The threat of violence from domestic far-right extremists calls for a measured and well-coordinated response from law enforcement and intelligence services. This piece appeared in the August 19th issue of The New York Review.
As the House impeachment managers proved, Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to act violently not just in the days leading up to the siege of the Capitol on January 6 but for weeks, months, even years preceding it. Republican partisanship prevented the Senate from convicting him of “inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” But there is no doubt that Trump harnessed and inflamed an armed and loyal far-right movement—one driven by white supremacist and antigovernment conspiracy theories, enraged by largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests, and irritated by Covid-19 restrictions—to storm the Capitol in order to stop Congress’s certification of Joseph R Biden’s election as president.
Since most participants in that movement still believe that Biden’s victory was fraudulent and that a liberal “deep state” has usurped the country, the US will continue to face the threat of insurgency from American citizens organized into armed militias that are willing and able to commit acts of terror. Wittily but not in jest, the international relations scholar Daniel Drezner has likened the GOP to Hezbollah: “a political party that also has an armed wing to coerce other political actors through violence.”1
There is considerable mainstream skepticism about just how dangerous these militias are. First, many assume they are feckless, disorganized, and mostly engaged in self-dramatizing theater. Media images of motley militia members bedecked in Hawaiian shirts and tactical web vests on the steps of the Michigan State House in April 2020 tended to confirm this view, as did the horns-and-fur crowns and painted faces sported by some of the January 6 rioters. Second, the militias may possess millions of semiautomatic rifles, but they do not have armor, aircraft, heavy weapons, or significant numbers. They can neither seize and hold territory nor tactically defeat US military forces in open battle, so they cannot be considered a serious threat to the republic.
Many militia members are ill-informed and undertrained weekend warriors and armchair crackpots, but some are not. Timothy McVeigh, the main perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, was smart, disciplined, and effective. But whether militias are any match for the military and law enforcement is beside the point. The main damage done by militia violence, beyond its actual victims, is to social cohesion.
From this perspective, peace and stability in the United States depend not only on broadly law-abiding Americans and a measured response from Congress to this threat—which are far from guaranteed—but also on the professionalism of the American military and law enforcement agencies. They face significant obstacles. Most members of Trump’s far-right base interpret the Second Amendment’s cryptic enshrinement of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” as guaranteeing practically unlimited personal gun ownership, though both historically and in its constitutional context that right is intended to support the people’s capacity to raise a “well regulated Militia” whose function has long been fulfilled by state national guards.
Trump supporters claim, however, that national guards have been co-opted by the deep state and the time has come to raise what they contend are constitutionally sanctioned militias. Some state legislators are trying to circumvent prohibitions against private paramilitary groups by proposing laws that would effectively deputize private gun owners as members of volunteer state militias.
Regardless of legal considerations, leading militia figures like the white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan member Louis Beam in the early 1980s have elaborated guidelines for grassroots covert action such as “leaderless resistance”—that is, actions undertaken by individuals or small cells without elaborate, hierarchical command structures. McVeigh’s operation was the prototype for such efforts, which are hard for law enforcement to infiltrate. New technologies will make militias able to operate on a more clandestine basis, and therefore more difficult to detect and interdict. Charismatic politicians like Trump are needed mainly to inspire—or “script”—revolutionary violence, not to provide operational assistance. Members of armed militias, though they constituted a small minority of the mob that carried out the Capitol attack, were disproportionately involved in organizing it. As of June, most of the roughly thirty participants charged with conspiracy crimes—the most serious ones—were members of the chauvinist, anti-immigrant, and white supremacist Proud Boys or the antigovernment Oath Keepers or Three Percenters. Early on, federal prosecutors determined that nine members of the Oath Keepers planned and orchestrated the attack.
These groups are reminiscent of the Order—a violent group that sought to establish an exclusively white homeland in the western United States in the early 1980s until the FBI dismantled it—but may have learned from their forerunner’s mistakes. These included committing nonpolitical felonies like robbery and counterfeiting, which gave law enforcement a clear basis for arresting them, and recruiting face-to-face, which the Internet has made unnecessary. They are also galvanized by the demographic prospect of a nonwhite majority that will deprive “real Americans”—essentially, white ones—of firm dominion over the country, which they believe belongs to them. Furthermore, they appear to be forging unsettling relationships with government officials, elected and otherwise. For instance, Janet McGeachin, Idaho’s lieutenant governor and a candidate for governor, allegedly told a militia leader that he was “going to have a friend” in office. And Paul Gosar, a five-term Republican congressman from Arizona, has maintained a close and open political relationship with Nick Fuentes, the leader of the white nationalist group America First, giving the keynote address at a conference it hosted in February.
These factors are eroding the government’s effective monopoly on the use of force. The substantial neutralization, if not the actual disarmament, of domestic militias is required to ensure that the US remains a stable democracy. While the country obviously has not descended to the level of present-day Iraq or Lebanon or Troubles-era Northern Ireland, these are ominously suggestive examples. Lebanon has no functioning state, and Northern Irish governance was effectively militarized for a generation. In all of these cases, privatized armed forces competed and sometimes colluded with state authorities and perpetuated instability. Once unleashed, armed pro-state groups are notoriously difficult to suppress.
The rejoinder that those places differ from the United States because they faced conflict tantamount to civil war is cold comfort given that the political polarization in the US today is comparable to that during and just after the Civil War. In the US, dangers are multiplied by the high level of gun ownership and the ease of purchasing firearms, which make the leaderless resistance advocated by the late-twentieth-century militia theoreticians and now epitomized by the far right, anti-authoritarian Boogaloo Bois—they of the Hawaiian shirts—all the more practicable.
Furthermore, Trumpism is tightly linked to race—one of the “values” issues that acutely divide Americans, alongside abortion, gender rights, and immigration. The depth and toxicity of its white Christian nationalist roots make its challenge to American liberalism all the more intractable. It reflects what the sociologist Philip Gorski has described as “the confluence…of demographic decline and apocalyptic thinking.”2 Apocalyptic movements can be quietist: the end is near, and it’s just a matter of waiting it out and preparing oneself spiritually for the end of time and the kingdom of God. But they can also be activist, implacable, and violent, if they see the apocalypse as something that must be set in motion by human action, either to show God that His subjects are worthy of redemption, or because they think that the inevitable should be accelerated. And the expectations of apocalyptically minded groups can be highly resistant to change.3
The racism inherent in Trumpism naturally inspires nonwhite Americans to consider whether they should be prepared to defend themselves. White Americans have been hoarding weapons for years, and the current racial tensions have caused a spike in gun ownership among Blacks. It is worth remembering that the historic spiral in firearms purchases in twentieth-century America began in the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers’ theatrical but very real call to arms prompted both whites and Blacks to flock to gun shops. The emergence of Black militias like the Rise of the Moors—eleven members of which were arrested after an armed standoff in Massachusetts in early July—has intensified since 2009. This trend increases prospects for armed civil conflict between nonstate groups, which would be harder to stymie than one-sided, far-right aggression.
There is a strong likelihood that Trump, whether or not his influence over the Republican Party fades, will continue to incite his fanatical base, including militias. He has burnished a new version of the “lost cause” myth of Confederate nobility, the cause now being an election allegedly stolen by a Democrat-dominated deep state, and added a nostalgic appeal to the legend of rustic white masculinity.4 The fact that strongly Republican state governments like Georgia and federal institutions like the Senate and the judiciary—including the Supreme Court—dismissed his claims will not persuade his followers. Like the original myth, this one trades on the tribalism of its adherents.
To make matters worse, transnational connections among far-right organizations are burgeoning, much as they did among jihadist groups earlier this century, reflecting the power of the Internet to unite disparate and dispersed but like-minded extremists. US allies as well as adversaries are providing momentum. Ukraine appears to be a recruiting hub, while Moscow is employing a range of measures to cultivate right-wing extremists in order to undermine Western political institutions. The American organizers of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 had been in contact with representatives of a Russian white supremacist group since 2015. Music festivals and ultimate fighting contests have become gathering places for white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
The events of January 6 have been considered from almost every angle—as a coup d’état, a revival meeting, a be-in, a riot, even a super-spreader—but not sufficiently as an intelligence failure. Looking at January 6 as a kind of surprise attack can reveal a great deal about what happened and what must be done to prevent future assaults on democratic institutions.
In the parlance of intelligence, there are two kinds of warning. Strategic warning is the inference of a prospective attack based on general conditions. For example, Washington officials knew by the spring of 1940 that war with Japan was probable in the near-to-medium term, as Tokyo was increasingly likely to respond to the effects of US sanctions by going on the offensive. Tactical warning consists of indications about where, when, and how a specific action will occur. The absence of tactical warning in 1941 made the attack on Pearl Harbor a genuine surprise.
The United States certainly had strategic warning of the January 6 attack, reaching back over 150 years. A national security threat from armed domestic right-wing groups surfaced with the Klan and like-minded groups during Reconstruction, and the US government contained it essentially by tolerating Jim Crow, which was fueled by the lost-cause myth. Resentment of government abuses such as the supposed betrayal of US soldiers in Vietnam and race-war prophecies like the one retailed by William Pierce in The Turner Diaries (1978) kept far-right extremism percolating and dangerous, as did rising calls for gun control and lethal confrontations between federal agents and extremists in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and Waco, Texas, in 1993; the Oregon standoff with the Bundy family in 2014; attacks on churches and synagogues; and the emergence of new militias. Since 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected America’s first Black president, the number of active groups has increased from thirty to more than two hundred. By 2011, right-wing militia members numbered well over 100,000 nationwide, and their political, recruitment, and paramilitary activity spiked during the Trump administration.
For several years, the FBI has recognized that the terrorist threat from domestic far-right extremists is on a par with that from jihadists. In a 2008 intelligence assessment released by WikiLeaks, it judged that “although individuals with military backgrounds constitute a small percentage of white supremacist extremists, they frequently occupy leadership roles within extremist groups and their involvement has the potential to reinvigorate an extremist movement suffering from loss of leadership and in-fighting during the post-9/11 period.”5 The leak of a 2009 Department of Homeland Security intelligence analysis on right-wing domestic extremism, which implicated predominantly Republican voters, enraged Republican members of Congress, who forced Secretary Janet Napolitano to quash the department’s work in that area. Since then, current and former members of the military have increasingly offered militias purloined intelligence and tactical training, as well as channels for recruiting members whose military expertise would be of significant operational value. A former Marine Corps recruiting sergeant became the leader of Vanguard America, whose members marched in Charlottesville in 2017.
Before January 6, 2021, unlike before December 7, 1941, the government also had extremely specific tactical warning. On October 6, less than a month before the election, the Department of Homeland Security released an assessment that “Domestic Violent Extremists” presented “the most persistent and lethal” threat to the country.6 The intelligence was not actionable insofar as it did not specify January 6 as the day of the assault, though the Capitol could be inferred as a target. Also in October, fourteen men linked to the Michigan-based, anti-government Wolverine Watchmen, six of whom were plotting to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, were arrested on federal terrorism, conspiracy, and weapons charges. Two were involved in the armed occupation of the Michigan State Capitol in April 2020 protesting Whitmer’s Covid-19 restrictions, now seen by some as a dress rehearsal for the January 6 invasion. The place and time of the attack were unambiguous. The president himself had publicly encouraged his supporters well in advance—inviting them in a December 19 tweet: “Be there, will be wild!” in Washington on that date—and refusing to concede that Biden had legitimately won the election. Trump supporters posted online plans to come to DC on January 6 and indicated what weapons they would carry.
Given such ample strategic and tactical warning, why was the assault on the Capitol a surprise? Why was there no adequate preparation? A primary factor was that throughout his time as president, Trump refused to denounce right-wing extremists, downplayed the threats they posed, and exaggerated jihadist and antifa ones. In response to Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer of 2020, he mobilized an ad hoc federal force through the Department of Homeland Security to support right-wing counterdemonstrators, many of them members or supporters of armed groups.7 The Trump administration was also willfully blind to, or subtly encouraged, the systemic racism that has become increasingly manifest in US law enforcement.
In light of the disastrous implications of a successful surprise attack for vital political institutions, we need to understand what went wrong in the intelligence failure of January 6 and find remedies that, among other things, would be impervious to political manipulation by a malign president. A bipartisan January 6 Commission, proposed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, was a sensible vehicle for this inquiry, but it was blocked by the Senate, forcing her to create a far less empowered House select committee. The Biden administration is seeking to ensure that in the future timely strategic and tactical warnings can be translated into rapid action. The most effective remedies will need to be federally legislated—a challenging proposition for a divided Congress, many of whose members appear to have conspired with the rioters or justified their actions after the fact.
The most urgent concerns are militia infiltration and gun availability. Militias have penetrated some military organizations and law enforcement agencies, and need to be purged from them. For example, about 10,000 current and former employees of the US Border Patrol are members of a Facebook group that has shared racist and anti-immigrant memes. The Oath Keepers boast that tens of thousands of its members are current and former law enforcement officers and military veterans. According to Michael German, a former FBI special agent who is now at the Brennan Center for Justice, the Bureau has consistently downplayed the threat of infiltration, casting it as mainly an operational impediment to specific criminal investigations and the safety of agents and informants, and relegating enforcement to state and local police forces that may themselves harbor far-right sympathies.8
At the command level, the US military and the federal security agencies now appear largely safe from right-wing extremism. But at least some junior officers who subscribe to militia ideas are on career paths to general and flag officer rank, just as some of the Border Patrol racists on Facebook are angling for senior positions. There is no guarantee that four-stars or senior civilian officials with the rectitude, fortitude, and constitutional understanding of General Mark Milley—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who bolstered the government against a possible coup attempt by Trump after the election—will be around to do it again in the future. Although federal organizations have pledged to expel extremist members, they can’t be counted on to follow through: similar assertions of resolve have arisen with respect to eliminating ingrained racism, but formidable obstacles, such as unions and free-speech prerogatives as well as institutionalized racism, make effective self-regulation a daunting proposition for them.
Some fifty military veterans or active-duty service members have been charged with crimes in connection with January 6, including at least eight charged with conspiracy. At least twenty active or retired law enforcement officers are facing charges, and several Capitol Police officers appeared to allow insurrectionists to proceed past barriers. Yet even after the shock of that day had registered, military and law enforcement organizations appeared reluctant to investigate extremism within their ranks. The Pentagon has acknowledged that white supremacism has become more prevalent in the military and that trained military personnel are prized recruits for extremist groups, and it has launched efforts to purge them. The Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III recently ordered the military services to assess the extent of the problem and formulate measures for addressing it.
In his confirmation hearing, Attorney General Merrick Garland—who led the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing—stated that combating domestic extremism would be his top priority. But the Pentagon may find it difficult to balance operational priorities with self-policing, and it is impractical for the Justice Department to regulate the country’s myriad military forces and law enforcement agencies on a case-by-case basis. Congress will need to step in with legislation mandating self-policing by each bureaucratic entity and systematic oversight and accountability.
The United States can learn a great deal from Germany. Its aggressive postwar reckoning with its Nazi past suppressed the far right there for fifty years and, notwithstanding the recent rise of the Alternative for Germany party and more extreme right-wing groups, they remain politically constrained. But Germany has experienced resurgent Nazism and white supremacism in its military and police forces. As of October 2020, German domestic intelligence had documented 1,400 cases of far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers, and intelligence officers over the course of three years, including twenty embedded in a platoon of the elite Special Forces Command antiterrorism unit, whose arsenal was missing 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 135 pounds of explosives. Also uncovered were target lists of 25,000 pro-refugee politicians drawn from police databases. In response the German government has enacted sweeping measures against racism and right-wing extremism and dedicated more than a billion euros over the next three years to interagency programs aimed at blunting right-wing threats and preventing radicalization.
Gun control is an even tougher problem than infiltration. By some estimates, there are over 400 million privately owned guns in America—the equivalent of more than one per person. A relatively small number of Americans own the large majority of firearms, many expanding their arsenals with the election of each Democratic president. Extremists can train at camps employing live-fire exercises right under the noses of law enforcement. The prospect of stricter gun control—such as “red flag” laws allowing law enforcement officers to seize firearms from those considered a public safety risk—has only increased the militancy of these groups. On balance, however, the shock of January 6 may have expanded the scope for significant gun-control legislation—in particular, more rigorous background checks and a federal ban on assault weapons, automatic weapons, and high-capacity magazines. Yet large-scale deradicalization and confiscation are not likely. That leaves US government authorities with a standing strategic warning and an urgent need for tactical warning on an ongoing basis.
The experience of fending off a comparably intractable transnational terrorist enemy has afforded the US government some useful institutional wisdom. Domestic and intergovernmental counterterrorism relationships—in particular, those that involve intelligence sharing—forged after September 11 for addressing jihadists could be reoriented toward new far-right threats. Furthermore, governments have understood that jihadists’ absolutist goals—such as the West’s withdrawal from Muslim lands and their submission to Islamist domination—were not amenable to negotiation or other forms of political suasion. The same goes for the aims of right-wing extremist groups. White supremacism and neo-Nazism, for instance, are flatly unacceptable under American political principles, and QAnon and “Stop the Steal” grievances are premised on outright falsehoods. No political settlement mollifying those with such beliefs is plausible.
This calls for an emphasis on civic education, among other things. Reversing or preventing Muslim radicalization through “strategic communication” was always a daunting challenge because it had to be pursued in countries with starkly different cultures. The substantially domestic provenance of right-wing threats should make them more susceptible to educational initiatives aiming to discredit pernicious notions such as “white replacement theory,” “race realism,” or bans on teaching critical race theory that justify and normalize white supremacism. In particular, a focused federal effort may be needed to counter propaganda like The 1776 Report, produced by an advisory commission appointed by Trump, which defends America’s founding on the basis of slavery and compares progressivism to fascism.
After early pessimism, American and European analysts came around to the view that even al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were to some degree deterrable. Although right-wing extremists have outlandish objectives, they can still be dissuaded from pursuing them by the promise of retaliation (deterrence by punishment) or by the effective foreclosure of political success (deterrence by denial). And indeed, a number of the participants in the Capitol riot, now facing incarceration, have appeared frightened and contrite. Congress’s insistence on certifying Biden’s victory as soon as possible after the mob breached the Capitol undoubtedly had some deterrent effect, which punishing and shaming complicit elected and other officials would strengthen.
Nevertheless, the unprecedented historical spectacle of the Capitol insurrection also looms as a durable tool of recruitment for far-right militias, so enforcement and prevention are paramount. There is a temptation to draft legislation more clearly defining domestic terrorism and strengthening the means to combat it. But, in contrast to the poor preparation for January 6, the apparent effectiveness of the law enforcement response to the event suggests that existing laws are largely sufficient. Muscular new ones could even be politically counterproductive. When the Provisional Irish Republican Army rose to prominence in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, the British government established an array of “scheduled offenses” applicable to IRA militants that distinguished them from “ordinary decent criminals.” This helped them burnish their status as “freedom fighters” and—once tried, convicted, and incarcerated—as “prisoners of war.” That, in turn, only made it easier for them to gain political traction as principled revolutionaries through Sinn Fein, their political counterpart. The prospect of right-wing American convicts whipping up populist fervor through strategically calculated hunger strikes based on their POW status, as the IRA did in 1980–1981, is not an attractive one.
Neither is that of assassination. Being effectively afforded special status as revolutionaries gave Irish republican militants both the political cover and the incentive to stage increasingly violent and politically provocative operations, such as the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and several members of Parliament and the near assassination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The proliferation of death threats to American politicians—including Pelosi, Vice President Mike Pence, and others as the January 6 insurrection coalesced—underscores the salience of this problem in the US today. An assassination or two could cause social tension to descend into civil conflict.
Some new legislation is under consideration to facilitate intelligence collection and dissemination in order to preempt domestic terrorist attacks. But if national politics tilt farther to the right, passing laws that criminalize the sorts of things political organizations do short of violence—particularly involving speech and assembly—and increasing domestic law enforcement and intelligence gathering would only reinforce the impression of a repressive and antidemocratic state. It’s more sensible and important for federal, state, and local agencies to formulate accurate threat assessments that provide the information required to apply existing laws robustly and target extremists discriminately—as they have mainly with respect to jihadist threats through the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
Because right-wing extremists constitute such a significant part of Trump’s base, his administration resisted pursuing or endorsing any such assessments, instead focusing narrowly on Islamist extremists despite their relative inactivity, and later on antifascist groups despite their largely nonviolent character and lack of cohesion, even as right-wing threats came to dominate the counterterrorism efforts. President Biden moved quickly to remedy this neglect, ordering the director of national intelligence to work with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to comprehensively assess the threats from domestic extremism, which they found to be heightened. The administration’s comprehensive, multi-agency strategy for combating it, announced by Attorney General Garland on June 15, is a product of that effort.9 Genuine bipartisanship in Congress and a stronger national consensus would give such measures teeth but seem unlikely to materialize in the near future.
It is imperative that the US government resist the impulse to respond militarily to the threat of right-wing violence and that it sustain a law enforcement approach. This may seem obvious, especially given that the US armed forces are generally forbidden to intervene in domestic security matters and are resolutely apolitical, a position reasserted following Trump’s attempt to enlist them during the Lafayette Square episode last June. By comparison, in dealing with the rise of the IRA, the British government militarized the conflict and thereby escalated it. It took about six years for London to see the wisdom of law enforcement “normalization,” by which time it was too late to fully tamp down the elevated level of violence. The Troubles endured for twenty-five years.
The overarching lesson for America is to stick to criminalization and strictly civilian law enforcement, both to preserve civil liberties and to avoid provoking even more extreme reactions. A small core of far-right extremists may survive counterterrorism enforcement efforts in the medium term. If US law enforcement can substantially stop infiltration and generate better intelligence for tactical warnings, though, the right-wing threat is not likely to be more resistant than that of other lethal groups—mafia families, spy rings, the Hell’s Angels—that have been dismantled one search warrant, wiretap, and indictment at a time.
—July 21, 2021
Steven Simon is the Robert E Wilhelm Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book The Long Goodbye: The US and the Middle East from the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring will be published in 2022.
Jonathan Stevenson is a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Managing Editor of Survival. (August 2021)
1 Quoted in Doyle McManus, “Why Republicans Are Suddenly Reluctant to Condemn Political Violence,” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2021. Drezner lodged the same notion, perhaps a bit more tentatively, shortly after January 6: “Will the GOP turn Into Hezbollah?,” The Washington Post, January 12, 2021.
2 See, for example, Philip Gorski, “The Roots of White Christian Nationalism,” Vital Interests, Center on National Security, February 25, 2021.
3 See Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (Harper, 1956).
4 See, for example, Steven Simon, “Trump’s Insurrection and America’s Year of Living Dangerously,” Survival, Vol. 63, No. 1 (February–March 2021).
5 Federal Bureau of Investigation, “White Supremacist Recruitment of Military Personnel Since 9/11,” Federal Bureau of Investigation Intelligence Assessment, July 7, 2008.
6 Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Threat Assessment, October 6, 2020.
7 See, for example, Jonathan Stevenson, “Trump’s Praetorian Guard,” The New York Review, October 22, 2020.
8 See Michael German, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement,” Brennan Center for Justice, August 27, 2020.
9 See Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “White House Unveils Strategy to Combat Domestic Extremism,” The New York Times, June 15, 2021.