Election Day could trigger extremists: officials

With Election Day approaching, law enforcement in the U.S. is preparing for a range of potential threats, from spontaneous acts of violence to more organized, planned attacks.

More than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials told Reuters that the country's worsening political polarization, rising agitation over lockdowns, and high unemployment are a toxic brew that could erupt in the coming days, with one former official saying the election could serve as a ‘trigger’ for extremists.

And these potential perpetrators range from lone actors to extremist groups, including those that are racially motivated, anti-authority and militias.

Former DHS counterterrorism adviser Thomas Plofchan, who left the department in January says the challenge is differentiating between ‘bluster and action’ as the internet is flooded with content.

"We live in a time where people are radicalized to violence, not only to the actually committing acts of violence, but move from a relatively normal state of mind to a radicalized ideology very quickly. And so that creates a lot of challenges for law enforcement, not only in terms of identity, identifying individuals who represent a threat, but also identifying individuals who not only perhaps espouse a hateful ideology, which, as abhorrent it may be is not necessarily illegal, but are actually then making that movement from talking to acting in a violent manner."

According to Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, far-right actors, including white supremacists and anti-government activists, were responsible for the majority of the 61 alleged extremist plots and attacks in the United States during the first eight months of this year.

“This election season certainly looks different than the previous years.”

Shawn Brokos is a former FBI agent who coordinated the agency’s response to the October 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshippers, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.

The alleged gunman was not known to police which serves as a stark reminder of the difficulties that U.S. law enforcement agencies face.

"As it stands now, there are no direct threats, at least we are aware of. But I do feel confident within the Pittsburgh law enforcement community and intelligence community that if there is anything, we will be made aware. But certainly everybody is, I can tell you they're nervous. They're very nervous."

Police departments in major cities across the country say they are planning to put more officers on the streets or on standby around the election if trouble erupts.

Several right-wing, militia and anti-government groups told Reuters they do not plan to police the polls, but will be on standby if chaos ensues after the election.

One institution hoping for a clear-cut result is the military. U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been adamant about the military staying out of the way if there is a contested ballot.

But President Trump – who has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power – has threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to mobilize troops on American streets to put down unrest.

Video Transcript

- With Election Day approaching, law enforcement in the US is preparing for a range of potential threats, from spontaneous acts of violence to more organized planned attacks.

More than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials told Reuters that the country's worsening political polarization, rising agitation over lockdowns, and high unemployment are a toxic brew that could erupt in the coming days, with one former official saying the election could serve as a, quote, "trigger for extremists."

And these potential perpetrators range from lone actors to extremist groups, including those that are racially motivated, anti-authority, and militias.

Former DHS counterterrorism advisor Thomas Plofchan, who left the department in January, says the challenge is differentiating between bluster and action, as the internet is flooded with content.

THOMAS PLOFCHAN: We live in a time where people are radicalized to violence, not only to actually committing acts of violence, but move from a relatively normal state of mind to a radicalized ideology very quickly. And so that creates a lot of challenges for law enforcement, not only in terms of identifying individuals who represent a threat, but also identifying individuals who not only, perhaps, espouse a hateful ideology, which as abhorrent as it may be, is not necessarily illegal, but are actually then making that movement from talking to acting in a violent manner.

- According to the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, far-right actors, including white supremacists and anti-government activists, were responsible for the majority of the 61 alleged extremist plots and attacks in the United States during the first eight months of this year.

- So this election season certainly looks different than the previous years.

- Shawn Brokos is a former FBI agent who coordinated the agency's response to the October 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshippers, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history. The alleged gunman was not known to police, which serves as a stark reminder of the difficulties that US law enforcement agencies face.

- As it stands now, there are no direct threats, at least we are aware of. But I do feel confident within the Pittsburgh law enforcement community and intelligence community that if there is anything, we will be made aware. But certainly, everybody is-- I can tell you they're nervous. They're very nervous.

- Police departments in major cities across the country say they are planning to put more officers on the streets or on standby around the election if trouble erupts. Several right-wing militia and anti-government groups told Reuters that they do not plan to police the polls, but will be on standby if chaos ensues after the election.

One institution hoping for a clear-cut result is the military. US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been adamant about the military staying out of the way if there is a contested ballot.

But President Trump, who has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, has threatened to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to mobilize troops on American streets to put down unrest.