Capitol attack could fuel extremist recruitment in US for years, experts warn

The Capitol riots served as a propaganda coup for the far-right.
The Capitol riots served as a propaganda coup for the far-right.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Overthrowing the government. Igniting a second civil war. Banishing racial minorities, immigrants and Jews. Or simply sowing chaos in the streets.

The ragged camps of far-right groups and white nationalists emboldened under President Donald Trump have long nursed an overlapping list of hatreds and goals. But now, they have been galvanised by the outgoing President's false claims that the election was stolen from him - and by the violent attack on the nation's Capitol that hundreds of them led in his name.

"The politicians who have lied, betrayed and sold out the American people for decades were forced to cower in fear and scatter like rats," one group, known for pushing the worst anti-Semitic tropes, commented on Twitter the day after the attack.

The Capitol riots served as a propaganda coup for the far-right, and those who track hate groups say the attack is likely to join an extremist lexicon with Waco, Ruby Ridge and the Bundy occupation of an Oregon wildlife preserve in fuelling recruitment and violence for years to come.

Even as dozens of rioters have been arrested, chat rooms and messaging apps where the far-right congregates are filled with celebrations and plans. An ideological jumble of hate groups and far-right agitators - the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo movement and neo-Nazis among them - are now discussing how to expand their rosters and whether to take to the streets again this weekend and next week to oppose the inauguration of Joe Biden.

Some, enraged by their failure to overturn the presidential election, have posted manuals on waging guerilla warfare and building explosive devices.

Law enforcement officials have responded by beefing up security at airports and creating a militarised "green zone" in downtown Washington. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued an urgent warning that attackers could target federal buildings and public officials in the coming days, and at least 10 states have activated national guard troops in their capital cities. Some states have cancelled legislative activities next week because of the possibility of violence.

Purging extremist groups from mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter might have succeeded in disrupting their organising, experts say, but such efforts have pushed them into tougher-to-track forms of communication, including encrypted apps, that will make it harder to trace extremist activities.

"Destroying the platforms could lead to more violence," said Mr Mike Morris, the Colorado-based founder of Three Percent United Patriots, one of dozens of so-called "patriot" paramilitary groups. Mr Morris said he does not support violence but warned that other groups might find more freedom to plot on encrypted platforms. He said his group lost its Facebook account this summer and was recently kicked off MeWe, one of several smaller platforms that have drawn denizens of the far-right.

Since last week, dozens of new channels on secure-messaging apps have popped up devoted to QAnon, the far-right conspiracy theory that says Mr Trump is fighting a cabal of satanists and paedophiles. Many militias have found thousands of new followers in darker corners of the Internet, such as one Telegram channel run by the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group, which more than doubled its followers, to more than 34,000 from 16,000.

"People saw what we can do. They know what's up. They want in," boasted one message on a Proud Boys Telegram channel earlier this week.

Hate groups have been a staple of American life no matter who is in the White House. They have had natural foes when Democrats have held the presidency. Under Mr Trump, they have had an ally.

The President echoed their demonisation of immigrants and fears of gun seizures and pushed white grievance into the American mainstream.

Far-right groups were buoyed after Mr Trump spoke of "very fine people on both sides" of the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist fatally ran over a peaceful counter-protester with his car. They saw a signal of support when Mr Trump, during a presidential debate, told the Proud Boys to "stand back and stand by". Again and again last year, they seized on openings created by the pandemic and civil unrest.

Paramilitary groups echoing Mr Trump's calls for "law and order" showed up armed and outfitted in tactical gear at Black Lives Matter rallies in places like Louisville, Kentucky, and Minneapolis. Right-wing protesters fought in the streets of Portland, Oregon, with left-wing activists. When a 17-year-old was charged with fatally shooting two people at a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, armed groups and some conservatives rallied to his side.

Goaded by Mr Trump's calls to "liberate" Democratic-run states locked down by the coronavirus pandemic, far-right groups and rifle-toting extremists forged common cause with some mainstream Republicans upset with government limits on business and public life. In Michigan, armed gunmen stormed the statehouse in Lansing, and prosecutors charged 14 men, including some tied to an armed group called Wolverine Watchmen, with plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer in response to lockdown measures she imposed.

It all culminated at the "Stop the Steal" rally at the nation's Capitol on Jan 6. As thousands of Trump supporters marched up the Mall, among them were adherents of white supremacist groups, insignia-wearing militia members and far-right Proud Boys.

"Luck may be needed in the Second Civil War," Larry Rendell Brock Jr, a Texas man charged in connection with the attack, wrote on Facebook in the days before the events in Washington, according to federal prosecutors. Brock had aspired to take hostages, prosecutors said, and tagged the post with the names of two anti-government groups.

At least two prominent activists involved in the 2017 Charlottesville rally were also at the Capitol riots, according to Ms Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, a non-profit group underwriting a lawsuit over the violence in Charlottesville.

Mr Lindsay Schubiner, a programme director at the Western States Centre focused on countering white nationalism, said it has been frightening to watch the rise of far-right groups in recent years that pose dangers to people of colour and LGBTQ communities. Without a major disruption, she expects the extremist groups to remain a risk to public safety and to the nation's democracy for years to come.

"This isn't something that can be put back in the bottle - at least not quickly or easily," Ms Schubiner said.

The attack on the Capitol was likely to become "a significant driver of violence for a diverse set of domestic violent extremists", an array of government agencies said in a joint intelligence bulletin issued on Jan 13. The storming of the building, several analysts said, could fuel a dangerous pushback against the incoming Biden administration and its agenda on gun control, racial justice, public lands and other issues by extremists who are not afraid to use violence to get their way.

But the backlash to the Capitol riot could also diminish them. After Charlottesville, alt-right leaders fractured amid a torrent of condemnation, infighting and legal action. Two dozen white nationalist leaders and groups are being sued for their role in that rally. No longer in the limelight, Richard Spencer, one of its lead organisers, said he has been crippled by legal fees, has lost social media megaphones and now feels betrayed by his former allies within the alt-right movement.

The immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack has led to arguing among extremists over whether to hold another round of violent rallies or lie low and wait out the arrests, investigations and throngs of police and national guard troops dispatched to protect statehouses and the Capitol before the inauguration.

Just after the November election, a website called the Tree of Liberty suggested that armed adherents of the Boogaloo movement, an extremist ideology that seeks to overthrow the US government, would carry out an "armed takeover" of Washington and march on all 50 state capitals as a way to voice political grievances and to commemorate a massive armed rally in Richmond, Virginia, a year earlier.

But given the security threats, officials in Richmond have closed the area around the Capitol and boarded up the building itself. The Virginia Civil Defense League, which organised last year's demonstration, has said it would go ahead on Monday (Jan 18) with a caravan through the streets of Richmond in support of gun rights. The Tree of Liberty website has since been taken down.

The QAnon believers who thronged to the Capitol in Washington have been forced to adjust on the fly after the riot failed and Mr Trump acquiesced to a transition of power.

Some are holding out hope for a miracle that will keep Mr Trump in office. Others talk of how Mr Trump was just the start of the plan and now a new phase is beginning.

Some far-right groups say they are hoping to capitalise on Republican fears of Democratic control in Washington.

"There's been quite an influx of people who weren't really active who are getting more active," said Mr Casey Robertson, founder of a paramilitary group in Utah, United Citizens Alarm, whose armed members have shadowed Black Lives Matter rallies. "That's been good. It's a worrying time."

Mr Ammon Bundy, who once led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge and has sought to build a network of thousands of anti-government allies, said he did not participate in the mob attack at the Capitol and was not aware of what had taken place in Washington until he returned from a trip to the mountains.

In the past year, Mr Bundy has focused much of his efforts opposing government restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. But after getting arrested twice inside the Idaho Capitol over the summer, he said he has grown to believe that the country's political venues are not a productive place to influence government.

He claims to have nearly 50,000 members organised into local chapters. That may well be hype, but his effort to battle the government has helped him build a following in the west.

Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, who was arrested in Washington several days before the Capitol attack on charges of carrying illegal ammunition clips and burning a Black Lives Matter banner, now calls the attack on the Capitol a mistake. But he said the far-right movement galvanised by Mr Trump would outlast his presidency.

"I feel like the movement has surpassed the person," Tarrio said. "He has created this movement that I don't think anybody can stop. They can try to silence. They can try to de-platform. It's just going to make it louder."