INDIANAPOLIS — The threat of domestic terrorism is on the rise.
“Across the country the threat is rising, and in Indiana,” said FBI Indianapolis Special Agent in Charge Paul Keenan.
In Indiana, “there’s a dozen (domestic terror threats) per month,” said Keenan.
The FBI’s Indiana Field Office said that in the first six months of 2020, there have been 55 domestic terrorism arrests and 35 international terrorism arrests across the country.
"Previous years it's (the number of domestic and international terrorism arrest have) been pretty even," he said.
The FBI said that in 2019, there were about 107 domestic terrorism arrests and 121 international arrests. Some factors that may have contributed to the downwards trend in international terrorism are the travel restriction from the pandemic, the work by the military and intelligence community said Keenan. This upward trend for domestic terrorism nationally is one that is being mirrored in Indiana.
Keenan said the majority of the threats are coming from two main ideological bases: anti-government and race-based hate.
The greatest domestic terror threats
The anti-government domestic terrorism threats are “sovereign citizens extremism, militia extremism, anarchist's extremism. Those are generally the breakdowns," according to Keenan.
When it comes to race-based domestic terror threats, Keenan said in Indiana, it’s more of the white nationalist's extremism.
The potential domestic terrorists aren’t necessarily part a formal organization.
“The lone offenders across the states have really become the big worry because they’ve actually had the most victims,” said Keenan while highlighting the El Paso shooting. Twenty-two people were killed and dozens more were injured in the domestic terror attack "due to racially motivated violent extremism. That was also and anti-government extremism as well," Keenan said.
"But those are the people that really worry us," he added.
Because many lone wolves often self-radicalize online, there’s less connections, less communications. Keenan said those people "can sometimes fly under the radar." Regardless of their ideology, their ability to mobilize and commit an act of violence in a short period of time with limited communication is what presents the biggest concern, according to the FBI.
That's why Keenan said it’s important for people who "see someone being radicalized, who notice a change in behavior, to notify us to let us know about it."
"We don't really think of threats in terms of left and right at the FBI," said FBI Director Christopher Wray during the House Homeland Security Hearing on National Security Threats. "Our domestic violent extremists include everything from racially motivated violent extremists...all the way to anti-government, anti-authority violent extremists. And that includes people ranging from anarchists, violent extremists, people who subscribe to Antifa or other ideologies, as well as militia types."
"We do have a quite a number of properly predicated domestic terrorism investigations into violent anarchists' extremists (nationally), any number of whom self-identify with the Antifa movement. And that's a part of this broader group of domestic violent extremists that I'm talking about, but it's just one part of it. We also have racially motivated violent extremists, militia types and others" Wray said.
"If there were people who follow that group (Black Lives Matter) or who adhere to that ideology who were then to — based on that ideology or anything else — to commit violent criminal activity, then we would approach them just like we would anyone else," Wray said.
During the hearing, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) asked Wray if he had seen "excessive violence that can be attributable to Black Lives Matter, as opposed to any other groups that maybe involved in violence." Wray responded and said "certainly we have had racially motivated violent extremists cases involving African-American defendants who have pursued violence against, say, law enforcement and whether any of those cases involve some reference to Black Lives Matter. Sitting here right now, I can't recall one.” "
When Lee asked the FBI director if "you’ve had cases with white individuals as well? With violence against officers?"
Wray responded "absolutely."
There's been an uptick in domestic terrorism since 9/11, but 2020 is different.
"The developments of the past year have really electrified far right extremists across the country," said Cassie Miller, who is the senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC is a nonprofit which monitors activities of domestic hate and extremists and built and maintains the Civil Rights Memorial Center.
2020 is a breading ground for domestic terrorism
"We're in the midst of a global pandemic. We're experiencing a climate crisis, an economic downturn, and we have historical levels of political polarization. And (we're) in an atmosphere of rampant misinformation where people have trouble figuring out where the threat lies," Miller said. "And people are afraid and looking for ways to explains what's happening around them."
The current events in 2020 are almost a breeding ground for increased recruitment among extremists, radicalization and domestic terror threats.
Keenan said the factors contributing to domestic terrorism remain consistent.
"They are socio-political factors, racial tensions, perceived government overreach or law enforcement overreach, or reaction to certain legislation," he added.
While the vast majority of this year's protests have been peaceful, Miller said "what we're seeing now is extremists are trying to take advantage of this political unrest and use these protests as a stage to confront the people they see as their political enemies."
Keenan said the majority of protesters fall into one of three categories.
"The overwhelming majority are there to protest peacefully, then we (have a) smaller group that's maybe there to take advantage of the situation — to loot, rob or steal. And then the third part of that is anarchists, or on the other side far-right wing who are there to incite violence," Keenan said.
And although not appearing to be the majority of the population, white supremacists and white nationalist-based groups are on the rise. In 2019, the SPLC counted 155 white nationalist groups — a 55 percent increase from the previous year.
While the number of hate groups across the country has decreased from 1,020 in 2018 to 940 in 2019, the number of anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, neo-Volkisch and white nationalist hate groups have increased in the past year. But the rise in white nationalism and white supremacy aren’t issues reserved for southern states or only a national landscape.
The FBI is "laser focused on threats by racially or ethnically motivated" extremists
During a hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that after 9/11, the bureau maintains its vigilance in "preventing attacks by international terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. We're also working around the clock to prevent attacks by domestic terrorists who are inspired by one or more extremist ideologies to commit violent acts."
"In recent years, we've been laser focused on threats by racially or ethnically motivated (extremists). They too are often radicalized online and mobilized quickly to carry out their violent plans. People like Richard Holzer, who our Denver joint terrorism task force arrested on hate crimes charges just last year while he was planning to blow up a synagogue in Pueblo, Colorado," Wray said.
The FBI said it does not investigate groups or individuals based on ideology or their right to exercise the First Amendment. But if that ideology "leads someone to commit criminal acts and pursue violence, the FBI will not hesitate to take appropriate action," Wray added.
The FBI said it opens an investigation based on three factors: violence or a threat of violence, a federal crime, or "the motivation that fuels it."
The burden of being a historian
"The Midwest is king of a tinderbox," Miller said. "It has some of the most segregated cities in the country. And Indiana was one of the strongholds of the Klan in the 1920s and it's still very much dealing with that legacy."
James Madison is a professor emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington's History Department and author of “The Ku Klux Klan In the Heartland.”
"There's a real burden being a historian because you see things like the proud boys, and it just sets off sparks of anger and frustration that at this point in our history we still have people" who support the ideology of white supremacy and white nationalism, Madison said.
Whether it's the Proud Boys marching in Kalamzaoo, Michigan in 2020, Alt-right protests in Portland, Oregon in 2017, or white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, many of these white nationalists or white supremacists are often draped in American flags. In an age of misinformation and social media propaganda, those who are not paying close enough attention — who are susceptible to radicalization — may have a hard time deciphering the difference between patriotism and white nationalism.
"The Klan of the 1920s carried more American flags than probably any other group in American history," Madison said. "A primary objective of the Klan in the 1920s (was), 'There's us, and then there's others who are not 100 percent American.' We should never let people claim the American flag as theirs because others are not worthy, and we're seeing that with a lot of the white nationalists."
Since the death of George Floyd, "right wing vigilantes and far right actors have been on the ground at more than 500 protests across the country," Miller said.
In central Indiana, simultaneous protests and counter-protests of opposing ideologies have been held in various cities including Mooresville and Crown Point. The FBI's Indianapolis Field Office warned that simultaneous protests and counter-protests could become flashpoints.
"It can be a powder keg if you have people there inciting violence and you have like-minded individuals, it can turn into something we don't want to see," said Keenan.
These confrontations and potentials for violence "will probably only grow as we head closer to the election," Miller added.
Could protests and counter-protests become a launch point for civil war?
"Across the spectrum we see a lot more people who believe the country is headed into a civil war," Miller said. "One of the groups that believes that refers to itself as the Boogaloo Movement."
Although the name Boogaloo "was obviously created to create some kind of deniability, people don't take it seriously. But I think we definitely should take it seriously," Miller said.
The FBI's Indianapolis Field Office said the Boogaloo Movement is treated the same as any other domestic terrorist type of organization.
"They can propagate all the ideology they want no matter how horrible it may be but when they start to propagating violence, intimidation or coercions we can take some investigative steps, and we will do that," Keenan said.
The Boogaloo Movement doesn't uphold a singular ideology, but rather "run the gamut of the far right," Miller said.
But anyone who believes or supports this movement believes the government is tyrannical and needs to be overthrown with a civil war, according to Miller. "So you have people who are libertarians, or white nationalists, racists, all kind of converging over the idea that there's going to be some sort of wide spread civil conflict," she said.
"Many of them are openly pushing the country towards this civil war because they think it's necessary to purge the country of elements and people they see as undesirable," Miller said.
She said supporter of the Boogaloo movement were first on the ground for the re-open protests and “as the protests for black lives matter kicked off we’ve seen them on the ground more and more” over the last few months.
Miller said supports of the Boogaloo movement aren’t just confronting protesters, their confronting law enforcement as well. “This is a group that’s fundamentally anti-government, they see police, as the main state actors they’re going to come in contact with, so they try to create violent confrontation with law enforcement,” said Miller. Nationally “we’ve seen about a dozen people associated with the Boogaloo movement arrested for other violent plots, on terrorism charges, or one man for two murders.”
The effect of social media memes and posts
The FBI said it has seen some engagement from Russia, China and other foreign adversaries with racially motivated violent extremists in the U.S. And that they "piggy-back on a lot of the unrest activity that has been occurring" in an effort to further divide.
"The intelligence community's consensus is that Russia continues to try to influence our election," said Wray.
After the 2016 election, many social media and intelligence analysts predicted social media could be weaponized ahead of future election to shape public opinion and divide the nation along existing polarizing scars. The FBI said those predictions became a reality. The FBI said that's exactly what's happening.
"Efforts by the Russians to influence our elections in 2020 through…social media, use of proxies, state media, online journalists, etc. in an effort to (create) divisiveness and discord," Wray said.
Keenan said the radicalization of people online and use of social media "has been a big factor" in the uptick of domestic terror threats this year.
"Just recently…we shared threat indicators with both Facebook and Twitter that allowed them to take down fake accounts created as part of a Russian disinformation campaign before those accounts could develop a broader following," Wray said.
The FBI said it continues to actively prevent "foreign interference in our elections" and that such attacks will not be tolerated. "We are working closely with our federal, state and local partners as well as the private sector to share information, bolster security, and identify and disrupt any threat," Wray said.
The FBI said it's important to vet and fact-check posts and information before sharing it across social media.
"Before you share or post something like that, try and see what the origination of that post might be," Keenan said. "Because a lot of times it could be a foreign actor that is trying to divide our country for their own purposes. So before you share something, before you post something try and find the originator of that information."
Social media analysts also suggest fact-checking the posts on social media feeds. Sometimes information, quotes, video or photos are presented in a misleading manner to divide people. For example, a post of the semi-truck driver who drove into a crowd of protesters on the highway was edited to only show the protestors pulling him out of the truck with the caption "they just pulled the truck driver out," but there was no context into the fact that he had just driven onto a highway full of people and was arrested for his crime.
Democracy is built on the trust the democratic process is efficient and trustworthy. Calling an election illegitimate in a democratic society without concrete proof is a threat to democracy.
"In less than two months…Americans will exercise one of their most cherished rights, to vote in a free and fair election," Wray said.
Calling an election illegitimate in a democratic society without concrete proof is a threat to democracy.
"Americans must have confidence in our voting system and our election infrastructure. That's why the security of our elections is and will continue to be one of our highest priorities," Wray said.
If there was any violence as a result of outcome of our election, the FBI said it's prepared.
"Especially this election year, we're setting up the command posts early and we'll be with it during the election and post-election," Keenan said. "So we'll have extra people keeping watch of what’s happening throughout the election and after the election and if there's any threat of any kind of violence, due to whatever reason due to whatever reason because of the election, we’ll be there to investigate it."