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As Trump warns of leftist violence, a dangerous threat emerges from the right-wing boogaloo movement

This May 29 surveillance photo provided by the FBI shows a van with the passenger side door open as someone fires at a security kiosk at a federal building in Oakland. (FBI/AP)

A far-right extremist movement born on social media and fueled by anti-government rhetoric has emerged as a real-world threat in recent weeks, with federal authorities accusing some of its adherents of working to spark violence at largely peaceful protests roiling the nation.

At a time when President Trump and other top U.S. officials have claimed — with little evidence — that leftist groups were fomenting violence, federal prosecutors have charged various supporters of a right-wing movement called the “boogaloo bois,” with crimes related to plotting to firebomb a U.S. Forest Service facility, preparing to use explosives at a peaceful demonstration and killing a security officer at a federal courthouse.

Prosecutors even successfully argued before a federal magistrate in Texas last week that a drug possession suspect with alleged boogaloo ties should be denied bond because Facebook and Instagram posts advocating violence against National Guard members and threatening to kill looters showed he was a “threat to the community.”

Boogaloo is more of a violent anti-government ideology than a formal movement, say those who study extremist groups. They say they cannot identify a leader, headquarters or command structure, just loosely affiliated social media pages ranging from explicitly violent to merely commercial, peddling boogaloo-themed merchandise.

But the visibility of boogaloo supporters at recent protests — dressed in trademark Hawaiian shirts and carrying military-style rifles — had alarmed researchers who for months had warned about the danger the groups posed.

Now federal prosecutors in California, Texas, Nevada and Colorado appear to be endorsing those concerns with a series of criminal charges against self-described boogaloo supporters, whose arrests often were accompanied by the seizure of weapons and explosives.

One boogaloo supporter, Steven Carrillo, an active-duty Air Force staff sergeant, is charged with killing a security guard at the federal courthouse in Oakland last month. Court documents allege he scrawled the word “Boog” in blood on a car he had stolen.

“The numbers are overwhelming: Most of the violence is coming from the extreme right wing,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who studies extremist political activity for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia.

U.S. Attorney David Anderson announced on June 16 that two men had been charged for the May 29 murder of a federal courthouse guard in Oakland, Calif. (Video: Reuters)

Men wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying guns add a volatile new element to protests

The shooting that killed one security guard and injured another took place May 29, near where demonstrators had gathered to protest the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis.

Facebook posts also figure in Carrillo’s prosecution, with court documents quoting one attributed to him: “Use their anger to fuel our fire. Think outside the box. We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.”

Carrillo also is accused of killing a sheriff’s deputy in a separate incident in California’s Santa Cruz County. Carrillo’s lawyer has cautioned against a “rush to judgement” on the charges.

The boogaloo movement was born on fringe social media forums such as 4chan but migrated to more mainstream ones such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, where researchers have found some groups had at times hundreds of thousands of followers. The name of the group comes from a 1984 break-dancing movie sequel regarded as almost indistinguishable from the original — boogaloo supporters contend that a second civil war will resemble the one in the 1860s.

Their names and symbols have evolved rapidly online, amid calls for violence against police and other authorities, with boogaloo becoming “Big Igloo” and “Big Luau,” which inspired a proliferation of movement symbols, including the Hawaiian shirts. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted an image of apparent boogaloo supporters, carrying rifles, atop an overturned and vandalized police car in Salt Lake City last month.

An officer was gunned down. The killer was a ‘boogaloo boy’ using nearby peaceful protests as cover, feds say.

The boogaloo ideology has proved adaptive as well, with supporters appearing regularly at a rallies opposing government coronavirus restrictions before shifting to the Floyd rallies — sometimes in avowed support of the protesters, sometimes to allegedly quell unrest and sometimes as provocateurs seeking to inflame it.

The role of social media in incubating the movement and spreading its ideology has prompted several researchers to compare boogaloo to foreign militant groups, such as the Islamic State, which used memes and other forms of online messaging to spread extremist rhetoric, raise money and recruit new members.

“The extremism and the radicalism and the recruitment are nothing new. The methodology is new — that you can reach tens of millions of people with a click of a finger,” Paul Goldenberg, a senior fellow at Rutgers University’s Miller Center and a member of the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Federal authorities this month accused three men in Nevada, all with U.S. military experience, of planning to use molotov cocktails and other explosives to trigger a violent reaction among protesters gathered in Las Vegas last month. An FBI SWAT team arrested the men with fireworks, accelerants, an AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and ammunition, according to charging documents. The men also were charged with crimes related to planning the firebombing of a Forest Service facility at Lake Mead, east of Las Vegas.

Like Carrillo, these men were advocates of the boogaloo ideology, according to the charging documents, with a goal of causing “an incident to incite chaos and possibly a riot” among the largely peaceful protests.

Denver police last month separately seized military-style rifles, handguns, ammunition and gas masks from the car of a man claiming allegiance to boogaloo ideas and attending a Floyd protest rally but did not charge him with any crimes.

In Texas, a bodybuilder alleged to have run an illegal steroid distribution ring was being held without bond after prosecutors cited his social media posts advocating “guerrilla warfare” against National Guard members patrolling at protests and a Facebook post that included threats about killing “looters” and “hunting” supposed leftist agitators.

In a video posted to Instagram and later submitted as evidence by federal prosecutors, the man, Philip Archibald, allegedly urged people to travel to St. Paul, Minn., to confront protesters and “bring that [expletive] heat” along with extra “ammo.”

“You know, this is — this is the time we need to make a stand. So again, Saint Pauls, Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, this is where it’s going down. So if you got people, send ‘em there,” according to an account of the post provided by prosecutors.

The flurry of boogaloo-related prosecutions underscores the growing threat posed by far-right extremists, say experts on such movements. Some question why Trump and other top U.S. officials appear more focused on antifa groups, a loose collection of leftists whose members have been responsible for few documented crimes during the recent unrest, instead of the boogaloo and other heavily armed groups on the right.

“That question has no legitimate answer, to be honest,” said John Farmer, a former New Jersey attorney general and director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, who has studied the boogaloo extremists and others. “There’s been no sense of urgency. I think it’s political neglect.”

Scant evidence of antifa shows how sweeping the protests for racial justice have become

Numerous independent research groups — including the Network Contagion Research Institute, for which Farmer co-wrote a report — have been warning for months about rising signs of boogaloo organizing and other activity on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms. They have grown especially concerned that these extremists had become a disruptive and potentially dangerous element at political protests.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said it has removed numerous boogaloo-themed groups, pages and posts for violating the company’s policy against violence and incitement, and it has taken more targeted action against people affiliated with the boogaloo movement who have attempted to commit “mass violence,” under the company’s policy against dangerous individuals and organizations.

Following the shootings of the security guards, which authorities say involved a second man who drove Carrillo to the courthouse, Facebook banned both men.

“We designated these attacks as violating events and removed the accounts for the two perpetrators along with several groups. We will remove content that supports these attacks and continue to work with law enforcement in their investigation,” Facebook spokeswoman Sarah Pollack said.

Federal authorities have traditionally treated domestic militant groups, even the most extreme, far differently from foreign ones, though there has been increasing recognition in some quarters of the threat posed by right-wing extremists.

There has been an ongoing debate at the federal level about whether domestic terrorists merit more focus, along the lines of the formal designation that the State Department imposes on some foreign groups.

U.S. officials have rarely mentioned boogaloo publicly but have said that they will act against violent extremists, regardless of ideology, when they commit crimes.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Tuesday, in announcing charges against Carrillo, “The assassination and injury of federal officers who swore an oath to protect the American public will not be tolerated. The Department of Homeland Security will continue its mission to end violent extremism in any form.”

Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman, said he did not know of any directive specific to the boogaloo ideology that had been sent to prosecutors, and he said the department has been “focused on those involved in unlawful, violent or destructive behavior regardless of inspiration.”

Despite Trump’s call last month to designate the antifa movement a terrorist group, there is no legal mechanism to do so. Federal authorities extend a degree of deference to militias and similar groups because much of what they do — making political statements, protesting, carrying firearms — is constitutionally protected.

What is antifa?

The recent violence has raised questions about whether a more focused and systemic response is warranted for groups like boogaloo, which openly espouse violence against the police and other government authorities.

New Jersey formally designated white supremacist groups as a leading terrorist threat in a February report, in what officials there called the first such move in the nation. Boogaloo adherents, whom the state has singled out in periodic threat reports, sometimes espouse white supremacist views and sometimes express solidarity with all racial groups, including when some boogaloo factions expressed support for the Floyd protesters, researchers and officials say.

“These types of groups, they just take advantage of the moment, and they spew some messaging, and it just gains traction,” said Jared Maples, director of homeland security and preparedness for New Jersey. “The people who are doing this are taking advantage of people’s fears. … One of the biggest things we can do is call it out.”

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported when Texas prosecutors argued that Phillip Archibald should be detained without bond. The argument took place June 10 but was not announced by the U.S. attorney’s office until June 13.