Violent extremists still plotting, officials and experts warn

Militia plot against Congress this week latest evidence of ongoing threat.

The U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 may have appeared to be the climax of a period of domestic civil unrest. But experts and government officials who have tracked the rise of violent domestic extremists over the past several years say the threat of more extremist-led violence will remain an on-going fact of American life.

Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp. think tank and an expert on terrorism, said Jan. 6 was a “pivotal point” for the anti-government radicals behind the assault. The next phase may be both more dangerous and harder to predict, he said.

“We could well see circumstances where the threat will evolve from violence connected to protests into one of smaller groups are going underground and continuing clandestine campaigns of violence,” he said. “We might be seeing that now.”

Anthony Lemieux, a Georgia State University communications professor and researcher on the causes of violent radicalization around the world, said the number of people so far arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attack who have military or law enforcement backgrounds is especially worrisome.

“Researchers and scholars who have been following the far right … have been ringing this bell for years,” he said. “There are deliberate and intentional efforts to find and draw people into the cause who have not only the sense of shared grievance and worldview but also capabilities and technical skills that can be put to service to take action.”

The Capitol attack proves that violent political rhetoric, which once existed in obscure corners of the internet, is now in the public square, he said.

The sobering views of such experts comes as Capitol Police warned of possible new militia plots against Congress, which prompted House leaders to cancel the legislative session Thursday and Capitol Police to request a two-month extension of National Guard protection.

In a teleconference with reporters earlier this month, a senior FBI official said the bureau is closely monitoring extremist traffic around President Joe Biden’s first state State of the Union address as well, which has not been scheduled.

And in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray offered a frank, unambiguous assessment of the danger.

“Jan. 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.

Wray said the suspects so far arrested in the insurrection include militia members, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, as well as some apparently motivated by white supremacist ideology.

Wray said domestic terrorism investigations by the FBI have doubled to more than 2,000 since 2017 when he was appointed director and that arrests of racially motivated extremists has tripled over that time.

Feds want alleged rioters behind bars

Federal prosecutors are citing the possibility of a sustained campaign of violent attacks from far-right activists to keep some accused Jan. 6 rioters in jail without bond, including Bruno Cua, an 18-year-old Milton resident who was one of a handful in the militant pro-Trump crowd to breach the Senate chamber.

Extremist groups “have made statements indicating an intention to continue in similar violent endeavors until the current administration is overthrown,” prosecutors warned in a brief filed in Cua’s case. So far, authorities have made more than 300 arrests in the Jan. 6 attack, but in the court filing, prosecutors said they anticipated hundreds of new arrests in the coming weeks and months.

Cua’s attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge Randolph Moss to grant him bond while he awaits trial, but federal prosecutors used his social media posts as evidence of why he and others in the pro-Trump mob are too dangerous to be allowed bail.

“On JAN 6th congress will open their blinds and see MILLIONS OF ANGRY #PATRIOTS,” Cua allegedly wrote in a Dec. 19 post on Parler.com. “If they vote for sleepy joe and commie KAMALA, we BREAK DOWN THEIR DOORS AND TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK BY FORCE!”

Eighteen days later, hundreds of rioters, including far-right militias and white supremacists, did break down the doors of the U.S. Capitol. According to prosecutors, Cua was back on Parler the next day, posting an open letter to the “swamp rats” in Washington boasting of the insurrection.

“There will be no ‘warning shot’ next time,” he wrote.

Bruno Cua, 18, of Milton, has been charged by the FBI with 12 counts related to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Bruno Cua, 18, of Milton, has been charged by the FBI with 12 counts related to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Credit: U.S. Attorney's Office

Credit: U.S. Attorney's Office

In a hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, Assistant U.S. attorney Kimberly Paschall called Cua’s case “one of the most terrifying” of the more than 300 cases so far in the Jan. 6 investigation because of his violent, anti-government online rhetoric before and after the attack on the Capitol.

“There is clear and convincing evidence that he is dangerous,” she said.

Moss set a tentative trial date of May 12 for Cua. If that date holds, Cua would be first of the Jan. 6 insurrection suspects to appear before a Washington jury.

Defense attorneys for Cua say he and his parents, who also attended the pro-Trump rally, have repudiated their extreme beliefs. “This family has been devastated and this has been a complete 180 for them,” attorney William Zapf said.

Alise Cua, Bruno Cua’s mother whose social media accounts also spread false and violent conspiracy theories about the presidential election, told the judge she was “stupid for believing what I believed.”

“I’m well aware of my failing as a mother,” she said.

Parallels to Vietnam era

Jenkins, the RAND researcher, said the violence and chaos of Jan. 6 likely will cause many who attended — and even participated — to reject extremist beliefs.

“The revulsion will peel off some constituency. Some of the political voices that were fervent and bellicose before the event sobered up,” he said. “I think the prospect of arrest, and especially when people start getting sentenced to jail, is going to discourage some people.”

For others, the Capitol assault was a cultural touchtone and an evolution for many extremists who have graduated from enraged or conspiratorial social media posts to real-world action. These more determined extremists are where the real danger lies, Jenkins said.

He compared the current moment to the late 1960s when growing violent activism within the anti-Vietnam War movement on the left turned some young activists off, leaving a more radical core. That change gave birth to groups like the Weather Underground, the New Year’s Gang, and New World Liberation Front, which readily used violence for political purposes, he said.

“I have concerns that we are moving into that. The 2020s are going to be tumultuous,” he said.

“This accelerationist streak is what is really concerning,” Lemieux, the Georgia State professor, agreed.

Accelerationists are extremists who advocate violence as a way to bring about the downfall of the American system and replacing it with one that fits their ideology. Visions of this post-American future often involve a white ethnostate, authoritarian rule or an anarcho-capitalist state without a central government. What links such groups together is a shared vision of violent tactics, including mass shootings, bombings and public execution of officials.

Lemieux said small groups of far-right extremists, organizing off the internet, could prove both destructive and hard to predict.

“A handful of well trained, well equipped people can create substantial harm,” he said.

Despite the threat of continued danger from the far-right, Jenkins said he is not in favor of new federal legislation designating domestic terror groups, as some members of Congress propose.

“I want to keep the really bad guys isolated from their constituency. If in the process I call these people terrorists, then I’m paying attention to their agendas and aggrandizing them,” he said.

The federal government prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan and anti-government extremists like Timothy McVeigh using existing criminal statutes, he said. That should suffice in dealing with violent extremists today, he said.

“We’re not going to create martyrs here,” he said.

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