Main Image Credit Courtesy of Lev radin / Alamy Stock Photo
The events at the US Capitol in Washington D.C. on 6 January have jolted the US national security system into action and forced an acknowledgement of the dangers posed by far-right extremism.
The storming of the Capitol building, which resulted in the deaths of five people, was an act of domestic terrorism – due to the violence and threat used in an attempt to influence the democratic process. While many were shocked by the events of the day, experts have been warning that encouragement of extremist rhetoric in political discourse has consequences. Too often people feel that their words are separate from action, but years of fanning the narrative flames ultimately resulted in a violent mob in the Capitol.
A Broad Threat
The threat of far-right extremism can be a particularly nebulous one, not least because of the challenge of defining the concept, but also because of the loose affiliations and online networks that make up much of the support base. However, as we have seen in the days since the attack on the Capitol, there is increasing evidence linking many of the planners and participants to extremist networks and organisations.
While some within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been warning of the dangers of far-right violent extremism for some time, the official acknowledgement of the threat has been downplayed at the highest levels – both from within the organisation and by the Donald Trump administration. However, the Capital riot has forced a reckoning and unleashed a massive manhunt by the FBI and an increase in security levels by the DHS. The massive security apparatus that exists in the US has now been turned on a domestic threat, with participants ranging across the spectrums of age, gender and class. As with all extremism, there is no set profile for who is at risk of radicalisation, but the challenge of how to counter it is real and complex.
Some of the participants were those who have bought into the conspiracy and disinformation that has been so prevalent in US public discourse in recent years. QAnon started as a tiny seed and grew into a massive tree, with many branches and layers of conspiracy – it has swept the country and echoed around the world. Regardless of its baseless claims, it has lured in millions of true believers and left millions more questioning reality. Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by Capitol Police on 6 January, was a QAnon conspiracist. Ultimately, after the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US, many QAnon conspiracists have been left jaded and confused – potentially easy targets for even more extreme ideologies.
Another significant driver of the violence was the so-called ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, a cascading network of disinformation led by Trump and those who supported and enabled him. They claim that the election results were falsified, and that Trump was the real winner. Even as the courts and electoral commissions repeatedly declared the voting process valid and fair and dismissed every accusation of electoral malpractice, the continued frenzy of disinformation contributed to a violent mob storming the Capitol, ending lives and tarnishing the image of the US as a model of democracy – not only for its own citizens but around the world.
The Hardened Core
In addition to the various ideologies and issues represented by the protestors, there was an underlying presence of a more organised, well-trained and hardened threat participating that day. While these groups often represent different elements of the diverse range of ideologies falling under the umbrella term ‘far-right’ (such as anti-government, xenophobic or white supremacy), they are in many ways very similar. There is growing recognition of the dangers that they present, not least due to their ability to recruit from law enforcement and military circles – which gives them experience with use-of-force tactics and weapons, as well as the presentation of a patriotic front. The FBI acknowledged this ‘threat from within’ over a decade ago. The presence of far-right extremists in the military and law enforcement, as well as the appearance of far-right actors in military or police style garb and weaponry at protests or rally events, undermines public confidence and fuels distrust among marginalised and persecuted communities.
Some of these groups identify themselves as ‘militias,’ a concept enshrined in the US Constitution. However, while these groups seek legitimacy from using this term, they are not legitimate militias, which are forces controlled by State governors (usually referring to the US National Guard). These militant groups often have transnational links and receive ideological, training and monetary support from around the world. The FBI’s investigation has revealed that members from each of the following groups were present or involved in leading or planning the attack on the Capitol:
- Oath Keepers. A radical anti-government group, claiming tens of thousands of members. Supposedly 6–10% of its members are active-duty police officers and military members, and significantly more are retired or veteran service members. They are one of the largest anti-government groups in the US and different chapters of their membership from different states apparently planned the attack, working together to storm the Capitol.
- Three Percenters. Another anti-government militant group with a focus on gun rights and weapons stockpiling. They also have a substantial number of members from the ranks of the police and military. Their name is a reference to the supposed 3% of colonial Americans that fought against the British during the American Revolutionary War.
- Proud Boys. A smaller Western, chauvinist, white supremacist group. They are often visually distinguished by their yellow and black clothing. They have become more prominent due to their propensity for street violence and their increased presence at racial inequality movements and pro-Trump protests over the last few years.
Its Enduring Nature
Even as over 100 arrests have been made following the mob attack in Washington D.C., the participation of members from these groups is being highlighted as a significant threat and a long-term concern for the FBI. The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and Proud Boys are just a few of the organisations under the most scrutiny for the events of 6 January, but the list of far-right extremist groups in the US is much longer and includes organisations that have been in the news repeatedly in recent months and years, like The Base, the Boogaloo Bois and the Ku Klux Klan.
While there has been speculation by some right-wing media organisations on the involvement of ‘Antifa’ in the Capital riot, there is no evidence to support this. It is a common misdirection tactic to try to incite speculation of opposition participation at events (for example, by carrying their associated flags or wearing their insignia). Antifa, short for ‘anti-fascist’, is not a specific organisation, but rather a loose affiliation of a range of ideologically far-left activists. This network has also been appearing more commonly in the media over the last year, often called out by Trump and sometimes acting in violent opposition to far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys.
The threat of far-right violent extremism is now clearer than ever in the US. However, the national security apparatus is seemingly now in motion to take the threat more seriously and Biden has made it a priority to oppose white supremacy and extremism. Bridging the gaps and depolarising the political arena – necessary elements in reducing the impact and footprint of extremism – are a steep hill to climb. However, that an enabler of disinformation and extremism has left the seat of power in the US is a positive first step.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jessica White
Senior Research Fellow
Terrorism and Conflict