Where Is Domestic Terrorism Headed In 2022?
Part 3: Assessing Domestic Extremism a Year After January 6, 2021
The domestic extremism scene this morning, a year after a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, feels a bit muted compared to the crazed scene we saw last year. There are still violent groups around the country and angry spaces online, but extremism has largely decentralized. A large-scale, insurrection-type attack at the moment seems unlikely, but there’s been a sharp increase in smaller, localized incidents of violence. 2022 is an election year though, and Americans should expect an uptick in aggressive rhetoric, more mobilizations, and potentially violence as the stakes of the midterm electoral contest approach this November.
In Part 1 of this three-part update, we outlined the broad landscape of U.S. domestic extremism and the shifts we’ve observed since the insurrection. In Part 2, we then noted the dynamic changes in the online environment seeking to show where extremists have migrated as they’ve been bounced from mainstream social media platforms. In this final Part 3, we’ll attempt to forecast where things might go in the coming year and what we all might look for to see if the trend towards violence accelerates.
What’s changed since the insurrection?
Domestic extremist groups meet much stiffer resistance from federal investigators and social media companies following the insurrection. This resistance, both on-the-ground and online, has disrupted large-scale organizing and social media incitement toward violence. Overall this has been a positive trend, lessening the chances of major attack. However, every force is met by a counter force, and each counter force creates adaptation. The most committed violent extremists migrated to more private, more secure, less-moderated platforms. Smaller, closed forums—further out of the sight of law enforcement and researchers— allow extremists to discuss violent ideologies in spaces free from onlookers, and plan attacks amongst smaller groups with trusted members. In short, indications of a credible terrorist threat appear low, but there’s much we cannot see in the dark corners where committed extremists congregate.
Potentially more troubling has been the spate of candidates running for office in 2022 that support or deny the insurrection, engage with members of extremist groups or espouse far-right ideologies advocating for violence. According to POLITICO, at least two individuals who entered the Capitol during the January 6 attack are running for office in 2022. Congressman Paul Gosar from Arizona has openly supported Nick Fuentes, a far-right commentator and leader of a white nationalist group. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene famously espoused QAnon conspiracies and violence against government officials. But as discussed in Part 1 of our team’s analysis this week, extremism trends are shifting to localized activity, and that’s true for political overlap with extremist groups as well. For example, a consultant working with Nevada’s GOP turned to the Proud Boys to bolster attendance at a political rally. An Illinois Proud Boy who was present at the January 6 riot told reporters he planned to run for Senate. And a former KKK leader with ties to other white supremacist groups is running for local office in Georgia. In the wake of January 6, extremists have focused their efforts at home, decentralizing their efforts seeking not to challenge those in power, but to take power and legitimize their ideologies.
Lastly, committed extremists pursuing different causes have converged. Those mobilized over bogus election fraud claims, angered by mask or vaccine mandates, and charged up at school board meetings now encounter each other and collaborate at a local level.
What’s the same in domestic terrorism and counterterrorism?
Congress has made no progress on the the most pertinent issues that could prevent domestic terrorism. Hours of Congressional testimony and repeated warnings from the FBI Director and Secretary of Homeland Security have led to no decisive action to prevent another insurrection or help the Departments of Justice (DoJ), Homeland Security (DHS), and Defense (DoD) mitigate domestic extremism. The January 6 committee in the House of Representatives will continue its investigation in the coming months, but it’s unclear what impact, if any, the findings will have for counterterrorism efforts.
Two open issues remain for countering domestic terrorism, both of which I discussed at the September 2019 Senate hearing, “Countering Domestic Terrorism: Examining the Evolving Threat”. Current law and resulting policy places law enforcement and homeland security on a reactive footing. The lack of a designation process for domestic terrorism makes it extremely difficult to connect the different threads that contribute to terrorism and identify holistic strategies for stopping the next attack. The FBI cannot disrupt networked terrorists, DHS cannot effectively monitor domestic groups, and the DoD cannot consistently clean up its ranks without clarity around what domestic terrorism is and what ideologies and groups should be pursued.
On this first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, questions still remain as to why the federal government was unable to detect what appeared to be an obvious mobilization at the Capitol incited, amplified, and even coordinated in plain sight. Several hearings with leaders of the FBI and DHS have still not resolved how federal law enforcement can monitor social media to detect real time or impending threats by domestic extremists or how that information will be rapidly disseminated to state and local law enforcement. With domestic terrorism increasingly going local, this remains a major gap in preventing the next terrorist attack as we head into another election year.
What should we watch for to detect and disrupt domestic terrorism in 2022?
Former President Trump and his closest political allies have been more difficult to hear since being removed from mainstream social media platforms. While Trump’s removal from the most popular digital spaces quelled some extremist activity, should he or his most popular supporters return in 2022 and advocate for protests and mobilization to violence amid local elections or at the homes and offices of election officials at the state, county, and local levels, then the threat picture will change decisively for the worst.
The level of online discussions openly advocating for violence against political candidates, election officials, or even teachers is higher than I’ve ever seen while studying extremism. It's commonplace in the social media spaces identified in Part 2 to see what would often be labeled “normal” or “average” Americans with no overt membership or direct connection to a domestic extremist group advocate for the murder, assault, or rape of public officials they do not like. The kind of discussion a counterterrorism researcher would encounter in al Qaeda forums in 2005 or ISIS online collectives in 2013 is now normal in mainstream U.S. social media spaces. With such a high number of threats coming from such a large number of people, it’s likely that a person or small cell of people in these chats, either connected to a group identified in Part 1 or acting independently, undertakes a stochastic terrorist attack against one or more of the targets demonized in these hate-filled discussion spaces.
Such a terrorist attack could kick off a spurt of violence. An outbreak of attacks creates a contagion where one terrorist, if successful in their violent attack, inspires other lone wolf attacks or convinces a small cell already preparing a plot to accelerate their assault. This could create a tsunami of domestic extremism. The Islamic State wave of foreign terrorist attacks in the summer of 2016 or the steady beat of white supremacist or mysogynist mass shooters in 2018 and 2019 offer examples of how “cascading terrorism” might unfold from a single spark of violence.
As noted in Part 1 of this series, the next coup will not be national, but local. A highly probable and absolutely dangerous scenario in 2022 will be the disruption or overturning of a local election by an official who refuses to accept a true, verified vote count, alters the fair conduct of an election, or refuses to leave office upon defeat. The following offers a few scenarios where a local extremist threat might emerge with respect to this election year and the political process.
Stochastic attack on a candidate or election official - One of the worst tragedies in U.S. political history occurred in January 2011 when a lone gunman killed six and wounded 13, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at a local Congress at Your Corner event. There are simply not enough law enforcement and homeland security personnel in the country to protect every elected official, candidate, poll worker, or school board member currently being threatened. Based upon the number of daily threats I see, I’d be more surprised if this scenario did not happen than if it did, and there’s little way to predict which plots will be caught by law enforcement and which will not.
Intimidation with weapons at polling places - Advocating for Second Amendment rights could be used this election season as a cover for voter intimidation at polling places. With many militia members running for local office, it’s likely their fellow members will deploy on or before voting day to suppress turnout for the candidate they do not prefer.
Newly formed election groups interfere with conduct of elections - Recent election integrity groups formed in several states where the 2020 vote is still contested could easily change course as November nears. Skirmishes at polling places initiated by those seeking to “verify” votes or registrations, the seizure of local voting machines, or the blocking or destruction of ballot collection at local locations is absolutely plausible.
Kidnapping plot or targeted attack against an elected official - Just before the 2020 election, the Wolverine Watchmen militia group plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer before being disrupted by the FBI. Recent protests at state and local events have been sprinkled with militia members and conspiracy theorists who advocate for violence, and online groups and individuals continually make specific, targeted threats against election officials.
Militia member praetorian guard for elected official - Some current elected officials and several current candidates for office maintain membership or ties with a militia group. Imagine a local sheriff, who also leads or is a member of a militia, deploying his uniformed officers and a parallel militia group in tandem to intimidate political opponents, incite fear amongst voters, or completely upend a voting process.
What is needed to prevent local terror attacks in 2022 or another insurrection in 2024?
The single biggest deterrent for domestic terrorism in 2022 or another insurrection in 2024 would be for elected officials and candidates to turn down their violent rhetoric. Former President Trump’s absence from the nation’s highest office and social media has notably correlated with less violence. Today, politicians seeking to rile up their supporters still issue veiled threats or indirect incitement. To stop future incidents of violence, politicians advocating violence and intimidation must be held legally accountable for their actions. The goal: Increase the costs of public harms like insurrections such that they outweigh the individual political benefits to candidates who engage in vitriolic incitement to violence.
Beyond political discourse, Congress could, but likely won’t, pass legislation to empower law enforcement and homeland security to preempt rather than react to domestic extremism. It’s long past time to solidify a designation process for homegrown terror groups and establish clear guidelines for observing online threats of violence. Domestic extremists are also voters, however, and thus I don’t imagine any significant institutional progress until there’s bipartisan consensus that last year’s insurrection occurred and that another insurrection could collapse American democracy.
The Department of Justice announced in recent months an effort to protect election workers who come under threat of violence. This remains the number one, most serious domestic terrorism threat in 2022. If one believes this threat is overblown, I beg them to listen to these threats published here at Reuters—it’s out of control. The election task force should aggressively move through active investigations powered by significant resources to increase national monitoring and provide intelligence to locales and precincts that will face intimidation, coercion, and violence.
Finally, I’d encourage federal, state and local officials to prepare for the scenarios outlined in the above section. What will the federal government do when a local election is fraudulently overturned? A bogus vote watching group destroys mail-in ballots? A militia overtakes a polling place?
A haphazard, unplanned response to these incidents would further fuel the narrative of extremists and potentially aggravate a dangerous situation. Better to be prepared than to be surprised; the fate of American democracy rests on how the country handles elections in 2022 and 2024.