A year after the January 6 storming of the capital of the United States, a former US counter-terrorism official is concerned that attacks by far-right extremists could pose a major security challenge until 2022, reflecting the concerns of other analysts about the changing nature of the threat.
More than 700 people has been charged in connection with last year’s Capitol uprising in Washington, DC, which resulted in five deaths. The broken windows and viral images of chaos in the heart of American power have forced security services to far-right threat more serious, said Jason Blazakis, a former U.S. Department of State terrorism official, now at the Soufan Group, a New York-based research center.
“It was a wake-up call,” Blazakis told Al Jazeera of the January 6 riot. “[The far-right] was a threat that was underestimated by security officials and policymakers who sometimes deliberately tried to ignore the problem for political reasons… Only now does the US government see the internal threat as a serious challenge. ”
Before the January 6 anniversary, analysts say it American far-right groups – including anti-government militias, white supremacists and various conspiracy theorists – remains a major security threat. With such groups being scrutinized by law enforcers and facing oppression by some mainstream social media platforms, a repeat of something similar to the Capitol Uprising is less likely this year, Blazakis said, as the threat appears to be changing.
Instead, he fears a lone-wolf-style attack by an individual or small group “as we saw in El Paso or Pittsburgh,” referring to the 2019 massacre of Latinos at a Texas Walmart and the murder of 11 people at a synagogue in 2018 by an armed man who expressed anti-Semitic views.
Hundreds of thousands of individuals across the US endorse a far-right ideology, Blazakis estimates – and dealing with that worldview, along with supporters who believe in the use of force, does not come with an easy policy solution.
‘Frustrated and angry’
White supremacy, extremist militias and other like-minded individuals were involved in two-thirds of all “terrorist attacks and conspiracies” on U.S. soil by 2020, according to research published in April by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Brainstorming.
The people arrested over the January 6 riot – including realtors, business owners and small town councilors – does not necessarily pose the greatest security threat to the country today, says Arie Perliger, a criminology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell with expertise in far-right extremism.
Rather than Twitter trolls or fighting street protesters, Perliger is more concerned about civilian power cells or loose networks of conspiracy theorists working underground. “Throughout the country, you have significant groups and cells and activists who are frustrated and angry, and they represent the threat,” he told Al Jazeera. “If we are looking for the next attack, it will not necessarily happen in DC. It will be other vulnerable targets, such as Pittsburgh or El Paso. “
Small groups of far-right extremists which do not have a formal command and control structure, are much more difficult for security forces to detect, he said – and they often work in areas outside major cities, where local authorities have minimal resources.
“The threat is more likely to come from more isolated groups and cells,” Perliger said, referring to a 2020 conspiracy by anti-government extremists to Michigan governor abducted. “It is much more difficult to identify and thwart their plans.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.
Security services infiltrated
Difficult efforts to respond to threats from domestic extremists is the fact that some members of security services have far-right sympathy. U.S. military personnel and reservists actively serving have participated in a growing number of “domestic terror plots and attacks.” according to CSIS research. The incidence of attacks on U.S. soil linked to active duty and reserve personnel rose to 6.4 percent in 2020, from 1.5 percent in 2019 and zero in 2018, CSIS reported.
Of the people charged with the January 6 uprising, at least 13 percent had ties to the military or law enforcement, according to a National Public Radio Database.
“The infiltration of the army and police [by the far-right] is a pretty big deal. Look at the number of military people [arrested] on January 6, ”Michael Hayden, who tracks hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Al Jazeera. “Military and police were very far behind with how far this radicalization went.”
The takeaway from the Capitol uprising, he said, is the convergence between regular Republican and far-right ideas: “Those soft barriers that kept the outer edge down on the right really broke down on January 6th.”
That trend does not bode well US stability or attempts to find compromise between political factions.
A member of the Political Instability Task Force, a CIA advisory panel that analyzes the risks of civil strife around the world, warns that the US is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe”. Barbara F Walter’s forthcoming book, How civil wars start, notes that the US has entered “very dangerous territory”.
Perliger agrees. “If we talk about 2022, based on the data we have, we should expect to see a high level of violence,” he said. “I see no reason at the moment why the trend will reverse or change: 2022 is an election year, and usually tends to sharpen the rhetoric and polarization.”