Just over one year ago, Americans across the nation watched in stunned disbelief as one of the most powerful and sacred symbols of their democracy was attacked by a seething mob of their fellow country men and women. Through their televisions, laptops, and mobile devices they witnessed the furious crowd tear through barricades and police lines, smashing windows, breaking doors, and invading the Senate floor. They watched as armed guards drew their weapons to defend the House Chamber, as rioters erected gallows at the front of the building, and the incensed mob chanted for the execution of elected officials.
For many Americans, the Capitol riot represented the violent intrusion of domestic extremism into mainstream politics. After the September 11 attacks, the United States’ political leaders and national security establishment swore to defend the country from violent extremists who would do it harm. They launched a two-decades-long campaign to combat global jihadist terrorism, pouring trillions of dollars into defense spending, engaging in counter-terrorism missions across 80 countries, and authorizing the creation of an entirely new agency dedicated to homeland security.
Given this extraordinary focus on combating global jihadist terrorism, it is perhaps unsurprising that the rapid expansion of domestic right-wing extremism was missed. Today, intelligence reports warn that the most lethal threat to American security comes from the country’s own citizens. This threat now outstrips that posed from U.S.-based jihadists; a recent report by the New America thinktank in Washington D.C. concluded that in the two decades since September 11, far-right extremists have killed more people on American soil than domestic Islamist extremists.
Who Stormed the Capitol?
January 6 represented the eruption of this domestic security threat onto the mainstage of American culture and political life. As Americans tried to make sense of how 2,500 of their fellow citizens could storm the Capitol, people quickly jumped to conclusions as to who organized the attack. The various flags, banners, and symbols displayed throughout the crowd led many to the assumption that the riot was largely orchestrated by far-right extremist groups.
However, whilst these groups were certainly present throughout the attack, and likely played a pivotal role in its incitement, analyses have revealed that the vast majority of those involved in the storming were normal, everyday Trump supporters. This reality suggests a different and possibly much more menacing threat than that posed by far-right groups alone; indeed far-right extremists fall into categories familiar to law enforcement, who have established frameworks for addressing the threat they pose. The riotous storming of the Capitol represents the emergence of a new violent mass movement wherein average Trump supporters, with no obvious ties to the far-right, unite with extremists to forcibly enact their political goals.
Research conducted by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats concluded that the overwhelming motivation for the Capitol attack was President Trump’s injunction to his supporters that they prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election. The attack, according to the authors of the research, was “not merely an exercise in vandalism or trespassing amid a disorderly protest that had spiraled out of control”, it was “unmistakably an act of political violence.”
Moreover, whilst right-wing extremists belonging to militia-like groups received substantial mainstream news coverage, 89% of those arrested in relation to the attack had no affiliation with any known militant organization. Indeed, the demographic profile of the Capitol rioters significantly diverges from the typical right-wing extremist. Whereas 26% of far-right extremists arrested between 2015 and 2020 belonged to a white-nationalist gang, this was true for just 1% of those arrested in relation to January 6. Those who marched on the Capitol were significantly older and wealthier than the typical far-right actor, 40% were business owners or held white-collar jobs. They worked as CEOs, accountants, doctors, lawyers, and IT specialists, indeed less than 1 in 10 were unemployed.
Mainstreaming Right-Wing Extremism
According to Cythia Miller-Idriss, the director of the Polarization and Extremist Research and Innovation Lab at the American University, the Capitol riot represents the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism. “The majority of the rioters were hitherto ordinary Americans who had only recently embraced radical ideas. Their pathways to political violence did not involve a clearly defined ideology or an affiliation with particular groups but instead were shaped by a propaganda campaign that engulfed the full spectrum of right-wing politics.”
This kind of extremism is challenging for security experts and counter-terrorism officials. Violent mass movements are often unorganized and difficult to categorize, indeed the coalition of extremists on display during the Capitol attack included an array of strange bedfellows. According to Miller-Idress, the January 6 mob included not just traditional far-right extremists, pro-Trump activists, and QAnon conspiracy theorists, but also “‘wellness’ advocates opposed to vaccines, libertarians opposed to mask mandates, gun-rights proponents protesting perceiving threats to the Second Amendment, and ‘accelerationists’ seeking the violent collapse of political, economic, and social systems.”
Adapting to the Threat
In the United States, domestic extremist groups were once motivated by relatively coherent ideological beliefs. Security, intelligence, and law enforcement officials developed strategies, frameworks, and fields of expertise to counter these groups. However, these specialized approaches do not apply to the kind of violent mass movement embodied at the Capitol riot.
“Tactics such as monitoring, surveillance, and infiltration are harder to apply in an environment that is more spontaneous, fragmented, and characterized by rapid evolution and surprising coalitions” says Miller-Idress. “Simply put, the tools that authorities use to combat extremists become less useful when the line between the fringe and the center starts to blur. The federal government urgently needs to adapt to this new reality. Extremism has gone mainstream; so must the interventions needed to address it.”
Counter-extremism efforts designed to tackle threats from the fringe are no longer viable. The threat now comes from the mainstream and counter-terrorism strategies must be adapted accordingly. The U.S. needs to stop conceptualizing the risk of political violence as belonging exclusively to the domain of national security. It must adopt a broadscale response focused on addressing the various grievances and vulnerabilities that fuel extremist ideology. The U.S. has the ability to prevent this extremism, to rebuild public trust, and to restore a sense of civic unity. But to do so, it must first accept its new reality.
Oliver Alexander Crisp, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow
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