Opinion | National Security

Domestic extremists return to the Capitol

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No sooner have the echoes of the 9/11 memorials faded, than we are being reminded, yet again, of the threat posed by domestic extremists. The "Justice for J6" rally being held in Washington today makes clear that although extremists have been relatively quiet since the Jan. 6 insurrection, they are still active and menacing.

The rally is the latest activity of the #FreePoliticalPrisoners movement launched by Look Ahead America (LAA). Founded in 2017 by former Trump campaign staffer Matt Braynard as a not-for-profit educational and lobbying group, LAA purports to speak for "rural and blue-collar patriotic Americans who are disaffected and disenfranchised from the nation's corridors of power." Braynard claims LAA fundraising has been "robust," but did not disclose the amount raised. The group lost its 5013c status in May 2020 because it failed to file the required tax documents.

As its name suggests, "Justice for J6" asserts that people arrested for their actions during the assault on the Capitol are not suspected criminals but political prisoners persecuted by a tyrannical regime. In a July 19 press release, Braynard described them as "patriots" who did nothing more than exercise "non-violent expression of their First Amendment rights." 

More than 570 people have been arrested for alleged crimes committed at the Capitol on Jan. 6. The charges against them range from misdemeanors to assaulting police officers. Contrary to claims that they are being unjustly detained before their day in court, approximately 70 percent have been granted pretrial release. The most serious charge - conspiracy - was made against 40 people, including several people associated with the Oath KeepersIII Percenters and Proud Boys. Several of those charged with violent crimes are being held without bail.

Despite being threatened by the mob that stormed the capitol, some Republican lawmakers have embraced a milder version of the "political prisoners" narrative. "You know, if you didn't know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th," said Rep. Andrew Clyde (R.Ga.). "You would actually think it was a normal tourist visit." Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) described the insurrectionists as "peaceful patriots." Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) said, "We've seen plenty of video of people in the Capitol, and they weren't rioting." He added that while he did not condone the Capitol breach, the people who did it were "staying within the rope lines in the rotunda," as if that made their actions less objectionable. These political views resonate with many Republican voters, 21 percent of whom believe "the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was justified." Others believe that ANTIFA or even the FBI instigated the violence.

The extensive sympathy expressed by many on the far-right for the insurrectionists may not lead to heavy turnout at "Justice for J6." LAA's Facebook page contains numerous posts warning people to stay away for fear that the rally is a setup designed by the government to entrap those who attend and get them arrested. Former President Trump agrees. He will not attend and has said he believes the media will use the event against him no matter what happens. Two days ahead of the gathering he condemned the arrest of his supporters, claiming that they were being "persecuted."

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R.Ga.), who claimed those arrested are being "abused," will not be there either. The absence of conservative leaders does not, however, mean they disapprove of the rally. The Congressional Republican leadership has been silent about the event, declining to encourage or condemn it.

Although authorities expect turnout for the event to be low and hope it will be nonviolent, they are taking no chances. Workers installed a perimeter fence around the Capitol, and the U.S. Capitol Police have requested that D.C. National Guard troops be available if needed. Failure to make such a request prior to Jan. 6, despite warnings of an imminent threat, has been identified as a factor contributing to the violence that occurred that day.

No matter how many people attend the rally, it has already had a negative effect. LAA has forced the federal government to spend money on enhanced security. The exact amount is unclear and will depend on how things go, but as an illustration, it cost $500 million to deploy 26,000 National Guard in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 assault. Security preparations have given the extremists the media attention they crave. Even if the rally attracts few participants, its organizers have already begun to spin the narrative in their favor. They will blame the low turnout on fear of government persecution.

Whatever happens at the rally, the fact that anyone is brazen enough to return to the scene of the January insurrection reminds us of the continuing danger of domestic terrorism. On March 1, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an assessment warning of the "heightened threat" posed by "domestic violent extremists." It concludes that "lone offenders or small cells" pose the greatest threat in the near term. Law enforcement can prevent another incident like Jan. 6, but it is extraordinarily difficult to stop lone-wolf attacks like the 2019 massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, which killed 23 people and injured 26. Lax gun laws make it easy for extremists to arm themselves.

In June, the Biden administration produced the country's first National Strategy for Countering Domestic TerrorismIn addition to emphasizing better intelligence gathering and disruption of terrorist group activities, the strategy calls for preventing the radicalization of extremists and addressing the root causes of discontent that impel people to violence. Countering the white supremacist ideology will be more effective in the long run than targeting specific extremist groups.

Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of "Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat."

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