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The government claims the threat from conspiracy-theory-driven extremists is increasing, but experts divided

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·11-min read

In the weeks since the violent insurrection that left five people dead at the U.S. Capitol, multiple intelligence bulletins have warned federal, state and local law enforcement about the potential for conspiracy theories to inspire future acts of violence, according to documents obtained by Yahoo News.

“Domestic violent extremists motivated by conspiracy theories increasingly target government, personnel, and infrastructure,” declared one Jan. 13 bulletin from the Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center. Another, produced by the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau on Jan. 20, announced that “extremist organizations and malicious actors motivated by conspiracy theories emphasize targeting critical infrastructure. ”

On Jan. 29, the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center issued a similar warning, stating that “malicious actors and conspiracy theorists continue to target communications infrastructure, potentially disrupting essential services.”

There’s little dispute that most if not all of the participants in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol had been inspired, at least in part, by the inaccurate belief that Donald Trump was the winner of the 2020 election and the victim of a widespread voter fraud scheme to steal the presidency from him. Yet experts are divided over how much of a threat conspiracy theories actually pose to national security, and whether they warrant the attention from law enforcement these kinds of intelligence bulletins seem to command.

Trump supporters
Trump supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Some, like Elizabeth Neumann, who served as assistant secretary for counterterrorism in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration, insist that the potential for violence by conspiracy-driven extremists in the wake of Jan. 6 is high, and law enforcement should have access to as much information as possible on this threat.

“The role that conspiracies play in leading to violent extremism” Neumann said, is “certainly something that law enforcement officers need to be aware of because it might be motivating an otherwise normal person.”

But others, like Michael German, a retired FBI agent and current fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice — question the value of warnings that focus on rare and vaguely defined threats like potentially violent conspiracy theorists. Such bulletins, he argues, “are of little practical use and encourage law enforcement surveillance of broad groups based on ideology rather than evidence of wrongdoing.”

The FBI, the NYPD and the offices that created the warnings, did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement to Yahoo News, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said that Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas “has made clear that combating [domestic violent extremism] is a top priority,” and that “our primary responsibility is to protect the safety and security of the American people, which means taking actions to prevent violence before it occurs.”

“DHS will work closely with federal, state, local, tribal, and non-government partners to improve our ability to detect, evaluate, and mitigate the threat posed by domestic terrorists,” the DHS statement continued. “We are committed to sharing information with partners and the public in a timely fashion.”

German, who specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations at the FBI from 1988 to 2004, expressed similar concerns in August 2019, when Yahoo News first reported that the FBI had identified fringe conspiracy theories as a potential domestic terrorism threat.

Asked whether his position had changed in light of the attack on the Capitol last month, German told Yahoo News, “the short answer is no.” In fact, German said that the failure by law enforcement to properly prepare for the violence that took place on Jan. 6 is proof bulletins like the one issued by the FBI in 2019 and similar ones in recent weeks about conspiracy-driven extremists “are a waste of security resources.”

“The assault on the Capitol was planned in public, led by groups that engaged in violent and threatening conduct at previous protests unmolested by law enforcement,” said German.

Members of the Proud Boys
Members of the Proud Boys, shown here at a protest on Dec. 12, were among those who refused to accept that Joe Biden had won the election. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Though more than 200 have been charged for their alleged participation in the riots, the much smaller subset who’ve been arrested on more serious conspiracy charges so far consists of alleged members of the Proud Boys, an extremist group with white nationalist ties, and the Oath Keepers, a far-right antigovernment militia.

“They traveled interstates engaging in violence all across the country over the last four years, promoting themselves on social media for the violence they committed, and making threats about the violence they were going to commit at the next rally,” he continued. “Obviously, this [FBI] report wasn’t useful at all in helping law enforcement prepare to defend the Capitol from violent actors who were public in their planning for the attack.”

How and why authorities in Washington were so unprepared to fight off the crowds that stormed the Capitol has become the subject of intense scrutiny, as new details continue to emerge about the volume of intelligence about what rioters were planning in the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 6.

A number of explanations have been offered for what may have caused this system breakdown, including the challenge of identifying legitimate threats amid a deluge of inflammatory social media posts, a reluctance among officials to take preemptive action against supporters of then-President Trump, and the general limitations involved in using a system designed to prevent attacks by foreign terrorists to address violent domestic extremism.

German, however, rejects calls that have emerged since Jan. 6 for Congress to enact a broad new domestic terrorism statute or to grant federal law enforcement greater authority to monitor civilian social media activities. The problem, he said, is not a lack of legal authority, but rather the inability or unwillingness to use existing laws to go after white supremacists and far-right extremists who pose the most serious threats of extremist violence.

He blames this, at least in part, on the post-9/11 “law enforcement intelligence infrastructure” that encouraged law enforcement to shift their focus from investigating crimes to preventing future attacks, and incentivizes the proliferation of intelligence bulletins that often focus on rare events — like conspiracy theory-driven attacks — rather than the most serious, credible threats.

“Instead of focusing on actual crime, they see their mission as looking toward the horizon and imagining what threats might exist there,” he said.

Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant
The Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, the site of a fake news report that it was fronting a child sex ring run by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The recent intelligence bulletins on conspiracy theory-driven extremists, which were produced by offices within this broad security apparatus, are a perfect example of the kind of nonspecific information that German says law enforcement agencies are regularly flooded with.

The Joint Regional Intelligence Center and the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center are both “fusion centers,” federally funded, state- and regionally-run offices that collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence to local, state and federal law enforcement.

None of the recent memos obtained by Yahoo News point to specific threats or credible evidence of suspected criminal activity or plots by known conspiracy theorists. In fact, the bulletin produced by the Los Angeles fusion center, which covers Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, states explicitly that the intelligence center “is not aware of any current, specific, credible violent or criminal threats related to conspiracy theories in the six-county area of responsibility.”

The Maryland fusion center memo similarly states that it “is unaware of any information indicating that individuals or groups are planning to physically disrupt or interfere with Maryland’s communications infrastructure.”

Instead, the bulletins each provide a handful of examples of previous incidents that were likely, though not necessarily, motivated by conspiracy theories. In some of the cases, the perpetrators provided insight into their conspiratorial thinking. In the 2016 shooting at a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, for example, a North Carolina man told police he’d planned to investigate a debunked internet rumor alleging that the restaurant was the site of a child sex trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats.

In other cases, the connection between fringe beliefs and violent actions is less clear, like the Christmas Day bombing in front of an AT&T building in Nashville. Although investigators reportedly obtained initial evidence that the suspected bomber, who was the only person killed by the explosion, may have subscribed to a number of fringe beliefs, including 5G conspiracy theories, the memos state that a clear motive for the bombing has not been determined.

The Los Angeles fusion center bulletin was the only one to include the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as an example of “notable conspiracy-related violence,” though it clarified that this particular event “was unusual, in that conspiracy communities facilitate spread, and encourage action, but rarely produce coordinated criminal activity.”

The site of a domestic terror bombing in Nashville
On Christmas morning, suspect Anthony Warner detonated an RV packed with explosives in downtown Nashville, damaging over 40 buildings. (Alex Kent/Getty Images)

Neumann defended the information-sharing system that turns out these kinds of bulletins, insisting that they provide important context for law enforcement, even if the conclusion is that the subject of the analysis does not currently pose an active threat.

“It’s just one more piece of context that I use in my local policing strategy,” she said.

Neumann acknowledged that there is a tendency within the counterterrorism community to overreact after failing to thwart a significant threat and that the potential for abuse is a valid concern. Still, she said, “just because we have abuses doesn’t mean we stop policing.”

While testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee last week, Neumann called for the creation of a nationwide radicalization-prevention system that would allow members of the public to identify and report vulnerable people who may be driven to violence, including those inspired by conspiracy theories, and work with mental health professionals to help intervene.

In the meantime, she said that the threat of conspiracy-driven extremists is real, noting that since Jan. 6, more established violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys and neo-Nazis have sought to recruit disaffected Trump supporters and QAnon followers online.

But Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, said it is naive to think that conspiracy theories alone are powerful enough to compel those who believe them to commit violence.

“If that was the case, the streets would run red with blood, but they’re not,” said Uscinski, noting that polls consistently show that most people believe in at least one conspiracy theory, if not more. “And most people aren’t acting violently on them.”

That’s not to suggest that beliefs can’t and don’t influence people’s actions. But, Uscinski said, “I think we have to be very careful when we say a conspiracy theory led someone to do something, because we’re excluding motivations that someone had to access that theory, to believe in it and then to act on it.”

A follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory
A follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory at a Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 2018. (Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

Uscinski said that studies conducted by himself and other scholars since then offer little indication that belief in conspiracy theories is currently on the rise, contrary to the image portrayed in the media, or in recent law enforcement intelligence bulletins.

“If they were indeed increasing, we would expect beliefs in specific conspiracy theories ... to increase over the course of subsequent survey waves. We don’t find that,” he said. “In fact, we find more stability than anything else.”

Uscinski said that in the surveys he and other researchers have conducted over the years, positive responses to questions like “Are you a supporter of QAnon?” have consistently hovered around 6 percent. Other polls have found greater support for the underlying myths promoted by the pro-Trump conspiracy movement when the word “QAnon” is not mentioned directly.

In addition to gauging belief in specific ideas, Uscinski also uses surveys to measure people’s general propensity to believe in conspiracy theories. “I’ve been doing it since 2012 and have found no increase whatsoever across both mine and other people's data,” he said. “People are the same. But what has changed is the media’s interest in the topic.”

As in any other election year, Republicans concerned about fraud going into 2020 were likely to blame Trump’s loss on cheating after the fact. But this typical postelection paranoia was further exacerbated by a number of factors, including that Trump’s core coalition of supporters “are conspiracy-minded people. So they were already prone to believing that voting and the entire system is rigged.”

This, combined with Trump’s refusal to concede and his incessant allegations of voter fraud that were repeated, without evidence, by other Republicans in Congress and by hard-right media personalities, created a “perfect storm,” culminating in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The idea that the FBI is going to investigate people for believing ideas promoted by the president and members of Congress is “insane,” said Uscinski. “What the FBI should be investigating is the president and his allies in Congress who aided and abetted this by using their platforms, their bully pulpits, to motivate people.”

Jana Winter contributed reporting to this story.

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