POLITICS

Arrests Of Far-Right Militia Members Reveal Extent Of Extremists' Role In Capitol Riot

Charges against anti-government extremists and pro-Trump gang members show a coordinated attack on the democratic process.

At least a dozen people associated with far-right groups and militias in multiple states have been charged for their roles in the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol ― a number likely to grow as authorities continue to make arrests. 

On Wednesday, federal authorities arrested Joe Biggs, a prominent member of the far-right Proud Boys gang, who will face at least three charges related to his participation in the riot. On Tuesday, prosecutors charged three rioters associated with the Oath Keepers militia on several counts related to the siege, including criminal conspiracy. Days earlier, an Indiana man surrendered to authorities after footage from the attack showed him wearing an “Oath Keepers Lifetime Member” hat and allegedly attacking Capitol police with bear spray. Others charged include far-right extremists associated with the Three Percenters militia and other so-called Patriot movement groups. 

The charges give a clearer look at how organized paramilitary groups — along with white supremacists, far-right gang members and QAnon conspiracists — played a key role in the attempt to overturn the presidential election. The anti-government extremist movement closely aligned itself with President Donald Trump while he was in office; even though he’s now gone, members of this movement and other far-right groups are positioned to be a domestic terror threat for years to come.

In the charging affidavit released on Tuesday against Oath Keeper Thomas Caldwell and associated militia members Donovan Crowl and Jessica Watkins, the FBI stated that the group coordinated their trip to D.C. with the intent of supporting Trump’s anti-democratic bid to remain in power. In Facebook posts and other messages days before the siege, Caldwell rallied other militia members with extremist fantasies of mass action against the government.

“It begins for real Jan 5 and Jan 6 on Washington D.C. when we mobilize in the streets. Let them try to certify some crud on capitol hill with a million or more patriots in the streets. This kettle is set to boil,” Caldwell said in a Facebook comment on Dec. 31. 

During the attack on the Capitol, Caldwell and other militia members were part of a group wearing tactical combat gear who communicated in real time about their movements and plans. According to the charging affidavit, eight to 10 militia members in Oath Keepers paraphernalia were moving in an “organized and practiced fashion” as they forced their way to the front of a crowd at one of the Capitol doors.

Proud Boys outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the day of the attack on the Capitol building.
Proud Boys outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the day of the attack on the Capitol building.

“Us storming the castle. Please share … I am such an instigator!” Caldwell said in a Facebook message along with a video of him at the Capitol. He added in another message less than a minute later: “We need to do this at the local level. Let’s storm the capitol in Ohio. Tell me when!”

Watkins and Crowl took video selfies in combat gear as they celebrated in the Capitol rotunda, and prosecutors said they reviewed audio messages in which Watkins talked with an unknown male who told her to begin arresting elected officials for treason. The charging affidavit also alleges that Caldwell received Facebook messages during the riot that told him where he could find lawmakers and encouraged him to target them. 

“All members are in tunnels under the capital seal them in. Turn on the gas,” one message said. 

In Biggs’ charging document, prosecutors noted that Biggs and other Proud Boys also appeared to have walkie-talkie style devices that could be used for real-time communication and coordination.

Caldwell, Watkins and Crowl face multiple counts that include conspiracy to injure or impede an officer, violent entry or disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an official government proceeding. Michael R. Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C., said last week that investigators are reviewing extremist groups’ involvement in the riot and federal officials are reportedly considering sedition charges against some rioters.  

A Longstanding Threat 

The insurrection in D.C. was in some ways a culmination of what the anti-government militia movement has threatened for years. 

It goes back decades, drawing inspiration from the violent standoffs with federal law enforcement in Waco and Ruby Ridge, and expanding throughout the 1990s. Far-right militias gained momentum during the Obama administration, as right-wing conspiracy theories like birtherism and imminent martial law went mainstream. Groups like the Oath Keepers ― which claims to be made up primarily of former law enforcement and military members ― and the Three Percenters became a ubiquitous presence at gun rights and anti-immigration rallies, and aligned themselves with Trump’s presidential run. 

These far-right militia groups took on a new role once Trump was elected, viewing themselves as his defenders and making up part of his far-right base, which also included white nationalists and QAnon supporters. His tacit approval of these groups and his promotion of conspiracy theories about a “deep state” acting against him also appealed directly to the core, long-standing beliefs of the anti-government movement, especially when Trump claimed the election was stolen from him.

“There is this overarching conspiracism within anti-government extremism and [it] leads them to see secret plots by nefarious actors all over the place,” said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at University of Albany and the author of a book about the Oath Keepers.

“When Donald Trump starts saying in the aftermath of the election that it was rigged or it was stolen or there was electoral fraud or other forms of illegitimacy, that taps into that long-standing conspiracy.”

These better prepared and more radicalized anti-government groups can act as a catalyst, prompting violence and chaos at right-wing demonstrations.

As President Joe Biden begins his term, far-right extremism and anti-government militias stand as one of the most pressing security threats facing the country, and one that right-wing media and many Republican officials still downplay. 

In the past year alone, authorities have charged multiple militia members and violent extremists with plots that include a paramilitary group’s attempt to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) and a neo-Nazi’s plan to blow up a Missouri hospital. Days prior to Biden’s inauguration, the FBI arrested a supporter of the Proud Boys who was allegedly stockpiling weapons for an attack.

One of the potential lessons from the failed insurrection at the Capitol, Jackson said, is that these better prepared and more radicalized anti-government groups can act as a catalyst, prompting violence and chaos at right-wing demonstrations.

“It suggests possible areas of concern for the future, which is the possibility of a small minority that’s ready for action mobilizing a much larger group,” said Jackson.

What happens next for the far-right militia movement depends on whether law enforcement, social media platforms and other entities that have allowed them to grow decide to take a tougher line, according to those who’ve studied the far right, as well as whether Trump’s post-presidency acts as a unifying and motivating force for right-wing extremists. 

Trump has talked with associates about the possibility of starting his own political organization called the “Patriot party,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The potential party not only shares its name with the extremist militia movement, it is also explicitly what many on the far-right were publicly calling for after the riot. 

But on Wednesday, some members of the anti-government movement that Trump emboldened had already begun to turn against him. The leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, declared on the far-right conspiracy outlet InfoWars that “Trump actually failed.” Rhodes told his supporters that it was time to reject the Biden administration as illegitimate and “prepare to defend yourselves.”