The perceived success of last week’s deadly insurrection at the US Capitol is “like putting gasoline on a fire” and may serve as a motivator for attacks in the run up to the inauguration, with electoral battleground states and those that have already seen protests among the most vulnerable, security experts say.
The FBI warning that armed protests are being planned in all 50 states in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration has prompted governors and police chiefs to deploy thousands of officers and equipment at state capitols around the country to thwart potential violence.
“The threats are very credible. And you’re coming off a Washington protest that was credible, and let’s just call it ‘successful’ in the eyes of protesters,” said Timothy Dimoff, a former SWAT team leader who operates a security consulting company. “It’s going to fuel their confidence that they can continue because we didn’t show ‘em we could control ‘em.”
“That’s like putting gasoline on a fire,” Dimoff continued. “Now we sent ‘em home and said you guys had a successful game plan and can do it again. That’s where the problem is.”
US officials on Wednesday warned of future attacks, in part because of the success of the siege last week. The FBI bulletin noted that extremists could zero in on government officials and institutions, as well as racial and religious minorities, journalists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
It also indicated that the Capitol insurrection may have served as a venue for extremists of differing ideological motivations to foster connections. After the attack, people who descended upon the Capitol went home, where a number have since been arrested and charged in their roles in the assault.
The attack was ‘loosely organized’
John Miller, a deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism in the New York Police Department, called the movement that participated in the attack last week “loosely organized” and noted that people had come together over social media.
“The propensity of the violence sometimes boils down to the individual,” he said Thursday. “Nothing compares to any past threats; we have never had Americans fighting Americans on the streets of the nation’s capital probably since the Civil War.”
Other motivations that could fuel future attacks include anti-government sentiment held by extremists, as well as grievances associated with the false narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, according to Wednesday’s bulletin.
“What you see now is a coalescing of the movement,” said Jason Blazakis, who retired from the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism in 2018. He said various extremist groups that had operated alone over the last four years moved in concert during the assault on the Capitol last week.
“The heave-ho of everyone getting through – you have Oath Keepers next to Proud Boys next to white supremacists, that’s what makes this a dangerous time,” he said. “The movement is energized and they’re emboldened by surprise success on [January] 6th. I think they’re surprised. They didn’t plan to Nth degree, and to be able to breach the pillar of democracy, that’s going to motivate them.”
States ‘can’t take it lightly’
The biggest threats to centers of government in the coming days will be in states that previously saw protests, including those against Covid-19 restrictions, and in electoral battlegrounds that were key to Biden’s defeat of Trump, Dimoff said.
Capitols in some Midwest states “are being targeted because they’re looked at as reasons for Trump not being elected,” he said. “Groups want to blame somebody or something and that’s what they’re doing right now.”
“You can’t take it lightly. You should always over prepare,” Dimoff said.
Armed militia members in Michigan, where it’s legal to carry firearms in the open, are planning a protest this Sunday. The state’s attorney general warned the Capitol was not safe. The capital city of Lansing’s mayor has requested the National Guard and police there have put up heavy fencing around the Capitol.
Michigan remained a flash point during 2020 as armed protesters gathered at the capitol in April to demonstrate against the state’s pandemic shutdown orders. The state was also the center of an alleged plot by extremists to kidnap the governor prior to the 2020 presidential election.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s Capitol police agency is keeping special emergency response teams in place and hundreds of the state’s National Guard force have been deployed in the state instead of going to Washington to bolster security at home.
There have been demonstrations at the Harrisburg Capitol in Pennsylvania since the election concluded, including at the swearing in of new members of the House and Senate. Protests have remained peaceful, according to State Rep. Joanna McClinton, who fears that those who have protested before now feel emboldened since the events last week in DC.
She said that state lawmakers who questioned the election results deserve some of the blame.
“There are state lawmakers who have been co-conspirators in these lies, in questioning the outcome of the election,” McClinton said. “Trump lost, and our local lawmakers in the state Capitol have not been telling that truth. And as a result, maybe they didn’t send anybody to DC on a bus. Maybe only a few of them were down there that we saw on social media, but they’re complicit in this terror.”
Unity would be dangerous
Far-right groups, said Blazakis, have historically been a “fractured movement.”
“The fracturing we’ve witnessed may be evolving to a point where, if they could find a figurehead it could be really dangerous to unite these organizations,” he said.
In the aftermath of the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol, authorities are taking the threat seriously, Blazakis said.
“One could argue [January] 6th was their one shot to strike a real big blow and, in the end, five or six people were killed and it could have been a lot, a lot worse,” he said.
“And people see how serious it is — it’s more than just online talk — and [the attackers] may not be able to replicate it as successfully. The saving grace is they may have missed their one big opportunity.”
CNN’s Andy Rose, Kay Jones, Shimon Prokupecz, Barbara Starr, Raja Razek, Jon Passantino, Jason Carroll, Julian Cummings, Konstantin Toropin, Rebekah Riess contributed to this report