Another perpetrator emailed videos depicting his actions at the Capitol to the FBI agent investigating him. “Hello Nice FBI Lady,” he said, “here are the links to the videos …. Let me know if you need anything else.” With that email, the bureau had enough information to arrest and charge the man in a criminal complaint. Front and center of the complaint and the detention memo were still shots from the video provided by the now-defendant.
As the FBI’s Washington Field Office and the Justice Department last week unleashed an opening salvo of dozens of arrests against the perpetrators of the siege on Capitol Hill, their investigative efforts may have been inadvertently assisted by the targets of their investigations. Many seem somewhat clueless of the consequences of many of their actions, including those whose overt and public actions have led directly to their arrest and their likely successful prosecution. But the ease with which federal agents have rounded up some of the alleged perpetrators shouldn’t obscure the seriousness of the threat the failed insurrection posed — and the apparent certainty that many accused rioters had that they would face no consequences for their part in the violence is an ominous sign.
During and after the assault, social media was awash with photos, videos and announcements of these insurrectionists breaking a seemingly obvious criminal code by documenting their own violations of federal law, to the shock of many — including, one would imagine, the assistant United States attorneys charged with prosecuting these individuals. Admittedly, many rioters failed at operational security in particularly ridiculous ways — from the alleged white supremacist who stormed the Capitol while wearing a court-ordered GPS tracking device to the Texas Realtor who advertised her professional services while live-streaming herself illegally entering the Capitol. (She now says she deserves a pardon from President Trump.) One college student facing felony charges messaged another Instagram user on the 6th with a particularly salient point: “idk what treason is.”
It is understandable to mock the overwhelming number of those who took to social media to announce their crimes. However, the comic absurdity of some of these cases may be acting as a facade for the seriousness of the overall threat. At the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, we track every federal arrest related to the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6. All told, more than 80 individuals have been publicly charged, and they traveled from at least 31 states and have an average age of 41. The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., which serves as the central hub of prosecutions, says some 270 people are active suspects. Many an indictment remains sealed, and much more is yet to come.
While we can view the perpetrators’ self-incrimination as a result of their poor criminal tradecraft, it also reflects their belief that they did nothing wrong. In this light, any humor found in these cases quickly fades. The “true believers” present during the Capitol siege documented their activities because they were participating in what they saw as the start of a second American revolution, and surely the victors of such things would never be punished for their heroism.
The initial evidence we have about the alleged perpetrators from court documents also may be biased in favor of the “low hanging fruit.” Many of those arrested and charged thus far seemingly represent the most public, visible and often least organized of the individuals present at the Capitol. The video footage broadcast live by alt-right and white supremacist online personalities has not only led to charges for those filming, but also the identification of dozens of alleged co-conspirators inside the Capitol. At present, most of those arrested face relatively minor charges stemming from unlawful entry and activities on designated grounds, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1752.
But that dynamic is likely to change as indictments and conspiracy charges are unsealed. The Justice Department has indicated significant investigations are ongoing related to potential sedition and conspiracy charges, as well as the pipe bombs found at the Republican and Democratic national committees and the killing of Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick. As the investigations continue and those responsible are brought to justice, we may get a fuller picture of the intent and capabilities of the individuals and groups involved in the Capitol siege. Some of the cases of individuals who have already been charged with participating in the events — such as those of the two individuals arrested were photographed in the Senate chamber carrying zip-ties, allegedly to kidnap and execute members of Congress — show that the threat from the rioters was far more serious than their operational security failures would indicate.
An intense focus on the individual perpetrators may also miss the forest for the trees, removing their efforts from the context of the domestic violent extremist movements with which some of the mob were affiliated. Those charged so far represent a cross-section of the online spaces in which extremist ideologies freely propagate. Individuals affiliated with a range of extremist groups and ideologies have been identified as being present at the Capitol, including believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters, neo-Nazis and even members of the Boogaloo movement, which seeks a second Civil War.
Concerningly, the scope of the planned offline coordination and activity by these actors in coming weeks and months remains unclear. A joint intelligence bulletin released last week warned that “armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January.” This comes on the heels of an FBI Situational Information Report from December, which noted the potential for coordinated Boogaloo movement plots against state and federal buildings in Michigan and Minnesota in the days leading up to the inauguration.
By any measure, the Capitol Hill siege was a historic flash point of domestic extremism in the United States, and one that may surpass the collective narratives of Waco and Ruby Ridge, which play an outsized role in anti-government folklore. Not only will the invasion serve as a potent recruitment tool, but law enforcement analysis suggests this unique cross-section of domestic violent extremists present at the Capitol will turn out to have made the day into an ad hoc networking event: “In-person engagement between domestic violent extremists of differing ideological goals during the Capitol breach likely served to foster connections, which may increase [their] willingness, capability, and motivation to attack and undermine a government they view as illegitimate.”
Analysis further suggests this diverse set of extremist actors continues to move deeper into more secure and encrypted platforms and messaging applications, especially now that mainstream platforms have been banning them. Not only does this increase the difficulty of disrupting violent plots, it also probably rules out future gifts of self-incrimination. Surely the live-streaming of their actions by those most committed to acts of domestic terrorism will stop. The use of the Internet and social media platforms to document the events at the Capitol is also a sign of the challenge facing law enforcement: an increasingly interconnected and disparate domestic extremist threat that fails to conform to traditional definitions and structures of international terrorism.
While things could have been worse on Jan. 6, it would be a mistake to write off these actions as those of a motley crew of bumbling miscreants. Many of them may be that, but they were also dangerous and untethered to the norms we accept in society — and even more concerning people are surely to come. Accelerationist actors, anti-government extremists and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy have evidenced a desire to commit further acts of targeted violence against what they perceive as a tyrannical and illegitimate government. This coalition of extremist actors will probably utilize lessons learned at the Capitol, as well as connections developed both offline and online in furtherance of these goals.
As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to be inaugurated despite the attempt to prevent certification of his victory, you can allow yourself to laugh at the criminal missteps for a moment. But then let’s get to work stopping something like this from ever happening again.