Homeland Security worries extremists 'emboldened' by Capitol riots may cause more violence

Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
·3 min read

The Department of Homeland Security Wednesday warned of a continuing threat posed by domestic extremists, cautioning that a "heightened threat environment" across the country would likely persist into the spring.

The bulletin, issued by acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske, said there was no current evidence of a specific plot, yet authorities "remain concerned that individuals frustrated with the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition ... could continue to mobilize a broad range of ideologically motivated actors to incite or commit violence."

Three weeks after the Capitol attack, Pekoske's national advisory stated that extremists harboring a volatile mix of grievances "may be emboldened" by the Jan. 6 attack to target elected officials and government property.

U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

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The bulletin recalled the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which the attacker told police that he had targeted Mexicans as emblematic of "racial and ethnic tension, including opposition to immigration," which has driven violent attacks by domestic extremists.

"Threats of violence against critical infrastructure, including the electric, telecommunications and healthcare sectors, increased in 2020 with violent extremists citing misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 for their actions," the bulletin stated.

The announcement comes three days after The Associated Press reported that federal law enforcement officials are examining threats to attack members of Congress during travel to and from the Capitol complex during the former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

The threats and concerns that armed protesters could return to sack the Capitol anew prompted the Capitol Police and other federal law enforcement to insist thousands of National Guard troops remain in Washington as the Senate moves forward with Trump’s trial, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

On Tuesday, federal authorities detailed a far-reaching investigation into the Capitol siege, which has grown to include more than 400 potential suspects, some of whom are likely to face charges of sedition.

"We are working on those (sedition) cases," said Michael Sherwin, the chief federal prosecutor overseeing the inquiry, adding that officials expect the investigations to "bear fruit very soon."

The charges, which could carry a maximum punishment of 20 years, would be among the most serious for those in the armed attack to disrupt Congress' counting of President Joe Biden's state-certified electoral victory.

"These cases are moving at a very rapid clip," the prosecutor said, referring to a flurry of 500 subpoenas and search warrants issued in support of the inquiry. "There is no manpower issue here. ... Everyone is all-in on these cases."

Domestic terrorists

White supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted 67% of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. It also noted anarchist, anti-fascist, and other like-minded attacks and plots comprised 20% of U.S. terrorist incidents in 2020, an increase from 8% in 2019.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., said the DHS bulletin was a necessary step to highlight a long-standing threat.

"The domestic terrorism attack on our Capitol earlier this month shined a light on a threat that has been right in front of our faces for years," Thompson said. "I am glad to see that DHS fully recognizes the threat posed by violent, right-wing extremists, and is taking efforts to communicate that threat to the American people.

"I hope this is the first step of many to rein in violent domestic terrorists who were emboldened over the last four years. There is no place in our society for their violence or their lies," the chairman said, adding that the bulletin also underscored the urgency for the Senate to act on the confirmation of Alejandro Mayorkas, nominated by Biden to lead DHS.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Extremists may pose 'heightened threat' nationwide through spring