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2 Months After Capitol Riot, What's Happening With Extremist Groups?

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D,C. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, D,C. (Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

U.S. Capitol Police are ramping up security at the complex on Thursday over concerns about a possible plot by a militia group to breach the building.

The threat is connected to a baseless conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump will rise to power again on March 4, which used to be Inauguration Day. After the Jan. 6 riot and President Biden’s inauguration, QAnon supporters searching for another date to prophesize found March 4, NBC’s Ben Collins says.

Tax-evading members of the sovereign citizens movement believe a decades-old conspiracy theory that the U.S. government has been illegitimate since Ulysses S. Grant left office in 1877, he says. Grant was inaugurated on March 4 in 1869.

“QAnon supporters, they’re not all the way in on this. They don’t really fully believe all this stuff,” he says, “but they’re desperate for some sort of answer that isn’t ‘Joe Biden is the president and reality is reality.’ ”

The buzz around this date has died down upon supporters realizing there aren’t any large events scheduled — unlike when Trump held a rally on Jan. 6, he says.

With yet another significant date passing by without Trump regaining power, Collins recalls the 1956 book “When Prophecy Fails” about a cult called the Seekers. The cult believed in a doomsday, and when the world didn’t end on that day, members pivoted to believing they prevented the apocalypse, Collins says.

Like members of the Seekers, QAnon and militia movements are becoming “more hardened in their beliefs as time goes on,” Collins says.

Earlier this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Capital riot was the culmination of a domestic terror threat that’s been growing for years.

“Jan. 6 was not an isolated event,” Wray said. “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away anytime soon.”

Wray also confirmed that after Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the summer, the FBI increased its focus on anti-government extremists like antifa, but still listed that below the threat posed by white supremacists.

The FBI getting distracted by political pressure from the Trump administration could help explain how white supremacists gained power seemingly in the shadows, Collins says.

Trump didn’t condemn white supremacists for starting violence at Black Lives Matter rallies last summer, Collins says, and told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

“He could have told these people to go away and cut it out, but he did not do that,” Collins says. “These people were strategically aligned with the previous White House. And that’s really what these investigations are looking into.”

The Washington Post and other outlets are reporting that some of these far-right groups involved in the Capitol Riot, including the Proud Boys, are starting to splinter. These divisions raise the concern of lone extremists who can be more difficult to track.

Deplatforming extremists on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook is a “double-edged sword,” Collins says.

“They’re not going to be able to get their message out in the same way,” he says. “However, when those people go into these smaller spaces, these spaces that are not tracked as easily, it’s harder to find out what they’re actually planning.”

Many extremists are committing illegal and hateful acts, but at the same time, some people have been taken advantage of and lied to by people in power.

QAnon serves as an example of why reconciling these differences is a challenge for law enforcement, he says. The QAnon conspiracy theory is based on the premise that public figures will be rounded up and killed as onlookers cheer. But American churches and grandparents with no intention of committing crimes are believing in this “violent ideology,” he says.

“Those people are not terrorists, but they are falling into lockstep with a bunch of people who are spouting terrorist ideology,” he says. “It is really difficult right now for law enforcement to find out what’s real and what’s a guy just joking around the internet.”

Last June, Collins told Here & Now’s Robin Young about how he tried to warn Facebook about the spread of violent extremism on the platform. Since then, he says social media companies have started to take the threat more seriously.

Facebook previously used “narrow distinctions” to determine what constitutes a terror group in order to avoid taking action against the platform’s widespread domestic terror problem, he says.

Now, Facebook has realized the platform can abet an insurrection and cracked down on these majority-white domestic terror groups that camouflage their ideology with irony — which have “no differentiation from groups like ISIS except for the fact that they were American in nature,” he says.


Samantha Raphelson produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.