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Attack on Capitol was the beginning of an American insurgency, counterterrorism experts warn

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After ransacking the U.S. Capitol and threatening the lives of members of Congress on Jan. 6, they walked down the building’s broad steps unmolested and into the mythology of right-wing extremism. Many wore shirts identifying them as acolytes of QAnon, riders in “the Storm” who believe the fever-dream conspiracy that they are foot soldiers in a war against Satan-worshipping pedophiles in the government’s “deep state” bureaucracy. There were also neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in the overwhelmingly white crowd, including a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. Racists rallied to the Confederate flag of rebellion that some of the insurrectionists waved in the halls of Congress.

With President Trump only days away from an unceremonious departure from the White House, the vision of a mob desecrating the citadel of democracy felt for many observers like the end of a shameful period of norm breaking and tradition smashing. But for counterterrorism experts who have spent the two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks closely studying and fighting violent extremist groups overseas, the spectacle looked like something altogether different: the likely birthing of a violent American insurgency.

Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was formerly the head of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and the commander of all U.S. and allied troops fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. “I did see a similar dynamic in the evolution of al-Qaida in Iraq, where a whole generation of angry Arab youth with very poor prospects followed a powerful leader who promised to take them back in time to a better place, and he led them to embrace an ideology that justified their violence. This is now happening in America,” McChrystal told Yahoo News.

A radical group of citizens have adopted a very hard-line view of the country, he noted, that echoes the Lost Cause narrative that took root in the old South after the Civil War. “Only President Trump has updated Lost Cause with his ‘Stop the Steal’ narrative that they lost because of a stolen election, and that is the only thing holding these people down and stopping them from assuming their rightful place in society,” McChrystal said. “That gives them legitimacy to become even more radical. I think we’re much further along in this radicalization process, and facing a much deeper problem as a country, than most Americans realize.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06:  Police try to hold back protesters who  gather storm the Capitol and halt a joint session of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Police try to hold back rioters who laid siege to the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Counterterrorism officials and experts who have closely examined how violent extremist movements arise out of unstable societies abroad have detected recurring patterns. The movements typically begin with small groups operating independently. Over time, they form connections with other like-minded groups through secret communications. This is a hallmark in the genesis of most terrorist organizations.

As they develop a coherent narrative and unifying ideology, extremist movements and leaders increasingly come out of the shadows and communicate over open forums in an effort to recruit and radicalize a wider following. A prime example is Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who indoctrinated a whole generation of English-speaking jihadis, and whose sermons still attract tens of thousands of hits on YouTube a decade after his death in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

Extremist movements also aggressively recruit from law enforcement and military communities to develop their hard power, a common tactic perfected by the Islamic State, whose close alliance with disaffected Baathist military officers enabled it to launch a military-style juggernaut in 2014 that captured a third of Iraq and Syria for its Islamist “caliphate.”

The participation of former military members in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was revealed in the past week with the arrest of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Larry Rendall Brock Jr., who was photographed wearing military-style tactical gear and brandishing zip-tie handcuffs inside the Capitol, and by the death of military veteran Ashli Babbitt, who was shot by police during the melee. The U.S. Army is reportedly investigating 25 people who participated in the attempted putsch, some of whom may be active-duty military. Meanwhile, two off-duty Virginia police officers, Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson of the Rocky Mount Police Department, were also arrested on charges of illegally storming the Capitol.

Extremist movements commonly reach out to like-minded terrorist groups in other countries, forming loose networks for the sharing of strategies and lessons-learned in a continuous feedback loop. That network building was the hallmark of al-Qaida and its many global affiliates and franchises.

Similarly, counterterrorism experts say a number of the white supremacist groups who took part in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol have reached out and formed linkages with white nationalist counterparts in Germany, Canada, Norway and Russia. “I worked with the State Department to designate as terrorists an extreme white supremacist group in Russia that has many ties to U.S.-based groups,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent and counterterrorism expert who led some of the highest-profile investigations of al-Qaida attacks, speaking on Thursday to reporters. He noted that a National Security Council strategy document identified the Nordic Front, a neo-Nazi group spreading throughout Nordic countries, as a threat to the United States. “If the Nordic Front is a threat to the U.S., that means they have some connection to activities here. There are also [right-wing] extremist groups in Canada designated as terrorist organizations by our ‘Five Eyes’ allies, but they still operate with impunity here in the United States. That has to stop.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06:  Protesters gather storm the Capitol and halt a joint session of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Rioters storm the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

History also shows that when extremist movements coalesce around a charismatic leader who focuses their anger and amplifies their narrative, a tipping point is reached where extreme rhetoric is often turned into violent action. Beyond that tipping point, the violence tends to escalate unless the extremist movement and its leadership are convincingly defeated and their narrative and ideology widely rejected.

Even in the aftermath of Trump’s incitement of a violent insurrection, however, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that a majority of Republicans believe that he bears no responsibility for the ransacking of the Capitol (56 percent); that there is solid evidence of fraud in the November election (66 percent); and that he acted responsibly after the election (65 percent). To this day Trump has refused to concede the election to Joe Biden, and he continues to promote the poisonous falsehood that he won in a “landslide” and that the election was stolen.

What most worries counterterrorism experts is that the collective that mobilized the violent mob responsible for sacking the Capitol last week has checked all those boxes, and fits the pattern that created other enduring violent extremist movements.

“Osama bin Laden’s major contribution to the terrorist pantheon was to create a mythology around the narrative that a band of Arab fighters defeated the Soviet superpower in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and he used that mythology to bring together a lot of disparate terrorist groups from all over the world under the single banner of al-Qaida, giving them cohesion and an organizational structure,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and author of numerous books, reports and articles on terrorism. “Similarly, the people behind Jan. 6, 2021, mobilized right-wing extremists of every stripe — white supremacists, neo-Nazis, QAnon, anti-Semites, antigovernment militias, xenophobes, anti-feminists — and brought them together as a movement in what amounted to a Woodstock festival for extremists. And now the ‘Battle of Capitol Hill’ has become symbolically important and central to right-wing mythology, and it will lead to more organizing and escalating threats from this movement, which we’re already seeing.”

Indeed, the FBI-led investigation into the sacking of the Capitol has already revealed just how far the extremist movement behind it has evolved. Earlier this week the FBI warned in a memo to law enforcement agencies and departments that armed, far-right extremist groups were planning to march on all 50 state capitols in the coming days. Credible threats to Biden’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20 have prompted the National Guard to deploy more soldiers to protect the U.S. Capitol building than are currently deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Even before the riot last week, the FBI reported having more than 1,000 active domestic terrorism investigations underway in all 50 states, the preponderance of them involving racially motivated, white supremacist terror.

“What the nation witnessed last week was a surgical strike at the heart of our democracy, and it was meant to empower a movement that will lead to the melting of the foundation of our republic,” said Soufan. In congressional testimony nearly two years ago, Soufan warned that the right-wing movement in America was already roughly where jihadi terrorists were in the 1980s and 1990s in terms of its development and increasing sophistication. “The right-wing movement is also taking advantage and feeding off the partisan political divisions in this country. So the first thing we need is a united approach to recognize the threat, and summon the political will needed for law enforcement to dismantle these networks.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 15: An American flag along the raze wire fencing that now surrounds the US Capitol ahead of the inauguration on January 15, 2021 in Washington, DC.  After last week's Capitol Riot the FBI has warned of additional threats against the US Capitol and in all 50 states.  (Photo by Liz Lynch/Getty Images)
An American flag along the razor wire that now surrounds the U.S. Capitol ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration. (Liz Lynch/Getty Images)

In trying to reduce the social media accelerant to the extremism on display last week, Twitter has taken down no fewer than 70,000 accounts associated with just the QAnon conspiracy mongers, one node in the extremist movement’s growing network. The social media company has also permanently suspended Trump’s account, depriving the president of his favored communication channel with more than 88 million followers.

“Whether you believe President Trump intended to or not, the message that he has consistently communicated to these extremist groups has been a ‘green light,’” said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. That’s how torch-bearing neo-Nazis and white supremacists interpreted Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” of their 2017 protest in Charlottesville, Va., he noted, and how the Proud Boys white nationalist militia heard his call to “stand back and stand by” during a presidential debate.

“The entire movement read Trump’s tweet — ‘Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!’ — as another green light, which Trump flashed again on the Ellipse when he told the crowd of supporters that ‘if you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore,’” said Hoffman. “With these constant green lights, Trump has unleashed very powerful forces that he nor anyone else can control. In that sense, what happened in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 was a beginning, not an end. In the minds of Trump’s hard-core supporters it was the beginning of a revolution.”

McChrystal has thought long and hard about what happens to this extremist movement when its leader exits center stage, and for the near and middle term he sees the potential for great peril to the country. “As this extremist movement comes under increasing pressure from law enforcement in the coming days and weeks, its members will likely retreat into tighter and tighter cells for security, and that will make them more professional, and those cells will become echo chambers that incubate even more radical thinking along the lines of armed insurrection,” he said. “So even if Trump exits the scene, the radical movement he helped create has its own momentum and cohesion now, and they may find they don’t need Trump anymore. They can just wait for another charismatic leader to appear. So the fabric of something very dangerous has been woven, and it’s further along than most Americans care to admit.”

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