He Saw the Storm Coming

Listen to this episode

S1: Over the last few days, I’ve been watching the images of the insurrection at the capital change. They were always shocking. But as more videos trickled out and more Internet detectives have started identifying perpetrators. The story of what exactly took place has just gotten darker. Last Wednesday, some of the people who broke into Congress looked like gleeful Internet trolls brought to life. But by Sunday, there was video of one of these men beating a police officer with an American flag. Daryl Johnson, who used to work in the Department of Homeland Security, keeps thinking about this other video of a lone black Capitol police officer luring a crowd led by a guy in a Kuhnen T-shirt away from the Senate floor.

Advertisement

S2: Yeah, it’s very scary in the fact that this officer kind of turning around and looking at this crowd and they can follow them, particularly the leader of the group. They’re kind of reminded me of almost like a rabid animal that was approaching a person and not acting naturally.

S3: Over the weekend, I’ve seen more and more pictures of rioters in tactical gear, bulletproof vests, reinforced gloves, guns in open holsters. One of them earn this nickname zip tie guy on Twitter.

S2: There is a picture of one of the insurrectionists that was wearing some sort of tactical type clothing that held in his hand, these flex cuffs.

S4: And that really hit me because it showed that some people came prepared to potentially take hostages and that this was going to be a standoff type situation. If that was proven true to the intent of that person, was to bring these flex cuffs to kidnap and hold hostage our legislature. That is very concerning and just kind of shows the the dangerous intent of these groups.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I wanted to talk to Daryl about what took place, because in some ways he predicted this, not the details, but the coming wave of anti-government sentiment and where it could lead. Back in 2009, a report he wrote about the risks of right wing extremism got leaked to conservative media. It was the beginning of the end for his career at Homeland Security. But with each passing year, Darrell’s work seems more prescient. Since leaving the federal government. Darrell has tried to avoid the darker corners of the Internet. He knows what’s lurking in there. But this week he’s gone back just a little to see what the groups he used to monitor are saying. It turns out they are already creating their own narrative about what went down on Wednesday.

Advertisement

S2: The fact that, you know, Ashley Babbitt was shot and killed as she breached the window. She’s starting to turn out to be a martyr figure for these groups. And I’m afraid that they’re going to use her death as a recruitment and radicalization tool to mobilize others towards violence.

S5: I mean, some experts have talked about it as a mass radicalization. And I wonder if you’d agree with that.

S2: Absolutely. All of this misinformation that’s out there and conspiracy theories definitely radicalizes people. And even the capital rally itself was a radicalization moment for these people.

S4: This is not an isolated event. It’s not the end of the show, so to speak. This is the beginning of the new revolution of these people. So we need to be looking at it as something that’s going to propel radicalization and mobilization towards violence for years in the future. This event is not the culmination of a decade’s worth of right wing extremism. And then suddenly it’s going to die out now because they did this today on the show.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S6: If this week is just the beginning, that makes it more important than ever that the US government confront online extremism. But our track record here, it is not great. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: If you watched cable news as the events of last week unfolded, there was this universal shock about how the attack played out. The capital is one of the most important buildings in one of the most powerful countries in the world. In some footage, the police appear at times to simply step aside as rioters move in. Many wondered, where was the National Guard? How did this not immediately get squashed? Daryl says that might have something to do with law enforcement’s checkered past when it comes to right wing extremism. You worked at DHS for a while, and I’m kind of curious if you could compare and contrast how D.C. might have prepared for similar events in the past so we can do a comparison with just what we saw over the summer with the Black Lives Matter protests, there was a lot more resources devoted to defending government buildings.

Advertisement

S2: There were much more aggressive tactics used against those protesters. But also, I think, you know, law enforcement can be somewhat biased towards the far right in underestimating the threat that they pose, because in the past, they haven’t really had this confrontational attitude towards authorities at these rallies. They’re more the police are that are protect the far right at the rallies. So I think that that complacency and perhaps that bias kind of set in and gave them kind of a false sense of security when it came to this rally.

S1: Yeah, I’m glad you said bias because, I mean, you really could. And we saw the officers taking selfies with the people inside the Capitol. And when you saw them moving barriers aside, which, you know, could potentially be done for safety, but at the same time, they looked terrible. You saw an officer at the door saying, I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but, you know, I’m letting you in. It’s just it was very strange.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: And we even had law enforcement officers from across the country come to this rally and participate as insurgents, basically. So now all of them are being looked at for their role in seeing if they committed any criminal acts. We actually had law enforcement officers that participated in the rioting.

S5: Yeah, I want to talk to you about that, because I wonder how you think about dealing with that moving forward. You know, you’ve seen reports from a number of police departments of this bubbling extremism, white supremacy within them. But of course, they’re all local departments. And I’m wondering if you think about how we root that out and whether there are things the federal government can do to incentivize that, because it doesn’t seem like there’s been priority placed on getting rid of the bad actors.

Advertisement

S2: Yes, so it’s been known for a long time that there are sympathizers and even members of these extremist groups within the military and law enforcement communities for a long time, departments across the country, as well as the extremist individuals in the military and law enforcement, had hid behind the First Amendment protection of free speech. And the departments a lot of times make these excuses that these people have a constitutional right to be behave that way or to adhere to these abhorrent belief systems. But it’s now time to reexamine that because we realize that these people, when they belong to these extremist groups, are ambulate, embrace these radical beliefs. It really calls into question their ability to judge objectively to perform the law enforcement functions that they’ve been empowered with in a equitable, honorable manner. And so we need to be looking at people that have expressed these types of beliefs and started taking administrative action against them. It’s not a criminal act to hate, but it does call into question the trustworthiness of these people.

S1: Well, it’s interesting because you saw some of the rioters just get fired right away like a guy. One of the guys showed up with his work tag on and he was fired within 24 hours of that image going out, I believe. But then when you talk about a police officer, there’s the challenge of the fact that they’re often represented by a police union. And many of these police unions came out and endorsed President Trump this past year.

S2: If there’s police officers belonging to the Oath Keepers and three percenters and other extremist groups and a lot of internal affairs representatives responded, well, there’s nothing we can really do about that. Well, my response to that is you have somebody that’s taken an oath to an organization that is looking to subvert our government. So they’re a potential insider threat. You need to look at them from a counterintelligence standpoint. Are they leaking sensitive information to these groups about where what the police capabilities are? And that community was the physical security layout of the police department, where the evidence room is, where the armory is. So there’s a lot of different concerns related to these extremist individuals that have been put in these positions of authority that we really need to start taking seriously.

Advertisement

S1: This past week, police departments across the country in California, Washington, Texas, announced probes into officers suspected of participating in the riot at the Capitol. But part of the trouble for Daryl in rooting out these bad actors is pinning down what exactly this riot was.

S5: I’m wondering about the language you use for what happened on Wednesday, because there’s been an evolution in that, I think, as time has gone on. Sounds like you’re calling it an insurrection or riot sedition.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah, I think all of those terms are appropriate, insurrection is probably the one that stands out to me because it went beyond rioting, because the purpose and intent was to take over the capital of the United States and to stop this Electoral College process.

Advertisement

S1: I wonder if you think it’s fair to characterize the attack as white supremacist in nature.

S2: There’s white supremacist roots in it as well as elements, but it was more broader than that, it was more of an anti-government backlash. There are people of other color there, but it was predominantly a white insurrection. But there were definitely racist elements to it. You saw the Confederate flag that was being flown by one of the insurrectionists there. So I wouldn’t say that the whole thing is not white supremacist, but that there was a white supremacist component of the uprising.

S5: Many reporters have sort of talked about the crowd at the Stop the Steele event that preceded the invasion of the capital and how it was kind of diverse. Like their families there, people brought their dogs. And I wonder if if you want to talk about the value for more extreme elements to sort of mix with this crowd that has the appearance of being a more normal and whether that’s part of what you see changing at this moment.

S2: Yeah, we’ve seen that for protest activities on both the far left and far right. You’ve got these radical elements that will use the cover of the protest activity to push forward their more violent agendas. But we saw a lot of people once the violence started happening Wednesday at the Capitol, there were people that were leaving once they saw what was going on. Those are the peaceful, law abiding people. But still, you know, they adhere to conspiracy theories and they walked away today and obey the law. But tomorrow they could commit a criminal act because of these conspiracy theories and disinformation as fed to them through these different political echo chambers on the Internet.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well, what happened at the Capitol certainly looked like some kind of climax for these extremists, Darryl told me you would be wrong if you think this is the end of a movement, if we’re at this beginning point of the next stage, it’s also a point where people can make a choice.

S5: And I’ve been struck by folks who’ve been monitoring online extremism over the weekend, saying that there’s been a splintering in the groups that have supported the president and that splintering is, you know, some people looking at what happened at the Capitol and saying, I do not want to be part of that. And other people wishing the president had pushed harder. And I wonder, as a former law enforcement agent, whether you look at this moment and you also see it as like a unique moment of possibility where the right people could get in there and prevent bad things from happening next.

S2: I think this capital siege that we had last week is going to have a similar effect that we had in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is a wake up call for our legislators and for the police. We’re going to have a lot more resources and laws being passed and people leading the movement because they saw the violence that happened last week. We saw similar things happen in Oklahoma City where, you know, people in these movements had kind of a conscience and were shocked by what happened and actually left the white supremacy anti-government movement. But it still took years. I mean, this wasn’t something that happened, you know, within a few weeks or months. Still took years for the momentum that built up in the mid 90s on these groups to kind of, you know, have their flames feather put out. So similar dynamics going to play out. People are going to see what happens. Some people are going to leave, others are going to join, and still others are going to get even more hardcore because of it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: So what does that tell you about what we should do now? Like we’re seeing the arrests over the weekend of of a number of these rioters around the country. I wonder if you think we need to do more than that and what the consequences of taking action might be like. There’s been discussion of the 25th Amendment. There’s been discussion of a second impeachment. How do you think about the value of. Punishing the president and his supporters, well, those are more symbolic acts.

S2: I like to look at things that actually make an impact, like passing a domestic terrorism statute that delineates authorities responsibilities between federal agencies and empowers them things like implementing programs in our schools, just like our anti gang and anti drug campaigns, something to counter extremism in our schools. People need to be more aware and vigilant of the others who are radicalizing and mobilizing towards violence to report that type of suspicious activity. We need to have the private sector policing the social media content more and working hand in hand with law enforcement to identify those users who are radicalizing and mobilizing towards violence and terrorism. So there’s a lot of things we need to be doing is not just censoring the president, but definitely, you know, the business communities as well as our legislators definitely need to call him out for what he’s done and also call this act terrorism and do so in the future when we have other violent, ideologically motivated attacks.

S5: Well, you talk about sort of the idea of censuring the president or his supporters as symbolic, but that symbolism can drive people to like I’ve seen debate among some about the idea that if you say impeach the president or, you know, harshly punish the people who were involved in the riots in the capital, that it then will increase the sense of victimhood in these groups and have the opposite effect that you want where it won’t quash the violence moving forward. I’ve seen the opposite argument made that when you sweep things under the rug, it means that, you know, these movements will come back stronger than ever and you’re going to be dealing with another siege before you know it. And I wonder how you think about that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: You know, like I said, I think, you know, measures such as taking the president off of the Facebook and Twitter will have more impact than an impeachment hearing. He’s shown us time and time again. He’s using these social media platforms not only to spread extremist propaganda and also to encourage some of these far right extremists and legitimizing their acts. But he’s also using it to incite violence and get people spun up and fearful and paranoid. So those types of actions, I think, have a lot more impact at deterring the threat and the problem than having an impeachment hearings so that we can have on the history books that the president was impeached twice when we get back what Darrell thinks should happen next.

S5: You mentioned another domestic terrorism law, and I know that President elect Biden’s team has noted an interest in a new domestic terrorism law, but I heard that and I thought, do we need another law here or do we need to agree on what the priority is here? Like a little over a year ago, the Department of Homeland Security, the acting head, said, I’m prioritizing white supremacy, white nationalism and these online extremist groups and made it a priority of the agency. But it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.

S2: Yes, so I think it’s both you know, there’s two different types of legislation that’s being proposed, there’s I want to say 10 or 12 different bills that have been written off that they fall into two camps. One is deliberately delineating roles and responsibilities among federal agencies. I think that one has got the most support and is much needed because it tells the FBI what they should be doing. It allows other agencies to get involved. It’s not just a one man show where the FBI is the lead agency for countering terrorism does everything it needs to be spread out. It needs to be a team effort.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: I’m curious, are you saying that basically right now we have like a who’s on first problem where we don’t know who should be investigating what? And that’s part of the issue.

S2: There are turf battles and there are agencies that don’t cooperate as much as they should be with this problem. We have, you know, agencies being undermined because of fearful of losing power and jurisdiction over things.

S1: That type of bureaucratic infighting needs to stop for Daryl, getting law enforcement on the same page, using the same playbook, it’s just part of the solution. He says there also needs to be a better approach to prosecuting right wing terrorists.

S2: There’s other legislation that’s more controversial. These are penalty enhancement legislations. I’m also in favor of those as long as they are applied equitably and not just selectively applied to one extremist movement over another. And unfortunately, historically, whenever these penalty enhancement type legislations have been passed as selectively applied to far left extremists, you know, back in the late or twenty five to twenty ten, we had a lot of ecoterrorism. The business community lobbied Congress, got the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of twenty seven passed, which added penalty enhancements for animal rights and environmental extremists who used arson as a tactic to further their cause.

S5: Sounds pretty specific.

S2: Yeah, that had a huge deterrent effect. We had Operation Back Fire, where a number of arsonists related to Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front were arrested and given long prison sentences for their arson attacks, which didn’t kill anybody. But they were sentenced to long prison sentences because of this law that was passed. A similar thing could have a deterrent effect on far right extremism if it was applied appropriately.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: So can we talk about what happens this week, next week, because there is this online chatter suggesting that extremists are mobilizing once again around this coming weekend to take action in D.C., but also in states, how should we be preparing for that now?

S2: Well, I think as Michigan and Idaho have learned, as well as the state capital and Oregon, as well as what happened last week in the US capital, we need to take this chatter seriously. And resources and physical security measures need to be put in place to mitigate the threat.

S1: You sound like you’re kind of naturally, like, worried, apprehensive about what’s going on, but I wonder, like, when do you think you’re going to be letting your guard down about what’s happened in D.C.?

S2: Let my guard down when I see this genie put back in the bottle, less plotting, less attacks, lower turnout to these rallies. But more importantly, when I start seeing the federal government and state local governments taking this threat seriously and we see more arrests being made and preventions being made.

S6: Daryl Johnson, I’m so grateful for you joining us. Thank you for having me, Mary. Thanks for taking the time. Daryl Johnson is a former domestic terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security. He now runs a private consulting firm, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Mary Wilson. Frannie Kelley has been lending as a hand to Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. Make sure the show sounds great every day. I’m Mary Harris. You can check me out on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s Desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.