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Examining Domestic Extremist Threats To Americans And U.S. Government

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Department of Homeland Security issued a public warning last week. It advised of possible acts by extremists emboldened by last month's attack on democracy at the Capitol. The U.S. said, quote, "information suggests possible follow-up attacks on U.S. officials or facilities." So what really is the threat to Americans and their government? We asked people who have been inside and outside the government.

CHRIS KREBS: My sense of that alert is that it was probably a long time coming.

INSKEEP: Until recently, Chris Krebs was inside DHS. He led a cybersecurity agency there. President Trump appointed Krebs to that job, then fired him for accurately saying last year's election was secure. The substance of the DHS warning did not surprise Krebs.

KREBS: Those issues have been well known, well established for a number of years. It's the first time, though, that I've seen it really distilled down so cleanly and clearly in a bulletin like that.

INSKEEP: Now that Trump is out of power, the DHS issued its warning based on events going back years. The advisory mentions a mass shooting in El Paso in 2013, blamed on a man who'd posted an anti-immigrant manifesto. It says extremists are motivated by election conspiracy theories, but also by pandemic conspiracy theories dating back many months. U.S. officials did not elaborate on what they're seeing now, but Robert Pape, an independent terrorism specialist, told us he does not like the signs.

ROBERT PAPE: The bottom line is that we are on the beginnings of a problem that's likely to be with us not just for months, but for years.

INSKEEP: Pape has studied political violence for decades at The University of Chicago. Until last year, he mainly focused overseas on groups like al-Qaida. But then, as disinformation spread about the pandemic, he says he felt he needed to shift focus.

PAPE: The sharpest rise of political violence in the world is happening in the United States.

INSKEEP: Pape wanted to know who might be at risk of committing political violence. So with a research team, he studied people already accused of doing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

INSKEEP: They studied 193 of the people who've been arrested so far for last month's attack on the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

INSKEEP: Pape's team gathered suspects' names, arrest records and public information about them. He found some Capitol attackers are linked with right-wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers. But most are not. Many are older people with good jobs.

PAPE: Twenty-seven percent are white collar - that is, doctors, attorneys, architects. This is so unusual, Steve, that in our past studies of the demographics of political violence, we don't even have categories for business owner and white collar.

INSKEEP: This wide range of attackers from states across the country suggests how deeply election falsehoods penetrated mainstream society. Many attackers said they felt the sitting president had told them to act, like these rioters confronting Capitol Police, as recorded by The New Yorker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...We're outnumbered. There's a [expletive] billion of us out there. And we are listening to Trump, your boss. It's sad. It's sad...

(CROSSTALK)

PAPE: We have all the ingredients to, unfortunately, see the possible acceleration of the growth of this movement. We see that there is a leader with demonstrated support for extralegal activity. We see mass grievances perceived by large masses of people. We also now see a deadly focal point event.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in that phrase - all the ingredients. How did you figure out what the recipe is for this kind of violent political movement? Were you looking at past events overseas?

PAPE: Exactly, Steve. So when you have a - in the case of the former Yugoslavia, for instance, you have a leader in Slobodan Milosevic who's clearly stoking extremism. You have mass grievances on the part of Serbs. And then in the early 1990s, you have some violence which served as a focal point to help congeal all of those ingredients together into a new kind of mass movement with violence at its core.

INSKEEP: Someone listening is surely saying, come on, that's Yugoslavia or that's Iraq. Those are different places. This is America.

PAPE: I exactly agree with that, Steve, today. And that's why it's so important to take seriously the early stages of what's becoming a congealed mass movement before it congeals.

INSKEEP: The United States, of course, has its own history of violent political movements. Think of the Ku Klux Klan, which rose after the Civil War in an earlier era of racial and demographic change. The U.S. also has its own specific problems with disinformation. Chris Krebs, the former official who once fought falsehoods about the election, is now studying disinformation for a think tank.

KREBS: And unfortunately, the only way I think we're going to get past this is if our leaders, those that supported the big lie, that voted to overturn the Electoral College, they have to own up to what they did. They have to say that we lied, that this was never true, and it was for a different outcome. And that is the first step towards healing, I think, is you have to tell the people that you...

INSKEEP: Let me just break in to suggest that that seems unlikely.

KREBS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Suppose they never own up to the lie. What is the way forward then?

KREBS: Oh, I am not naive enough to think that they will own up. I am laying out a path to healing. Alternatively, you have to hold them accountable through other means.

INSKEEP: The new administration is now reviewing the U.S. government's response to domestic extremism. Though it's been a problem for many years, it's not clear that the government has kept up. Michael Leiter is a former head of the National Counterterrorism Center. It was started after 9/11 and, by law, focuses on international threats.

MICHAEL LEITER: So I think the first step that the Biden administration is taking is quite a good one - to do a comprehensive analysis across the U.S. government to try to understand how big a problem they have and where that problem is really worst.

INSKEEP: How does the infrastructure for international terrorism compare with the infrastructure for domestic terrorism?

LEITER: The international infrastructure really dwarfs what the U.S. government has for domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorism has always been a little bit of a backwater in the world of counterterrorism. The FBI is the lead agency, with assistance from the Department of Homeland Security, but it relies to an enormous extent also on state, local and tribal officials.

INSKEEP: What are the legal and political problems that get in the way of attacking a domestic threat the way that you would an international one?

LEITER: There are certainly many legal challenges in international terrorism - many of the debates that people are quite familiar with from the past 10 years, ranging from interrogation to surveillance. But all of those issues become that much more complex when you're talking about a purely domestic threat.

INSKEEP: What do you do, he says, if you're an FBI agent and learn of a citizen who is armed and speaking harshly about the government? Americans have a right to be armed and to speak harshly about the government. Law enforcement agencies will have to avoid the sort of profiling of right-wing figures that they once used against Muslims at home and abroad.

LEITER: I and others, we made many mistakes and, undoubtedly, unfairly profiled some individuals based on their religion - not purposely, but the system did that. The push from members of Congress post-9/11 was almost always to do more and, really, generally, to look past any issues of profiling. I don't think that is going to be the case here.

INSKEEP: Leiter suspects that today's extremists will enjoy more political protection. He argues their rights should be protected, but the U.S. will have to find the right approach to political violence.

Now, as we've been talking through this problem, NPR's Hannah Allam has been listening. She's covered terrorism for years, including the January 6 attack. And, Hannah, how does this threat look to you?

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Well, standing outside the Capitol that day on January 6, I saw all the strands of American extremism in one place - just kind of all the groups that I cover under one umbrella there. The established groups were there - the white nationalists, the neo-Nazis, some of the militia groups. But the most disturbing part is that now, side by side with organized violent actors, you have thousands of otherwise sort of ordinary conservatives who are fans of Donald Trump, and they're now also radicalized because they've bought into disinformation and conspiracy theories.

So for years now, domestic terrorism analysts have been warning that the old left-right ideological spectrum is a thing of the past, and that's what we saw in action at the Capitol - that today's far-right threat defies easy categorization. The extremists organize online, and they have a lot of overlapping grievances.

INSKEEP: Well, President Trump, we should note, eventually disowned the violence at the Capitol and seems even to have disappointed some extremists when he did that. How does he affect this now?

ALLAM: Well, he's at least less visible now that he's out of the White House, has been deplatformed from Twitter. But Trump was seen as the unifying factor for a lot of these disparate groups. So even if specific groups didn't like him or his politics, he was at least seen as useful to their goal of mainstreaming. He repeatedly amplified right-wing grievances, hate speech. He retweeted white nationalists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, urged his supporters to, quote, "fight" against these made-up claims of election fraud. So now that he's sort of exited from the scene or at least from such a visible role, we are seeing some splintering and infighting among these groups. But, yes, he's leaving behind millions of supporters who believe those conspiracies - such a large bloc, in fact, that some domestic terrorism analysts say it amounts to a mass radicalization.

INSKEEP: How big a challenge is this for the Biden administration?

ALLAM: Biden has already acknowledged that it'll be a national security priority. But terrorism analysts are waiting anxiously to see how he'll address it. The old anti-jihadist playbook was for a different kind of militancy, and we should note, it left a stain on the U.S. record of civil rights and civil liberties. So there's recognition that you can't just dust off the old war on terror tactics to combat the far-right. We're waiting to see what policies emerge. But so far, what is different is that the Biden administration has shown the political will to tackle this. And analysts say that for a threat that's been historically ignored or played down, that's a start.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hannah Allam. Thanks.

ALLAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "4TH CHAMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.