Date first published: 19/01/2021
Key sectors: all
Key risks: extremist violence; terrorism; civil unrest
On 6 January, the day that Congress met to certify the election of President-elect Joe Biden, a mob of extremist supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the United States (US) Capitol in Washington DC. The rioters occupied and vandalised part of the complex, certification stalled, and five people were killed. There is a risk that the attack on the Capitol could strengthen extremist groups and lead to further violence.
Why it matters
On 13 January, a Joint Intelligence bulletin warned that the Capitol attack could drive further violence and strengthen radical groups. However, the Republican establishment denounced the storming of the Capitol, moderate party members appear to be turning against Trump and in the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack extremist groups risk fracturing over tactics. Extremists have also seen their communication channels via social media disrupted – although this in turn risks them moving to harder-to-monitor channels, even if it frustrates their ability to radicalise others.
However, extremist groups only require a small committed ‘vanguard’ to plan disruptive violent unrest. The publicity these groups received could accelerate the willingness of a small, but violent and radical fringe, to commit further attacks.
In recent years the primary domestic terror and violent threat derives from far-right extremist groups. A Centre for Strategic and International Studies database of 893 terror incidents in the US between 1994 and 2020 showed that 57 per cent of all terror attacks or plots were perpetrated by domestic right-wing militants during the period.
Arguably, far-right groups have become emboldened under Donald Trump’s presidency. Groups felt they had the implicit support of the president when Trump claimed that there were ‘fine people’ on both side of the White Supremist 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. During a 2020 presidential debate, Trump told the extremist Proud Boys to ‘stand by’, which many saw as implicit support. When Trump called on citizens to be ‘liberated’ from lockdowns in Democrat-run states, an armed group called Wolverine Watchmen is alleged to have plotted to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Right-wing extremist groups formed the violent bedrock of counterprotests to Black Lives Matter rallies in places like Louisville and Minneapolis in 2020, which had at least some rhetorical support from Trump.
Trump’s claims that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen were echoed by many within the Republican establishment and believed by many non-extremist Republican voters. While only a small fraction of those that participated in the 6 January ‘Stop the Steal’ rally can be categorised as extremists, the president’s rhetoric appears to have convinced radicals that their violent response would have substantial support from members of the public and from the president himself.
Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January is a potential flashpoint for further unrest. An increased security presence – with around 25,000 extra National Guards deployed in DC ahead of inauguration compared to 340 on 6 January – should prevent substantial violence on that date. Even if protests are limited on 20 January, the latent risk of violence remains. There will be further flashpoints – which could include Trump’s Senate trial, Congressional votes on Biden policies and targeted attacks on Republicans that do not provide support to Trump. Security will likely remain tight in DC for the coming months, which could mitigate the risk, but other locations will tend to be less secure.