‘Everyone Thinks I’m a Terrorist’: Capitol Riot Fuels Calls for Domestic War on Terror

President Trump will appear on a big screen on January 6 at the Save America Rally, the day Congress should confirm the election victory for his opponent. After his inflammatory speech, rioters stormed the Capitol.
President Trump will appear on a big screen on January 6 at the Save America Rally, the day Congress should confirm the election victory for his opponent. After his inflammatory speech, rioters stormed the Capitol. Photo credits - Peter van Agtmael - Magnum photos for ZEIT
Maryanne Larrea, a young supporter of President Donald Trump, felt the sting of tear gas for the first time in her life on Jan. 6 as she marched among the crowd that caused Trump to storm the Capitol. Larrea, 22, a gun rights activist and Conservative Christian, says she did not go into the building that day. The tear gas was enough to push them away from the front of the mob. But when she returned to Pennsylvania and flipped through the reactions to the violence, she realized she might be in trouble.
"Everyone says it was a terrorist attack," she told TIME about a week after the uprising. "Everyone thinks I'm a terrorist because I was at that event."
And it's not just the people in their news feed. A growing chorus of security experts and politicians has cast the mob or parts of it in terms normally reserved for ISIS and al-Qaeda. Some commentators have even started calling for a new American war on terror against the more radical supporters of President Trump on the right in response to the Capitol uprising.
This has sparked a wider debate about how best to fight right-wing domestic terrorism: with penal laws already on the books, with new powers based on those used to fight Islamic terrorism after 9/11 were created; or a mixture of both. At the same time, there are renewed fears among right-wing advocates that civil liberties, which were eroded after 9/11, will be further diminished.
On Wednesday morning, Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi referred to the rioters, presiding over Trump's impeachment in the House of Representatives, as "domestic terrorists," a phrase that President-elect Joe Biden used to describe them. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Senate minority, has called for them to be placed on a "no-fly list" of terrorist suspects, a measure that the FBI says has been "actively scrutinized". Even veterans of the Trump administration have urged the administration to use the counter-terrorism tools developed in the two decades since September 11 against the perpetrators of the Capitol attack, their supporters, and their staff.
"It's going to be a challenge for generations," said Elizabeth Neumann, who served three years under President Trump as deputy secretary for homeland security overseeing counter-terrorism and threat prevention. "We have to investigate the people who are inciting, the people who take these attacks very seriously, with the same intensity that we did with al-Qaeda."
Since his resignation in April 2020, Neumann has been a vocal critic of the president and his policies. In an interview with TIME, she compared Trump's role in the attack on the Capitol with that of Osama bin Laden on September 11th. "This might be a small step," she says, but for members of the crowd that stormed the Capitol, President Trump was "the spiritual leader that bin Laden was for al-Qaeda. He was that face and that spokesman who did it Has gathered troops. "
Such comparisons indicate a turning point in the debate over terrorism that many security experts have wanted to see for years. According to US government statistics, the majority of fatal extremist incidents in the US are motivated by far-right ideologies, particularly white supremacy. The threat posed by Islamic radicalism, however, constitutes a far larger part of state resources. Heidi Beirich, former head of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls this inequality a sign of the "great hypocrisy" of terrorism in America. "When it comes to white supremacy," she says, "it's a struggle to prove that it is also terrorist violence."
The uprising in the Capitol should change this, at least in the short term. However, civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about costs. Senator Schumer's request to the FBI to put the rioters on a no-fly list "immediately" could violate their right to due process, as has often been the case with suspected jihadists. "I think the government's terrorism blacklists are a cautionary story and not a promising model," Jameel Jaffer, a civil liberties advocate, told Intercept.
Such worrying notes have been muted over the past week. Few of the largest civil liberties organizations in the United States have issued statements urging caution in locating, blacklisting, or prosecuting the Capitol rioters. Speaking to TIME on Thursday, a director of one of these organizations expressed concerns "as a private person" about responding to the uprising with counter-terrorism instruments. "I have serious concerns," he says, asking not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter. “The war on terror was waged in a way that is not only discriminatory but also ineffective. When you profile based on characteristics that are not inherently associated with terrorism, a number of problems arise. "
The dangers that lie in the legal gray area between political speech and incitement to violence are anything but theoretical. Two years after Barack Obama's presidency, the US launched a hellfire missile on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American imam who served as a recruiter for al-Qaeda. The 2011 assassination of Al-Awlaki in Yemen remains a stain on Obama's legacy for many defenders of civil liberties, also because Al-Awlaki's role within the terror network was not to commit acts of violence oneself. "It was an inspiring job," says Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who focuses on counterterrorism. "He instigated."
Among the right-wing extremists in the United States today there are countless radicals who play a similar role and preach violence and hatred to their supporters behind the protection of the constitution. "The United States today is basically the Mecca of white supremacist ideologues," says Soufan. And any attempt to silence them will face even more complex legal challenges than the struggle to stop al-Qaida recruits, not least because the far-right party so easily mingles with more moderate supporters of the US president.
The words and actions of Trump supporters, even if they forego the results of a free and fair election or support demonstrations of force by armed militias, are protected by the Constitution, the first amendment of which guarantees freedom of speech and the freedom to "assemble peacefully". and filing a complaint with the government for redress. "
Rolling back these freedoms has served as a prelude to authoritarianism in other countries, and it is easy to imagine that a future US president might decide to label his opponents as terrorists before depriving them of their fundamental rights. During his presidency, President Trump attempted to label Antifa, a loose group of left radicals, a terrorist organization, a move civil rights groups successfully opposed.
Since the attack on the Capitol, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken a different approach and made it clear that it will not defend the right to protest in the case of the rioters. "The ACLU has always been about the right to protest, the right to speak," said Jeffrey Robinson, its assistant legal director, in a panel discussion on January 8th. "It has nothing to do with protest."
Robinson noted that the target of the riot was not a statue or shop front, but the seat of American Democracy, a chamber that was in the process of confirming the results of a presidential election when it was attacked. Among the crowd involved in the violence were dozens of people whose names are already on a government extremist watch list - the Terrorist Screening Database, an extensive catalog of people identified as potential security threats, according to a report by the Washington Post cited persons who are familiar with the FBI investigation are considered. Vice News reported separately on Thursday that one of Trump's supporters was serving time outside the Capitol on that day to fire-bomb an abortion clinic.
Well-known extremists and terrorist suspects make up a small fraction of the thousands of people Trump tried to march on the Capitol last week. They're even smaller than the president's hardcore supporters. In a YouGov poll released Wednesday, two-thirds of Republicans said January 6th was a "bad" or "tragic" day for America. But 16% of Republicans agreed to take over the Capitol.
Larrea, the young Trump supporter, is just as much a part of this minority as many members of her church group. Known as the Rod of Iron Ministries, the group is as extreme as it gets when they worship the president and his politics. They live in rural Pennsylvania and use AR-15 assault rifles in their religious ceremonies. They believe that Trump's presidency is a godsend for conservative Christians.
The day after the riot, they gathered at the Tommy Gun Warehouse, a huge gun store in Greeley town, to take stock of what had happened at the Capitol. "The people in the Capitol meant the people of the world," says Larrea, summarizing the message of her church leaders. “In a way, we take back, people take the world back from the world's evils. My church talked about that. "
Under normal circumstances, such a declaration would be protected by the first amendment. However, it is less clear how the US judicial system would respect this protection in a war on domestic terrorism. Neumann, the former DHS official, says people marching alongside the mob that stormed the Capitol may also be suspected, if not in legal danger. "Who do you associate with affairs," says Neumann. "If you don't want the violence, don't offer cover for the violence."
As a result, virtually anyone who has heeded Trump's call to march on the Capitol could be accused of providing cover for the resulting violence, and these protesters represent a broad cross-section of Trump's grassroots community. According to a TIME analysis of the symbols and flags they carried, the mob included supporters of pro-Trump conspiracy theories like QAnon, as well as neo-Nazis and white supremacists. However, some of the calls to punish those involved in the insurrection have left little room for these distinctions.
"On January 6, terrorists attacked the United States of America," said Texan Democrat Veronica Escobar on the floor of the house before voting on Wednesday for the charges against President Trump. "Those who came and participated must be found and prosecuted," she said. "Those who have helped and promoted must be found and prosecuted."
From a legal point of view, this would not be easy. Since there is no law against domestic terrorism in the federal books, the FBI has resorted to some strange legal distortions in its efforts to bring terrorism charges against far-right gangs up to speed. In a recent case involving the American right-wing extremist group Boogaloo Bois, undercover FBI agents presented themselves as members of Hamas, a foreign terrorist organization, according to an indictment published in November. It was only after the two Americans discussed plans to work with Hamas that the FBI could accuse them of a terrorism-related crime: conspiracy to provide material support to a certain foreign terrorist organization.
The FBI faces serious legal obstacles in attempting to monitor domestic terrorists, says Thomas Warrick, who was the chief counterterrorism officer in the Department of Homeland Security from 2008 to 2019. “You could monitor terrorists overseas for what they were saying, even if you weren't radicalized into violence. It's a different story domestically, ”says Warrick, now a member of the Atlantic Council. "Constitutional boundaries must be respected."
After the Capitol uprising, pressure has increased on Congress to strengthen law enforcement in the fight against right-wing extremism. Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, plans to reinstate the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which passed last fall but got nowhere in the Senate. The law would create new offices at the FBI, DHS, and Justice Department dedicated to assessing and countering right-wing extremist threats.
If the Biden government is to accept this threat, it must also expel right-wing extremist groups as terrorist organizations, says Soufan, who has long pushed for such expulsions against neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
"They are on a par with the jihadists, if not worse," says Soufan, who was involved in the hunt for bin Laden while serving with the FBI. The response to the Capitol Rebellion reminds him of what happened after 9/11, at least in the way it forced the nation to recognize a threat and respond with violence. "I consider it one of those events in our history," he says, "like Pearl Harbor, like September 11th that woke a sleeping giant."
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