FBI warns of increasing extremist threats to the 2020 elections

The FBI is warning police nationwide to expect an increase in election-related threats — and, potentially, violent attacks — from domestic extremists, according to a recent bulletin reviewed by Yahoo News.

Domestic violent extremists “across the ideological spectrum likely will continue to plot against government and election-related targets to express their diverse grievances involving government policies and actions,” the FBI says in a recent election-focused bulletin sent to law enforcement across the country.

Protestors exchange words and rude gestures in front of the Ohio Statehouse during a right-wing protest "Stand For America Against Terrorists and Tyrants" at State Capitol on July 18, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters exchange words and rude gestures in front of the Ohio Statehouse during a right-wing protest on July 18. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

The FBI document says that as of the beginning of August, the bureau has observed violent extremists “threatening 2020 political candidates or events, including threats against current candidates for President, presidential conventions, and counter protestors at campaign rallies, as well as individuals committing arson or sending threatening packages targeting political party offices.”

Those threats, the FBI document continues, “likely will increase as the election approaches, despite the current focus of many [domestic violent extremists] on the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest.”

This uptick in threats is coming from some of the same groups that showed up at protests in recent months looking for opportunities to become violent, according to Nate Snyder, a former Obama counterterrorism official who reviewed the FBI bulletin.

“There’s real concern that violence is going to escalate with these domestic terrorist groups with the election coming up,” Snyder told Yahoo News.

Snyder pointed to doubts already being planted about the validity of the election, which could motivate some groups to take matters into their own hands, a concern also reflected in the FBI bulletin.

“My biggest fear is that the White House and the president, coming up to Election Day, is that they’ll be saying we need to protect our elections, protect our polls,” Snyder said. “Then we’re going to see these groups potentially showing up at polling stations, and you’ll see voter intimidation and suppression.”

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his list of potential Supreme Court nominees in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on September 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills/Getty Images)
President Trump announces his list of potential Supreme Court nominees at the White House on Wednesday. (Doug Mills/Getty Images)

While the bulletin, which is dated Aug. 21, refers only to extremists and does not specify left- or right-wing groups, two of the cases cited in the document are individuals or groups concerned about a potential Trump electoral loss. The FBI refers to one case from this summer when “members of a self-described violent extremist militia” discussed plans to attack elected officials or storm “the state capitol building while the legislature was in session, with the intent to kill all inside.

“Members stated the need to act prior to a possible democratic presidential administration, due to the belief that stricter firearms regulations would be enacted quickly thereafter, according to FBI reporting,” the bulletin states.

In a separate case from late last year, an unnamed Ohio-based extremist discussed plans to set off a homemade bomb in the hopes of starting a race war. The extremist, the FBI bulletin reads, “stated an intent for his group of followers to be operationally ready for the 2024 election, based on a belief that the President would win re-election in 2020; if the President did not win in 2020, however, the plan would be accelerated, according to FBI reporting.”

Though the FBI does not identify the individuals involved in those threats, the document indicates that investigations are ongoing.

Another case cited in the bulletin is an incident from February of this year, when a man drove his car into a Republican-run voter registration event. The man later reportedly told investigators he was motivated by a dislike of President Trump.

In August, Yahoo News reported that a former top Trump counterterrorism official was worried that a Trump defeat could prompt right-wing extremists to commit violent attacks. In that case, however, the former official specifically identified white supremacist and other right-wing terror groups as the main threat.

On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee released a whistleblower complaint filed by a Department of Homeland Security official who alleges he was told to downplay intelligence that would make Trump look bad, such as threats from white supremacists.

The FBI, in response to queries from Yahoo News, declined to discuss the bulletin. “While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI routinely shares information with our law enforcement partners in order to assist in protecting the communities they serve,” a spokesperson wrote.

The FBI report was prepared by the bureau’s counterterrorism and criminal divisions and Cincinnati field office and circulated as the Republican National Conventional was underway. However, it’s unclear what local law enforcement could do with this information.

“I put myself in the place of a young police officer trying to protect his community and reading this report,” said former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert Michael German, who reviewed the FBI bulletin. “It really doesn’t provide anything to do other than to be afraid.”

German, who is a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice, questioned the utility of the bulletin for local police responsible for responding to such threats.

“There’s nothing about preparing law enforcement for the threat or what to look for. It is just saying bad things will happen.”


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