How New is the New Extremist Threat? Preliminary Conclusions from the U.S. Capitol Arrests Data
The United States needs to face a hard truth about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: The faces, motivations, and actions of those involved are more complex than many may be comfortable in acknowledging. FBI Director Christopher Wray described Jan. 6 as an act of “domestic terrorism.” Despite this label, currently available arrest data make apparent that some involved were neither terrorists nor interested in carrying out acts of violence. The threat of domestic terrorism may be “metastasizing,” according to Wray. But labeling everyone who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection as part of the same movement risks creating more enemies rather than fewer, and threatens to make the same mistakes at home as the country has made in 20 years of combatting terrorism abroad.
There is great danger in taking a reductionist approach to categorizing the individuals involved in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Participants in the insurrection are being charged with a broad array of crimes, including a variety of alleged non-violent misdeeds. Others, of course, have been charged with major felonies, to include conspiracy and assaulting an officer. As the Joe Biden administration considers how to counter domestic violent extremism, evaluating the events of Jan. 6 will require nuance. The far right in the United States has never been monolithic. White supremacists, anti-government groups, and conspiracy theorists may share certain grievances, but it would be a mistake to lump their ideologies together. The urge to put these individuals in the same box lends itself well to taking cookie-cutter approaches to countering them and it unequivocally becomes easier to describe them (and dramatize them) to non-expert audiences.
Recently in The Atlantic, Robert Pape and Keven Ruby presented some provocative conclusions about the future of far-right political violence in America. Their top-line finding, drawn from a review of arrest records of people involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, is that the United States faces a “different and potentially far more dangerous problem” than previous domestic threats in the United States, a “new kind of American radicalism” with “violence at its core.”
We believe there are a variety of demographics, beliefs, intentions, levels of organization, and propensity to commit acts of violence represented in the Capitol arrests. And, while President Donald Trump’s rhetoric brought these individuals together, it would be a mistake to label them with a broad-brush stroke and conclude that they are all extremists who see violence as a tool for political change. Instead, the Biden administration should treat the Jan. 6 cases going forward with more nuance. Not all Capitol rioters were violent, not all Capitol rioters were extremist, and not all Capitol rioters were part of a mass movement.
Challenging Assumptions: Not All Insurrectionists Are the Same
While many who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection were violent, some were not. Consider the case of Marissa Suarez, a probationary corrections officer at Monmouth County Corrections Facility in New Jersey who participated in the attack on the Capitol. According to Suarez’s text messages in the criminal complaint filed against her, she and her friend Patricia Todisco (also charged) were hardly part of an insurrectionist vanguard: “Soo we’ve stormed Capitol Hill lol” she wrote to a friend on Jan. 6 (this friend sent the messages to law enforcement and was a key witness in Suarez and Todisco’s arrest). Suarez and Todisco likely entered the Capitol at 3:26 p.m. when they wrote “We’re inside hahaha,” roughly an hour after rioters first entered the building. “This is insane,” Suarez wrote at 5:40 p.m., at which point she and Todisco likely left, because at 6:55 p.m. she wrote that they were, “On our way back … shit got violent so we left.”
Suarez may have been more aware of the ramifications of the storming of the Capitol the next day, which means we should read text messages she sent on Jan. 7 with some skepticism. But they are consistent with her position on violence the prior day, demonstrating how much it seemed to be a red line for her: “once we saw they [the police] were letting us in without force, trish and I went in,” she wrote. “I actually saw a kid getting ready to throw a jack daniels bottle with some shit in it at the cops and I started flipping out on him and then I informed some of the military guys and they handled him.”
Suarez’s position on violence is reflected in some other stories of those arrested for their actions in the U.S. Capitol. Consider Josiah Colt, who was famously photographed for standing in Vice President Mike Pence’s chair in the Senate. Like Suarez, he does not appear to have used or condoned violence: “I didn’t hurt anyone and I didn’t cause any damage in the Chamber,” he said in a statement to CBS News. “I got caught up in the moment and when I saw the door to to [sic] the Chamber open, I walked in, hopped down, and sat on the chair. I said my peace [sic] then I helped a gentlemen [sic] get to safety that was injured then left.” Dalton Ray Crase is another example of someone who may not have intended nor likely committed violence: “I think it was dumb that we went in,” he said in an interview with the FBI. “I was breaking the law by being in the Capitol building but it didn’t register with me [at the time].”
Concentrate on the Violent Participants
In contrast to Suarez, Colt, Crase, and others, video evidence and witness testimony has helped the FBI to develop important cases against groups who entered the U.S. Capitol to commit coordinated and pre-planned acts of extremist-motivated political violence. These are people who posed a national security threat before Jan. 6 and whose movements remain a threat today. For example, on Feb. 19, U.S. authorities alleged a broader conspiracy by the militia group the Oath Keepers to attack the U.S. Capitol. Thus far, they have charged a total of nine members of the group. More charges against the Oath Keepers, including potentially its founder Stewart Rhodes, may be forthcoming. This is because U.S. prosecutors announced they have access to an encrypted Oath Keepers chat group called “DC OP: Jan 6 21” involving Rhodes, the nine members already charged, and others in the group. In addition, over a dozen members of the Proud Boys, a hate group affiliated with other white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, have been charged with crimes stemming from actions on Jan. 6. Ominously, one in three of those arrested who were also affiliated with the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers had some U.S. military affiliation.
In addition to organized and potentially pre-planned acts of political violence, there may also have been violent individuals acting in small groups or on their own. Julian Elie Khater and George Pierre Tanios, for example, are charged with assaulting three U.S. Capitol police officers, including Brian D. Sicknick who died the next day. Michael John Lopatic, a military veteran, brutally assaulted a Capitol police officer, stole a body camera from another officer, and later disposed of the camera on his way back to western Pennsylvania. Lopatic “was not merely swept up by the passions of the day,” as prosecutors wrote, “Rather, the defendant was there to fight, and he had no intention of being held accountable for his actions.” These individuals were extremely violent, but so far have not been tied to any larger, more organized movement.
Finally, some individuals brought extremist or conspiracy theory beliefs to the U.S. Capitol but did not appear violent. They are charged with misdemeanors (i.e., trespassing and disorderly conduct), yet are a distinct group due to their ongoing and often unrepentant beliefs. Jenna Ryan, for example, a realtor from Texas, has thus far not been charged with any violent act. But she discussed the shooting of Ashli Babbitt in extremist and disturbingly de-humanized terms: “they were like, ‘someone got shot in there,’ and we were like we don’t care because our freedom is more important to us than our lives because the whole premise is give us liberty or give us death.” Later, Ryan unsuccessfully lobbied then-President Donald Trump for a presidential pardon. A study discovered that nearly half of the extremist conspiracist adherents arrested on Jan. 6 have not yet been charged with a violent crime.
More information will emerge from the assault on the U.S. Capitol in the months ahead, and, potentially, over 100 more arrests. Throughout this process, it will be important to distinguish between the types of people described above: those who entered the Capitol but had no plans to commit violence; those who were organized, held extremist beliefs, and may have planned violence (i.e., Oath Keepers or Proud Boys); those who perpetrated violence but are thus far acting on their own (i.e., Alam or Lopatic); and those who did not commit violence but espouse extremist beliefs. Parsing these different types of perpetrators is crucial. By treating each case with the nuance it requires, rather than describing all arrested as part of a “a new kind of American radicalism” with “violence at its core,” the Biden administration has a chance to overcome the national crisis in political violence by separating moderates from those ideologically extreme enough to commit political violence.
To be clear, all of these findings are “preliminary,” as a recent George Washington University report emphasized. First, this is because investigations are ongoing and could surface new results that change the way we see these issues (although we believe our point about nuance will still stand). Second, because many of the people arrested so far in response to the attack on the Capitol were caught because someone they knew saved their messages or identified them from posts made on social media and reported them. Thus, the arrests data are not comprehensive. The academic term we would use to describe the arrests data is a “convenience sample” — representing the cases that are the easiest to put together, not the cases that would be, for example, the most egregious.
In the future, more substantive conclusions could be made about those who stormed the U.S. Capitol, particularly as these cases are more thoroughly investigated and if attention is focused on the subset of people who are being charged with the most violent of crimes (i.e., conspiracy or assault). For now, however, it’s worth tracking this threat with a little more caution, even if it is tempting to describe those who broke into the U.S. Capitol with the same label.
One place to draw tentative conclusions is in comparing the subset of people who have thus far been arrested for the most extreme acts of violence with the broader sample. Here, the data are slim, but nonetheless show that the most violent perpetrators of the Jan. 6 attack more closely resemble previous far-right violent movements. According to data shared with the authors by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism that we analyzed further, 47 of the 238 people arrested as of Feb. 21 have been accused of the most violent crimes (i.e., assault or sedition), likely with more to come. Of those 47 people, 38 percent have links to other militias (although this number may rise), 11 percent were women, and the median age was 37 years old. By contrast, those arrested and charged with less serious crimes (i.e., trespassing or disorderly conduct) were slightly older (median age 41), more likely to be women (15 percent), and much less likely to have ties to a militia (7 percent had links).
The Capitol rioters aren’t like other extremists because some are not extremists. In pursuit of national reconciliation, the Biden administration should resist all-encompassing labels and all-encompassing solutions. Everyone who entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 committed a crime and should be prosecuted. But, as this article has shown, not everyone who participated in the attack on Jan. 6 was part of the same “horde of radicals” or had “violence at their core,” and not everyone was part of a single “mass political movement.”
Labeling everyone involved in the Jan. 6 attack as part of a singular, enduring threat risks making the same mistakes that the United States made during the fight against terrorism following 9/11, where the U.S. government often created new enemies by confusing “accidental guerillas” with real terrorist threats. Rather than conflating threats — and risking inadvertently pushing more to the orbit of far-right extremist groups — a more successful strategy would be to isolate those planning to use violence from the rest of the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol, treating the former as potentially enduring threats while punishing the latter according to the laws that they broke.
Nate Rosenblatt is a doctoral candidate in sociology studying violent group recruitment at the University of Oxford and as an International Security Program Fellow at New America.
Jason Blazakis is a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He is also a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.