For today’s Critical Issues Report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with two experts on domestic extremism and terrorism. These experts offer a compelling view of what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, including the following points:

-  The mob that attacked the Capitol was a mix of somewhat organized groups and others who were there simply because they believed President Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen. Groups like the Boogaloo movement are anti-government and anti-police, so it is not surprising that they attacked police officers. The organized groups used the more general crowd as cover for committing acts of violence.

-  Many domestic terrorist groups are based on perceived “grievances” that have some basis in reality, e.g., that the political power of the white majority is being diminished as the U.S. population becomes more diverse.  But QAnon is a new type of threat, based not on perceived grievances, but entirely on bizarre lies and conspiracy theories.   

-  What happened on January 6 is a new phenomenon that police will have to understand and address. It may fade somewhat when President Trump leaves office and when many of the perpetrators of violence on January 6 are prosecuted, but it will not go away.

-  The emergence of this new domestic terror threat does not mean that other threats from foreign terrorists have gone away. Even as law enforcement focuses on this new threat, it needs to keep its eye on traditional terrorism threats and protect against those attacks.

The two experts are:

Greg Ehrie joined the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in May 2020 as the Vice President of Law Enforcement and Analysis. He previously spent 22 years with the FBI, including stints as the Special Agent in Charge of the Newark Field Office and Section Chief of the Domestic Terrorism Operations Section.

David Schanzer is a professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He co-authored the 2016 publication The Challenge and Promise of Using Community Policing Strategies to Prevent Violent Extremism with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor Charles Kurzman and PERF researchers Jessica Toliver and Elizabeth Miller.


Greg Ehrie, Vice President of Law Enforcement & Analysis, Anti-Defamation League

Chuck Wexler: Did the events at the Capitol last week surprise you?

Greg Ehrie:  No. This was the most predictable domestic terrorist attack that we’ve probably ever seen. Not only the ADL, but also law enforcement contacts and intelligence streams were all watching this. And we have a recent history of protest events getting very ugly.

I sat in on many briefings on this one. We provided information to law enforcement about extremists we saw talking online and the potential for groups like the Boogaloo Boys or the Proud Boys to come to the area. They were telegraphing that they were coming and, in some cases, saying that they wanted to commit violent acts.

This was not a blindsiding event. It was what we call a “weather event,” meaning you could predict that it was coming. You hope it’s not going to occur, but it was very predictable.

Wexler: How would you characterize the group that showed up last Wednesday?

Ehrie:  First, it was a large gathering, and for those of us who have been in law enforcement, we know that large groups are always fraught with some kind of danger. Even when folks gather in those kinds of numbers for peaceful purposes or to express their First Amendment rights or to celebrate, it can quickly evolve into a riot situation. Police know that.

In this case specifically, these people had different ideologies and diverse backgrounds, but the commonality for the vast majority of them was that they were there to support the President. That’s a First Amendment-protected right, but people who were extremist in nature used that crowd. They came there to have cover provided, with some violence in mind or extremist acts, as we saw played out.

I don’t think that this insurrection at the Capitol was a planned event. But you could see, by the nature of the groups with an extremist ideology, who were a minority of the gathering crowd and telegraphed some of their intentions, that they were coming here intent on doing something.

Wexler: Who were the main groups that dominated the violence?

Ehrie: What we’re seeing right now, based on the intelligence and arrests, is that it was a very diverse crowd. There were folks who were everyday citizens with no criminal records and came there just to support the President. Then we have members of known groups, who were more extremist in nature. There were some white nationalist groups, the Proud Boys, and many adherents to the Boogaloo movement. They were obviously present and, in some cases, flying their colors. They were not going under the radar. They were wearing their uniforms and very proud of who they represent.

We saw that folks were incited by the President’s comments. They interpreted that as, “Hey, we’re being instructed to go do something.” That’s when that mob mentality took over. People were incited and committed these really horrible, tragic acts. And I think some regretted it almost immediately.

So there were a lot of groups present, but I can’t pin this on any one ideology or one group. I think this was a result of mob mentality.

Wexler: What was the significance of the arrest of the leader of the Proud Boys two days before the insurrection?

Ehrie: That arrest was based on his public statements that he was responsible for removing a banner outside a church in D.C. and burning it during another protest, which led to the vandalism charges. That was self-admitted.

I think that’s what law enforcement was made to do. Here’s somebody who has admitted to committing a crime, and they want to mitigate a threat early. He was trying to incite people at an upcoming event, and I think it was appropriate for law enforcement to intercede and enforce charges as quickly as they could to make sure he wasn’t present and wouldn’t endanger any members of the community.

Wexler: How do these groups communicate? Which social media platforms do they use?

Ehrie: It runs the gamut. I don’t think anyone can accurately list all of them. Extremists, terrorists, or people intent on violent acts have increasingly turned to the internet and social media to communicate. These social media platforms provide, in some sense, a perception of anonymity. They think they can’t be tracked. It also increases the outreach. They don’t have to know somebody personally to get involved. They can go to chatrooms to find people of a like mind, which would be much more difficult through other means of communication.

Some of the big social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, are trying to be socially responsible and moderate what people are saying and how they’re saying it. But in our country, that is fraught with complexities, such as the right to free speech.

You have seen certain platforms, such as Parler, banned from being on Apple, Amazon, and other providers. I think you’re going to see more of that, because society is demanding that we want our free speech, but we also don’t want to allow extremist or violent people to have platforms to find other people and plan violent acts.

Wexler: Has the type of behavior seen at the Capitol – a mob overtaking a government building, attacking police and threatening elected leaders – occurred anywhere else in the U.S.?

Ehrie: Not to my knowledge. At the state and local levels, we’ve seen groups focused on a state capitol building or a courthouse. Going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, protesters peacefully took over college campuses.

The surreality of this was captured in seeing an American citizen walking freely through the Capitol with a Confederate flag. That never occurred during the entirety of the Civil War, or since.

Wexler:  Are extremist groups emboldened now?

Ehrie: Certainly. We’ve been seeing that. I’m careful about not ascribing a “why,” because that needs to be studied.

Extremist groups have always existed. When I headed up domestic terrorism investigations with the FBI, this was not unique. Domestic terrorism has been in our country for years. But we’ve seen lately that they feel emboldened to come out and identify themselves publicly. They use their real names and true identities.

I think we’ll see these folks increasingly go underground, so to speak, and start using encrypted social media platforms or encrypted means of communication. They’ve now found each other, associated, and formed these groups. Now comes the phase that we’re worried about from a law enforcement and a societal perspective. These known groups are going to communicate and make plans and strategies.

If law enforcement and, to some extent, our private sector partners lose the ability to monitor and find those bad actors, that’s a very dangerous situation.

Every year, the numbers of cases the FBI and other law enforcement agencies identify through social media increase by an incredible percentage. It’s thousands of terrorism cases, not hundreds. It’s a growing problem, and it’s not as easy as saying “ban those platforms” or “ban the internet.”

Wexler: Would you characterize January 6 as domestic terrorism? And do we have more to fear from inside the country than outside the country?

Ehrie: As somebody who worked and managed domestic terrorism investigations, this is the most clear-cut example of domestic terrorism that we’ve seen in recent years. By its very definition, it’s the use of violence or the threat of physical violence to support your ideology. Nobody can look at what just happened on January 6 and say it does not meet that definition completely.

I’m concerned with the possibility that we’re seeing a different kind of domestic terrorism,  where all these different ideologies are coming together in support of a new ideology. In this case, it’s support of President Trump or those belief systems that he promotes. We’re seeing a group form. We will be dealing with this ideology for the next several years at a minimum.

But as law enforcement and intelligence professionals, we can never afford to take our eyes off the old threats. The threat of international terrorism is always out there. The farther we get from other tragic attacks, like 9/11, people tend to think that’s gone away or is over. But attacks start to occur when we take our eye off that ball, so to speak.

So this is going to stretch our national’s law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. We’re not replacing a threat, we’re adding a new one or increasing an existing one. It’s a tough situation to be going into. But the more we understand it, the better we can get our arms around it, mitigate the threat, and keep the community safer.


Professor David Schanzer, Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University

Chuck Wexler: What was your reaction when you saw the events on January 6?

Professor Schanzer: I was not shocked, because we’ve seen a growing right-wing terrorism threat in this country for at least 10 years. It’s becoming more emboldened. You had the kidnapping plot of the Michigan governor not very long ago. Here in North Carolina we’ve had protests against COVID regulations, which included people with long guns walking willfully around the capital city. And we’ve had more individual homegrown incidents, such as mass shootings inspired by right-wing ideology. You combine that with the post-election rhetoric coming from the President and many of his supporters.

In terrorism, you see a combination of grievance and mobilization. Grievance has been growing and creating this movement among white supremacists and extremists about the loss of power for a long time. To mobilize, you had the claim of a stolen election. You have people who are concerned about the direction society is going in – “we are losing power to other people” – and then somebody says, “We had power and we’ve lost it, because these elements we are fearful of stole it from us through corruption and unfairness.”

Then you have that amplified through the megaphone of the White House and spread through all these social media and other communications channels. Violence was predictable.

Wexler: Who were some of the major groups involved in this event?

Professor Schanzer:  As Greg said, there were well-known leaders of right-wing groups like the Proud Boys. You definitely had the neo-Nazi element, which you could see on some of the t-shirts referring to Auschwitz. You had neo-Confederates. You had people from more of a militia, anti-government perspective.

I think it’s important to add QAnon to this mix. In many ways it’s different from a lot of these grievance-based groups that have narratives that, while largely hyped and false, do have elements of truth in them. For example, it’s true that the power of the white majority in the United States is weakening as the country becomes more diverse. That’s an element of truth that’s driving this grievance.

But QAnon is different, because it seems to be a phenomenon that’s based 100% on falsehood, mistruth, and deep, deep conspiracy theories. The idea that these mistruths and conspiracy theories, rather than grievance, can drive individuals to violence is, to me, something new in the history of violent extremism. I don’t think we necessarily understand it very well yet, but this is a new, disturbing, and incredibly widespread phenomenon. We have QAnon people who have now been elected as members of Congress. We have to come to grips with this new phenomenon, which is a big problem.

Wexler: How would you describe QAnon?

Professor Schanzer: To me, it feels more like a cult than a terrorist movement. But the idea that they mobilized and participated in a mass violence action suggests that it’s more than a cult. I don’t know how to characterize it, frankly, and I don’t think experts in society and law enforcement have come to grips with it yet.

Wexler: How do people go from exercising their First Amendment rights to violent actions?

Professor SchanzerOther than the Charlottesville rally, what we’ve seen through the Trump era is one or two individuals, people we would call “lone wolves,” who internalized these messages and took them to the next level themselves and engaged in violence. Examples include El Paso, the California synagogue shooting, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Their ideology was wrapped into the same ideology you saw at the Capitol. But those were one or two individuals.

January 6 was different because it was a mass violence event.  And it didn’t begin on November 3, when Trump lost the election. The President was spreading the idea of a false and stolen election for many months before the election took place. When you see those videos of large numbers of people trying to beat a police officer to death, that, to me, is mass mobilization. That’s what’s different here. We have something bigger on our hands than I think we realized even 10 days ago.

Wexler:  Did it surprise you that these groups would turn on the police?

Professor Schanzer: I think there was a mixture of people there. As Greg said, they held in common the idea of the election being stolen and power slipping from their hands. Some opportunists, who had nothing to do with Trump or politics, had a sense that this was an opportunity.

So there were many different strands and different things happening. I believe some of the rioters were probably deeply surprised by the violence against the police and were not in favor of it. For others, that was a deep part of their ideology. For the Boogaloo Boys and others, part of their ideology is anti-government and anti-police.

I think there’s evidence that some of these ideologies have been appealing to former military members. We know that some members of law enforcement have been attracted by the QAnon ideas and are part of that movement, though I’m not saying they were engaged in the violence.

I don’t think we should generalize, because this was an unruly mob, in their behavior, thoughts, ideas, and purposes for being there.

Wexler:  What does this all mean for police? How should police be preparing for demonstrations in the future?

Professor Schanzer:  Short term, I think this is not under control at this point. We have a pretty mobilized movement, and they saw what they consider partial success. I agree with Greg that they’ll be inspired by the success that they overcame the police and gained access to the target.

But they failed in their ultimate objective, which was to stop the electoral process from going forward. I commend the Congressional leaders and the Vice President, who went back later that same day and returned to their work. That was extremely important.

And now they’re seeing the consequences of a large-scale law enforcement investigation and prosecution. I think that’s critically important to send a strong message that society will tolerate free speech, but when the line is crossed to violence, society insists the rule of law be enforced. I think some of these people are shocked that investigations and prosecutions are even happening. They saw it as their right to violate the law and break into the Capitol to try to stop what they thought was a stolen election from happening. They saw that as part of their liberties. I think prosecution is important.

For law enforcement, first of all, this is a large-scale movement. I think they’ll have to prepare, as they have in the past. They know how to deal with large-scale and national security-level events. They’ll have to do that more and more frequently, including around state capitol buildings.

Secondly, police have a new challenge on their hands. It will have to be dealt with the way police operate, which is using intelligence to identify perpetrators, using all the tools at their disposal to understand their intentions, act preemptively whenever possible, and, when episodes occur, to investigate and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. That’s what law enforcement does.

I think those tools are very much available and will be used to take the steam out of this particular movement.

And I think it will be helpful to have a change in the leadership of the country that will set a new tone and work to take the virulence out of the movement. That doesn’t mean it will disappear, by any means. But I think it may become less prevalent.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.