Law enforcement veterans say the Capitol siege was just the tip of the iceberg of the 'cult-like' threat far-right extremists pose to the US

  • National security veterans told Insider the Capitol siege was just the tip of the iceberg on threats by white, right-wing extremists.
  • “The threat we’re facing right now is not only real but deeply embedded — and cult-like,” a former FBI agent told Insider.
  • Another former FBI analyst detailed how extremists are using conspiracies to groom people to commit violence.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On January 6, thousands of predominantly white, right-wing fanatics swarmed the US Capitol, ransacking offices and hunting down lawmakers and the sitting vice president as they revolted against the results of a free and fair election.

The event was a stunning window into the violent and racist ideology that had bubbled under the surface for decades before exploding into the open after its supporters were fed a steady diet of lies and disinformation by a president who was angry over his election loss.

Now, many insurrectionists are facing federal charges and former President Donald Trump is staring down a second impeachment and potential criminal prosecution. But law enforcement officials and national security veterans say the January 6 siege was just the tip of the iceberg as the government grapples with addressing white-supremacist violence, some of which may be festering within its own ranks.

Frank Montoya, Jr., a recently retired FBI special agent, told Insider that the Capitiol siege indicates far-right extremism is a “fundamental” threat to national security, even more so than foreign terror groups. Indeed, many of these extremists are white, male US citizens, some with backgrounds in the military, and are less likely to be profiled as a terror threat than those of Middle Eastern descent in the post-9/11 era.

“The threat we’re facing right now is not only real but deeply embedded — and cult-like — in our society,” Montoya said. “Look at how many military and law enforcement types were involved in the Capitol assault and how many people in Congress supported the effort to overturn a free and fair election on January 6.”

If the attack had come from ISIS or Al-Qaeda, “there would be blue-ribbon commissions, legislation, billions of dollars and thousands of employees from across the government thrown at the problem,” he added. “The First Amendment and civil liberties are paramount, but far-right extremism isn’t about that. It’s about insurrection.”

The Department of Homeland Security issued an advisory this week warning of a “heightened threat environment across the United States which DHS believes will persist in the weeks following the successful Presidential Inauguration.”

“Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence,” the advisory said, adding that the DHS expects these threats to persist through early 2021.

‘A fundamental, long-simmering threat to the US’

An intelligence official who was involved in drafting the DHS warning told The New York Times that the department decided to issue the advisory because it was concerned President Joe Biden’s peaceful inauguration on January 20 could create a false sense of security.

“The intent to engage in violence” from those who were incensed by Trump’s election loss “has not gone away,” the official told The Times.

DJ Peterson, the president of Longview Global Advisors and a former senior political risk analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Insider he anticipated the content of the DHS advisory but was surprised by the speed with which it was delivered.

“What the assessment warned about is real and it’s been around for a while. And the DHS is doing its job by identifying threats to the homeland and calling them out,” Peterson said. “But what’s interesting is that it was issued so soon. That suggests the Biden administration has gotten hold of the reigns of the DHS and its threat mechanisms very quickly.”

In the wake of the Capitol siege, more than half a dozen federal agencies and entities came under intense scrutiny for failing to anticipate and respond to the threat posed to lawmakers and the electoral process. They included the DHS, the Pentagon, the Justice Department, the FBI, the US Capitol Police, the National Guard, and others.

To that end, experts said, the Biden administration will need to employ a whole-of-government response that treats domestic, far-right extremism as a threat to national security, foreign policy, economic policy, and the overall health of the United States. It will also need to address the blind spot agencies have when addressing threats posed by far-right actors motivated by racist and white supremacist ideologies.

Montoya said the FBI, in particular, has a “huge role” in combating far-right extremism in the US, even absent a domestic terrorism statute.

The bureau “already has the tools and authorities it needs to investigate the kinds of illegal activities far-right extremists engage in,” he said. Beyond that, he added, the US intelligence community also has a significant role to play, particularly as it relates to links between far-right extremists within the US’s borders and criminal or nation-state supporters overseas.

Then there’s the threat from within.

“If you look at law enforcement in the US, there’s generally a high risk of these organizations being permeated by white, right-wing extremists,” Peterson said. “So it’s one thing to issue a notice from the top, but does it actually also point to a fundamental reorganization of the whole entity, as we saw after 9/11? This DHS bulletin points to activities surrounding the inauguration and transition, and it expires in April. So the question is, will they issue a longer-term notice? Because this is a fundamental, long-simmering threat to the US.”

The road to radicalization

The Biden administration has made clear that it considers far-right, domestic extremism an urgent threat to the nation.

At his inauguration, President Joe Biden singled out the issue, saying, “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, committed to assisting the DHS and FBI with issuing a public threat assessment of the right-wing QAnon conspiracy, many of whose followers were seen participating in the Capitol riot.

Randy Pargman, a senior director at the cybersecurity firm Binary Defense and a former FBI analyst, told Insider the government also needs to take different approaches depending on the type of homegrown actor it’s dealing with.

“There are two different groups of people who represent a potential threat to the public. One is a very small group of individuals who are completely dedicated to the cause of violence and have decided that’s the way they’re going to respond. Their goals are entrenched,” he said. “The other group are people who feel disconnected or disenfranchised; they’re angry and they feel like something needs to be done, but they haven’t gone all the way to committing to acts of violence.”

Pargman added that “the goal of the smaller group of violent extremists is to reach out to that larger group of people who are feeling disenfranchised and to communicate with them one-on-one.”

“There’s a recruiting process, an evaluation process, what you could even call a grooming process where the most violent extremists communicate with the people they’re trying to radicalize. Over time, they become that person’s trusted source of information,” he said. “And then they slowly turn up the temperature. They won’t talk about violence early on, but after developing a rapport with that person, they’ll start doing things that people in abusive relationships do by cutting that person off from their family and friends and other trusted sources of information. And that person can become radicalized over time and be convinced to participate in much more violent acts.”

For individuals who express a clear desire to commit violence to achieve their ends, experts said, the federal government can take a few cues from when FBI officials foiled a right-wing plot to kidnap and execute Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year.

The FBI used confidential human sources to scope out the details of the plot, who was involved, and when the suspects planned to carry out the attack, which also included storming the Michigan state capitol and burning it down.

“The government definitely needs to continue doing the good work that it did there while respecting laws and individual privacy,” Pargman said. “But ultimately, that approach alone can’t succeed because there are still people being radicalized in large numbers.”

He added that in order to address the broader, systemic issues of racism and white supremacist violence that motivated the Capitol siege, federal government officials should partner with local leaders who are seen as respected voices of authority in communities from which violent extremists would seek to recruit followers.

“In the past, this involved looking at leaders who hold in-person events, but nowadays we can really look to social media influencers on different platforms,” Pargman said. “If you look at the situation we’re in right now with platforms like Parler and the people who hold sway on them, many of the users are elected officials who are already well known. These are influencers who can do the most good by getting on board with a strategy that seeks to educate people and help them understand that there’s a difference between supporting an ideological cause and fighting for what you believe, and resorting to violence.”

Republicans push back

But how achievable that strategy is for investigators is a different question altogether.

In the aftermath of the Capitol siege, Trump was permanently banned from Twitter after the company found that his followers were using his words to plan more attacks on members of Congress and state capitols across the country. He was also blocked from posting on Facebook or Instagram leading up to the inauguration, and his business prospects have tumbled off a cliff as companies and powerful businessmen cut ties with him.

The right-wing media apparatus jumped on the developments and painted them as another example of big tech “censoring” political perspectives it disagreed with. Many in the Republican party, meanwhile, have gone from condemning the violence at the Capitol and blaming Trump as its instigator, to fighting his impeachment on the issue.

Earlier this week, 45 Republicans in the Senate voted to declare Trump’s impeachment trial unconstitutional, signaling the party’s scant appetite to hold its leader accountable after he unleashed an angry mob on Congress. And on Thursday, The Times reported that some Republican members of Congress are drawing scrutiny for their own ties to the organizations and movements that fueled the Capitol insurrection. 

“We’re already seeing pushback from the GOP in Congress and on Fox News centered around free speech and intolerance,” Peterson said. “Another thing we’ll likely see is the Second Amendment angle, with Republicans saying the federal government is going to come for your guns. And then the third thing will center on states’ rights, whose roots, of course, lay in preserving slavery.”

In the wake of this month’s riot and the enduring threat right-wing agitators pose to national security, Pargman said, the government needs to fire on all cylinders and employ a sustainable, long-term strategy — the way the Biden administration is addressing issues like climate change and coronavirus.

“This is not something that can be turned around in a day, a month, or a year,” he said. “This is something that’s always going to exist under the surface. QAnon and these other conspiracies that didn’t just appear in the last few years. They’ve always been there, and they’re always going to be there. If we continue down that road, the violence at the Capitol will happen over and over again.”

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