot by police as she climbed through the broken pane of a door inside the Capitol. Some of these are also referencing the March shooting of Boogaloo adherent Duncan Lemp or comparing it to the Ruby Ridge standoff. Some called for a “Million Martyr March” in D.C., and her image is being used on white supremacist and anti-Semitic propaganda.

Bringing to justice those involved in the Capitol riot could also be used by extremists in the defendants’ hometowns as justification for at the very least protests and possibly new attacks. As the Justice Department recently explained, many of those who have been identified, located and arrested have been initially charged with trespassing offenses but could have more serious charges added on as multifaceted investigations proceed. This retribution could manifest in general attacks on possibly symbolic targets while invoking names of higher-profile defendants from Jan. 6, or more targeted attacks on the judicial facilities or personnel involved in prosecuting these suspects.

Symbolic Dates

A scroll through QAnon accounts this past weekend revealed anticipation – tied up with conspiratorial links – for something big to happen the day before the inauguration. Jan. 19 is National Popcorn Day, and some accounts featured an emoji of popcorn among other memes related to “the storm” for which Q believers are hoping. Along with popcorn symbolizing they believe something of significance is on the horizon – worth watching, worth popping popcorn to “enjoy the show” – adherents were also noting that 1/19 is “911 backwards” and resurrected screenshots of a message saying “remember THIS DAY” attributed to their elusive “Q” dated 1/19/2018, and another dated 1/19/20 declaring “THE GREAT AWAKENING.”

The reach for symbolic dates – or opportunistically seizing on events or anniversaries – is a consistent theme among extremists who want the date of an attack to hold special meaning for their followers and/or their victims. As QAnon numerology gymnastics show, it’s not always easy to pinpoint which date or why may be a symbolic choice, but there are some to watch when it comes to domestic extremism. Jan. 6 will always be a special day of infamy for the movements that took part in the insurrection, and you can rest assured that law enforcement will be on the highest alert in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6, 2022. But there are other symbolic dates on which domestic extremists could strike for added effect, such as the anniversaries of the 2015 Charleston church, 2019 Christchurch mosque or 2019 El Paso Walmart mass shootings, or on other days that have been dribbled out by various conspiracy theories.

Insider Attacks

A dream of any extremist movement is to recruit and inspire persons who have access to targeted locations, infrastructure or individuals. They want to recruit the person with a security clearance, with training pertinent to conventional or CBRN attacks, and who enjoys a degree of trust in his or her career community. The 2009 Fort Hood attack and the 2019 Naval Air Station Pensacola shooting are two deadly examples of insider threats.

Maj. Gen. William Walker, who commands the D.C. National Guard, confirmed that the FBI was assisting in enhanced screening of thousands of members brought to help protect Capitol Hill during inauguration week. “It’s all about the background,” he said. “So, a regular background check is enhanced with more screening, more details and it’s layered so the FBI is part of it, the Secret Service is part of it and once they are certain that there’s no insider threat then that soldier, guardsman or airman is given a credential.” The Associated Press reported today that 12 members of the National Guard were removed from inauguration security due to right-wing militia ties or posting/texting extremist views about the inaugural event. Additionally, the FBI has warned law enforcement agencies of far-right extremists discussing how they might gain access posing as National Guard members.

Some extremists across ideologies who have launched attacks were utilizing skills they learned at some point in the military. Detecting potential domestic extremist insider threats in active-duty military is its own challenge: more than a third of those polled in a 2019 Military Times survey said they had personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideological-driven racism within the ranks. With current and former service members among those under investigation for the Capitol riot, a senior defense official told reporters last week that “we clearly recognize the threat from domestic extremists, particularly those who espouse white supremacist or white nationalist ideologies,” and “know that some groups actively attempt to recruit our personnel into their cause, or actually encourage their members to join the military for [the] purpose of acquiring skills and experience.”

Group vs. Lone Attacks

In recent years, we’ve become accustomed to seeing operations conducted by the lone, inspired terrorist who can be more difficult to intercept in the attack planning stages. Yet the more that domestic extremist movements encourage “revolutionary”-caliber attacks, the more likely they are going to try to show strength through numbers or utilize extra conspirators for more complex attacks. In the alleged plot of the “Wolverine Watchmen” to kidnap Michigan’s governor, the FBI said one of the militia extremists predicted that they could inspire other operations by self-styled militias: “I can see several states takin’ their f*ckin’ tyrants. Everybody takes their tyrants.”

The Jan. 13 Joint Intelligence Bulletin from the FBI, DHS and NCTC referred to the domestic violent extremist population as “loosely organized, sustained, and significant,” bound by false narratives that the election was “stolen” and by their shared political opposition. It also noted that the mingling of various movements – including militia and anti-government extremists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and conspiracy theory extremists – at the Capitol riot “likely served to foster connections” that could increase extremists “willingness, capability, and motivation to attack.”

Simply put, extremists will set aside differences in specific ideology or tactics when they see benefit in uniting against a common foe. This doesn’t mean that disparate movements will necessarily join forces to plan and conduct kinetic attacks, but they won’t stand in each other’s way and may even provide assistance along the lines of online propaganda and recruitment as well as attack help – and they’ll find inspiration in the actions of other groups, particularly in their successes.

Critical Infrastructure Threats

The most recent plots, threats, and chatter about attacking power substations and similar critical infrastructure have largely come from neo-Nazis such as the former Atomwaffen Division and The Base. But there is history of militia targeting the power grid and components often regarded as soft targets – as seen in 2013 when multiple gunmen opened fire on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Metcalf Transmission Substation south of San Jose, Calif., causing more than $15 million in damage to 17 transformers. DHS warned telecom companies in May that “conspiracy theories linking the spread of COVID-19 to the expansion of the 5G cellular network are inciting attacks against the communications infrastructure globally” and “these threats probably will increase as the disease continues to spread, including calls for violence against telecommunications workers.”

There has also been recent piqued interest among conspiracy theorists about the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to prepare for the potential of a catastrophic electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event, including interagency cooperation and a planned exercise. A Defense Department blackout simulation in 2017 stoked conspiracy theorists who twisted the routine critical infrastructure exercise into an Antifa plot.

COVID Measures Backlash

The incoming administration has already announced that it will ramp up vaccine distribution and mandate the wearing of masks on federal property. The same inclinations that drove the “Wolverine Watchmen” to allegedly foment the Michigan kidnapping plot – anger over perceived government overreach saturated with disbelief in the severity of the pandemic – were present at the Jan. 6 rally and riot where participants were actively encouraged to not wear masks. CDC Director Robert Redfield predicted that in addition to the death and destruction at the Capitol the events are “going to have public health consequences” as “you had largely unmasked individuals in a non-distanced fashion, who were all through the Capitol” and then flew or drove back to their hometowns.

Setting that biothreat aside, the extremists who were motivated to attack the Capitol by narratives of perceived government overreach and conspiracy theories could harbor similar plans of violence for vaccination campaigns and those involved in COVID mitigation efforts. This past spring, the suspect in a disrupted plot against a Missouri hospital allegedly wanted to “attack high value targets if the government issued martial law and quarantine orders as a result of COVID-19.” We’ve seen threats of violence against public health officials including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will be taking on an enhanced advisory role in the Biden administration. Threats could extend to potential soft targets including pharmacies, mass vaccination sites, healthcare centers, and local health departments, which should take any remote threats or on-site protests seriously and have security measures in place before they’ve even personally received any sort of threats.

Threats Against Tech Companies

A Google building in Mountain View, Calif., was evacuated Friday as police responded to examine a suspicious package. It turned out to not be dangerous, but the abundance of caution is absolutely warranted given that Google, Apple, and Amazon suspended Parler, the far-right social networking site designed as a substitute for Twitter, after the Capitol riot. The Atomwaffen Division once depicted the beheading of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg in a gory propaganda poster inciting followers to “delete technocrats”; in recent days, much of the propaganda seen in domestic extremist circles expresses fury about users – including President Trump – being deplatformed by tech companies, and the FBI is concerned that the migration of these users to new online homes may leave law enforcement scrambling to track their chatter. But it could also leave the companies – Microsoft included as conspiracy theorists fixate on Bill Gates in the COVID crisis, convinced he’s trying to microchip people through vaccinations – and associated offices or storefronts vulnerable to cyber or physical attacks from extremists seeking retribution or policy changes.

Threats to a New Administration

Driven by a belief that the Biden administration is not legitimate and further riled up by the enaction or fear of policies or legislation seen as infringing on their rights, extremists could target their attacks against members of the administration serving in even noncontroversial roles. As policies are rolled out, extremists could also hit federal government property that may otherwise seem to be a completely inoffensive target – for example, the 40-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildfire Refuge in Oregon by anti-government extremists in 2016.

Retribution Against Law Enforcement and Media

Islamist terrorists save the most vitriol for counterextremist professionals who are also Muslim. White supremacists harbor special hate for white counterextremists. And the violence exhibited toward police officers at the Capitol – from the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick after being struck with a fire extinguisher to the mob beating and tasing D.C. Police Officer Michael Fanone while shouting “kill him with his own gun” – was light years away from the “back the blue” stance that many of the rioters previously purported to take. Extremists feel special fury for the counterextremists who they believe should be on their side.

Indeed, some off-duty cops have been charged with participating in the riots, and several officers on duty that day are being investigated to determine whether they assisted the attackers. Because of the heroes who did stand up to the mob that day, though, many extremists will likely be inspired to specifically target law enforcement. Extremists are also likely infuriated by the post-riot statements of those heroes, including D.C. Police Officer Daniel Hodges, seen pinned and crushed in a door as the mob attacked him in one of the horrifying videos from that day: “If it wasn’t my job, I would have done that for free,” Hodges told NBC Washington. “It was absolutely my pleasure to crush a white nationalist insurrection. I’m glad I was in a position to be able to help. We’ll do it as many times as it takes.”

While the media have long been targets of domestic extremists, such as the pipe bombs mailed to media outlets and personalities by Cesar Sayoc in 2018, the Joint Intelligence Bulletin noted that the words “murder the media” were found scratched into a Capitol door after the riot. While journalists on the ground at Donald Trump’s events have routinely been harassed or taunted, several who covered the riot were assaulted or had cameras smashed – an unprecedented and especially unnerving escalation of violence against the press, Poynter noted. The JIB also predicted an “increased and prolonged” threat against the media “due to perceived complicity in a system hostile” to the extremists’ beliefs.

Traditional Domestic Violent Extremist Targets

When extremists find unity of purpose and inspiration to act on their beliefs, they will also channel that energy into pursuing their traditional targets, whether by intention or opportunistically. The Joint Intelligence Bulletin stressed that emboldened domestic extremists are expected to carry out violence either alone or as a group toward racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as LGBTQ individuals or associated institutions. All told, these diverse threat actors “will very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats of 2021,” according to the Joint Intelligence Bulletin, and domestic extremists could respond with violence to policy shifts on issues such as gun control, immigration, and the use of public lands.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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