The Frighteningly Sophisticated Plot to Kidnap Gretchen Whitmer

It’s unlikely to be the last of its kind.

Garden in front of the Capitol on a sunny day
The Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on Thursday. Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The 13 militia members who were arrested on Thursday by state and federal authorities for allegedly planning to kidnap and possibly assassinate Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, were not amateurs.

According to the FBI, members of two Michigan-based militias began plotting their acts of violence in early March. Their motivations seem clear: a desire to overthrow Michigan’s government and create a society that “followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and would allow for citizens to be self-sufficient,” according to the criminal complaint. It is apparent that they homed in on Whitmer as their primary target because they perceived her as curbing civil liberties, especially those pertaining to the right to bear arms. Their plot was hatched under the backdrop of COVID-19 restrictions limiting the size of gatherings, the shutdown of many business operations, and President Donald Trump’s April 17 tweet encouraging citizens to “liberate Michigan.”

Distrust of the government and incendiary rhetoric, sadly, have become increasingly normalized, but seldom materialize into a credible attack. What makes this case different from others is that these militias practiced communications and operational security, purchased deadly weapons, assessed a number of targets before settling on one, conducted surveillance, developed contingency plans, and thought carefully about the timing of the attack. Simply put, the plotters were aspiring students of terror, not just blowhards repeating stale mantras.

Unlike other militia groups that, in recent months, have acted in response to nationwide protests, looting, and the removal of statues, the Michigan plotters adopted an offensive strike-first attitude. It is also likely that the militia members moved into an operational phase, and that is why law enforcement interceded when it did. In my analysis, the plotters had three basic objectives: 1) they wanted to stop Whitmer at any cost; 2) they hoped their actions would spark a civil conflict; and 3) they wanted the ensuing conflict to influence the upcoming election.

In setting out to achieve these political objectives, the group members adhered to strict communications security. They communicated over encrypted communication platforms and spoke in code as part of an effort to disguise their efforts from federal law enforcement. To ensure that the prying ears of government could not listen to its meetings, the group on one occasion collected all meeting attendees’ phones and placed them in a box outside of the meeting room. The group would often meet at different locations and in one instance met in the basement of a business that had a secret floor-door obscured by a carpet. The group also met in multiple states, including Michigan and Ohio, and considered holding Whitmer hostage in Wisconsin.

The group was keen to cover its tracks as it trained for the attack. Militia members, according to the criminal complaint, conducted field training at multiple locations. The group was careful to alter its training sites as a way to avoid discovery by law enforcement. As they increasingly ramped up their efforts, they began to acquire tactical gear like night vision goggles and even tested an improvised explosive device. The group was persistent. Its first attempt to detonate the IED failed, but a later effort apparently succeeded during a field test. Finally, the group members engaged in intelligence collection and surveillance, casing their target, the governor, as they tried to determine the best place to strike. In the criminal complaint, the militia members may appear to be indecisive as they hem and haw about the best time to strike. While some may see that as a weakness, it is actually indicative of a group willing to bide its time as it assessed when the moment was ripe to launch the kidnapping operation.

The group’s one failure was its recruitment process, which allowed the FBI to infiltrate it with a combination of confidential human sources (non-FBI employees) and undercover employees (likely FBI agents). Before the plotting began, in early 2020, the group became known somehow to the FBI through social media. This is likely where the FBI began to probe its network to best understand how it could be infiltrated by federal sources. A multiple-month investigation and the placement of four sources into a militant group is dangerous and expensive. The U.S. government was successful in disrupting a significant threat, and because of that, many lives may have been saved.

Looking forward, with less than one month before the election, it is imperative that federal law enforcement remain focused on anti-government and white supremacist groups. The Michigan militia threat is not unique, and other groups are likely to learn from this organization’s failures, chiefly the danger of expanding a covert terrorist cell to include poorly vetted recruits. The federal government must also anticipate that copycat militias will adopt some of the savvier tradecraft techniques deployed by the Michigan plotters.

No matter how successful the FBI or other law enforcement officials are in stopping terrorist plots, the rise of radical right-wing groups such as the Michigan militias are symptomatic of a society that allows gun-toting thugs to intimidate civilians with impunity. Since the start of the pandemic, militia members have increasingly become more brazen in flouting laws by assembling, often illegally, without the approval of local and federal officials. They have also become emboldened by senior political leaders, most significantly the president.

It took many hours before Trump commented on the events in Michigan. He could have simply condemned the militia members involved, but instead he attacked Whitmer, again calling upon her to open Michigan and complaining that she was ungrateful to him. Within the militias, this will be interpreted as a siren call, not condemnation. It’s a call that has made America less safe and one that will likely incite more to carry out violence in the lead-up to Nov. 3. It is a call that has placed a bull’s-eye on the backs of responsible policymakers.