Sat, October 16, 2021

in-focus

'What happened at the Capitol is domestic terrorism'


WASHINGTON - After supporters of President Donald Trump descended on the U.S. Capitol building, hoping to stop the counting of electoral college votes, lawmakers and experts alike repeated a phrase to describe the violent mob: "domestic terrorists."

"Those who performed these reprehensible acts cannot be called protesters; no, these were rioters and insurrectionists, goons and thugs, domestic terrorists," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a speech after lawmakers reconvened. "They do not represent America."

"What happened today was domestic terrorism," GOP spokesman Michael Ahrens tweeted. "Our soldiers have died carrying the American flag into battle for our freedom. To see that flag used in the name of unfounded conspiracy theories is a disgrace to the nation, and every decent American should be disgusted by it."

Members of both political parties pointed to the destruction of government property, threats to law enforcement and two explosive devices found near the Capitol as acts of terrorism as far-right extremist groups rallied in the nation's capital to contest the results of the presidential election. In the media, CNN executives told the organization's journalists that they could refer to the siege as "domestic terrorism."

National security experts agreed with that assessment, comparing the aggressive takeover of the federal landmark to the FBI's definition of domestic terrorism: "Violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature."

The FBI, which is investigating the violence, declined to comment when asked if the raid was considered domestic terrorism.

But the agency has acknowledged that homegrown violent extremism has become an increasingly prevalent threat, especially in the past four years.

"A majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we've investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacy, but it includes other things as well," FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress in 2019.

In April, the State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement as "Specially Designated Global Terrorists," the first time in history the government classified a white supremacist group as a terrorist threat.

Even members of groups that have publicly supported Trump, such as the Proud Boys and the "boogaloo" movement, have faced prosecution after last summer's unrest.

But the violence Wednesday indicates how anti-government, white supremacy and other far-right groups are still able to subvert law enforcement, even as their plans were widely shared on social media. Despite the masses that breached the Capitol, only 52 arrests were made, according to D.C. police.

"The fact that the planning to assault the Capitol happened in public shows the bankruptcy of the intelligence apparatus that has been built since 9/11," Michael German, a former FBI special agent and Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program fellow, told The Post.

The United States has no domestic terrorism statute, and concerns that the government could infringe on citizens' constitutional protections of speech and assembly have hampered the ability to respond to threats, experts say.

Recent intelligence assessments focusing on Black and environmental rights extremists have allowed some white supremacy and anti-government groups to act with impunity, German said.

"That has conditioned them to believe they are authorized to act this way," he said. "So it's not surprising at all that you would see people who aren't covering their faces, aren't trying to hide their identity, attacking police officers and invading and vandalizing the Capitol and disrupting our democracy in the process."

After the largely White mob was allowed to leave the Capitol mostly unscathed, Black Lives Matter protesters compared the police treatment with their own confrontations with law enforcement.

The unrest could also encourage further violence, experts warned.

On their social media channels, white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups have celebrated the disruption of the election process, said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit think tank focused on global security issues. In one meme posted on Telegram, an app used by these fringe groups, the woman who died after she was shot in the Capitol building is lauded and compared to a photo of a Black person instigating violence.

"I truly think that the imagery that we're seeing already today from the Capitol is going to serve as critical propaganda for militia groups, for neo-Nazis and for far-right extremist groups," Clarke said. "I think what they gained today was so valuable for this movement."

Clarke said the groups have grown online in recent years with the spread of conspiracy theories, and Trump's recent baseless claims that the election was stolen has further enraged them.

After the election, Clarke warned in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that Trump's rhetoric could encourage a "sizable minority" that the government is illegitimate - a catalyst for past uprisings internationally.

"I've seen this play out in other countries," he told The Post. "I'm just shocked to see now playing out in my country."

Published : January 07, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Meryl Kornfield