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Nearly 90% of the people charged in the Capitol riot so far have no connection with militias or other organized extremist groups, according to a new analysis that adds to the understanding of what some experts have dubbed the “mass radicalization” of Trump supporters.
A report from George Washington University’s Center on Extremism has analyzed court records about cases that have been made public. It found that more than half of people facing federal charges over the 6 January attack appear to have planned their participation alone, not even coordinating with family members or close friends. Only 33 of the 257 alleged participants appear to have been part of existing “militant networks”, including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers anti-government militia.
The dominance of these “individual believers” among the alleged attackers underscored the importance of understanding the Capitol violence as part of a “diverse and fractured domestic extremist threat”, and highlighted the ongoing risk of lone actor terror attacks, the George Washington researchers concluded.
Other analysts have argued the Capitol attackers should be understood as “not merely a mix of rightwing organizations, but as a broader mass movement with violence at its core”.
‘Mass radicalization becomes mass mobilization’
While individuals associated with far-right networks were critical in escalating the violence at the Capitol, the report found that members of organized extremist groups make up only a small minority of the people charged so far.
About a third of the people charged were part of “organized clusters” of family members or friends who planned their participation together. These small groups allegedly include a father and son from Delaware, a mother and son from Tennessee, several husband and wife pairs, two brothers from Montana, and a group of acquaintances from Texas, including Jenna Ryan, a real estate broker, who took a private plane to Washington together to storm the capitol.
The existence of these clusters of participants “demonstrates the importance of involvement in friendship or kinship networks as a key factor in encouraging increasingly extreme beliefs and high-risk, often violent, activism”, the report notes.
But the largest category of alleged rioters, according to the report, was a “hodgepodge” of individuals with a variety of extremist beliefs who made plans to come to the rally, originally billed as a “Stop the Steal” protest, on their own, and had no documented connections to existing groups, or even to small clusters of other Trump supporters. These “inspired believers” included adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, as well as people who simply believed the false claims of Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers that the election had been stolen from Trump and wanted to do something about it.
Michael Jensen, a senior researcher who specializes in radicalization at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said the results of the analysis were not surprising.
“What we witnessed on January 6 wasn’t a one-off extremist plot,” he said. “We witnessed an instance of mass radicalization which turned into an instance of mass mobilization.”
Trump’s “big lie” about election fraud, repeated for months across social media and traditional media platforms, had succeeded in radicalizing “potentially millions of individuals who have collectively adopted an extremist viewpoint” about the legitimacy of the election, Jensen said.
“We’re seeing a lot of folks [charged] who look like pretty normal people,” he said. “They tend to be older individuals, that were married, with families, that had jobs. These are not hardcore extremists. These are individuals who got caught in a really extraordinary circumstance.”
Many of the unaffiliated people charged in the attack might not have even known what an Oath Keeper or a Proud Boy was, Jensen said, “but they know who the president is … and the president was providing a narrative of fraud”.
A different analysis of court records by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, looking at 290 arrests connected to the Capitol attack, found very similar results to the George Washington University report, including that only 12% of alleged participants were part of militias or other organized violent groups.
This initial data revealed, the Chicago analysts wrote, that “‘normal’ pro-Trump activists joined with the far right to form a new kind of violent mass movement”.
The Chicago report also warned that typical counter-terrorism approaches, such as arresting members of dangerous extremist groups, would not be very effective to confront this complex threat, which may require “de-escalation approaches for anger among large swaths of mainstream society”.
The George Washington University report also revealed how instrumental the alleged rioters’ own social media posts have been to building criminal cases against them. Roughly half of people charged over the riot had their own alleged social media posts used against them as evidence, while about 30% of people charged had “been possibly incriminated” by the social media accounts of friends.