In 2019, the FBI arrested approximately 107 people who were the subjects of domestic terrorism investigations nationwide, according to the FBI. So far in 2020, the FBI has arrested approximately 120 people associated with domestic terrorism matters nationwide, according to Robert Middleton, an FBI assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office.
In Indiana, there are more than 60 domestic terrorism inquiries that are active, according to Middleton, who oversees the FBI’s national security mission for the state. These matters can range from the FBI’s baseline assessment called Guardian up to full investigations, Middleton said.
“Right now, I think we’re looking at north of 1,000 cases bureau-wide,” Middleton said. “I believe there are probably a little north of approximately 120 arrests that would be associated with domestic terrorism matters [nationwide].”
Violence is key
The FBI looks at domestic terrorism in a few key areas including anti-government, anti-authority and racially-motivated extremism, according to Middleton. The anti-government and anti-authority areas can be sub-categorized into militia groups and individuals who consider themselves sovereign citizens, Middleton said. Racially-motivated extremism can include individuals who are advocating violence toward a racial or ethnic group, he said.
What is key about domestic terrorism is violence, according to Middleton, about inciting or causing violence, not about any ideologies or beliefs. That is where the FBI is concerned, he said.
The FBI does not and cannot designate domestic terrorist groups, according to the FBI. Additionally, individuals’ membership in groups that may encourage domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself, no matter how offensive that might be to a majority of society, according to the FBI. Membership in a group also is not a sufficient basis for an investigation to commence.
Some militia groups are anti-government and some are not, according to Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is a nonprofit that monitors the activities of domestic hate groups and extremists in the U.S and publishes an interactive map where users can see hate groups at the state level.
“For the groups that are inherently anti-government, in terms of type, there are groups that are very active in terms of paramilitary training,” Goldwasser said. “So those groups will go out regularly and train either with their units, like the greater organization, or they’ll go out with other militias as well. A lot of that [training] is firearms training, for instance.”
Goldwasser said that most militias have some sort of military hierarchy, regardless of whether or not their members were in the military at any point, and the groups that do have a military hierarchy are more likely to do paramilitary training. Many of the groups also have members who are veterans who can assist with the training, but not every group has that, she said. There also are groups that are mainly online, according to Goldwasser, with members who just talk over social media but don’t often go out.
Goldwasser said Indiana probably has 10 active militias. She said the SPLC uses a specific set of criteria in order to list them as active, including whether or not they are holding meetings, are out at protests, and have videos that show they are recruiting. This year a lot of groups are either not doing these things or are doing these things where the SPLC cannot see them, Goldwasser said.
There also are groups that are conspiracy theory-oriented, according to Goldwasser. Some conspiracy theory-oriented groups look at past events and create their own version of reality around those events, Goldwasser said.
There also are groups that are motivated by the QAnon conspiracy, Goldwasser said. QAnon is an umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that falsely allege that the world is run by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against President Donald Trump while operating a global sex trafficking ring, according to The New York Times.
One of the newer movements that the SPLC has seen is the “Boogaloo” movement, Goldwasser said. The movement’s name comes from a 1980s breakdancing movie, according to USA TODAY.
Boogaloo is a meme that emerged in the early 2010s in both anti-government and white power spaces online, according to the SPLC. The main idea behind the movement is that there is going to be a civil war, Goldwasser said.
“Boogaloos are … diverse in their thinking, in their ethnicities, although the vast majority, I think are white. But … there are people that are minority [as well],” Goldwasser said. “So you have full white nationalist Boogaloos, who are supportive of a civil war for various reasons, usually related, obviously, to their white nationalism, and then you have anti-government Boogaloo.”
Some of the people who would be considered anti-government Boogaloo are anti-police, Goldwasser said. They are not just against the police as a systemic force or against particular agencies, but against the police period, and they feel that rising up and having a war would be something that would end police as people see them today, she said.
Many people in the movement who are anti-government do not want to see the systems that are in place maintained, so their idea is to have a complete revolution, Goldwasser said. Many members of the Boogaloo movement are also against making any sort of reforms to gun laws as they are today, she said. According to Goldwasser, the idea in how this revolution could start or what they do during it is often violent, which makes them problematic.
The SPLC has seen a number of individuals in the movement often use the hashtag or term ‘Boogaloo,’ Goldwasser said. They also wear Hawaiian shirts, which is one of the ways they identify themselves, and often carry firearms, she said. Some members have planned acts of violence or carried them out, but a number of them have been foiled, she said.
Those in the Boogaloo movement have a lot of crossover with anti-government groups because of their ideology, however the Boogaloos’ disenchantment with the government comes from a different place, Goldwasser said. The Boogaloo movement has also been co-opted by members of the anti-government movement, she said. Despite this, the end result can be the same for the most violent members.
When it comes to the Second Amendment, a lot of these groups believe they should be able to own any firearm, Goldwasser said. The issue is not so much about the right to bear arms, which is constitutional and is not something the SPLC speaks out against, the issue is that they don’t want any limitation at all, even if violence is perpetrated against innocent people, she said.
Goldwasser said that these groups have the notion that the U.S. government, or sometimes the United Nations, is going to take away their guns. For the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, they are not pushing against this extreme position. The concern is when the groups take these extreme positions and extremist ideas that can lead to extreme activities, she said.
A large number of Americans are disenchanted with some part, or everything, about the government system, according to Goldwasser. However, most people assemble together peacefully or vote to be heard, including some of these groups. Some of the groups the SPLC looks at are problematic because they may not stop with peaceful mechanisms and have the potential to go beyond those mechanisms, and into violence, Goldwasser said.
“They [groups] have the real potential to go beyond that,” Goldwasser said. “Whether it’s like a standoff with government officials, whether it’s something like [the] Oklahoma City Bombing, whether it’s what we saw in Kenosha, [Wisconsin] with the shooting [of] protesters, there’s a real potential that they will choose violence as an option on the menu, whereas the average American would not do that.”
Militias and the upcoming election
As we head toward the November election, a variety of things could happen with militia groups, according to Goldwasser. If Democratic Presidential Candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden were to be elected, Goldwasser said she hypothesized that there would be a repeat of how these groups reacted when former President Barack Obama was elected.
After Obama’s first election, there was racial animus in social media posts from militia groups, individuals and members, Goldwasser said. This time around, Biden has been cast as a socalist or someone who will endorse Marxism within the sphere of the right-wing internet, and some of these groups are picking up that impression, she said.
Some of these groups think that Biden is going to end the police as we know it today, Goldwasser said. She said this is ironic because some of the groups are anti-government and anti-police, yet a lot of them have “backed the blue” or taken stances against victims of police brutality.
The groups also could rebel against a potential Biden presidency or come out in support of Trump if the election results were in question, Goldwasser said. A lot of the groups are pro-Trump, but not all of them, she said. They also could come out for issues such as gun rights, if Biden is elected, she said.
Goldwasser said that if Trump is reelected, there could possibly be more of what is happening now, with militia groups coming out to counter-protest the Black Lives Matter movement or the protests relating to the taking down Confederate monuments. These groups also could come out in greater numbers, and the militias that are quieter right now could become more active, she said.
Lone actors are the greatest threat
The biggest threat to the U.S. when it comes to terrorism is lone actors, according to Middleton. The threat caused by lone actors cuts through the FBI’s entire terrorism portfolio, he said.
“Those individuals [lone actors] … that are mostly self-radicalized primarily through online activities [and] who pursue violence … [against] what we would categorize as soft targets, using any type of weapons available,” Middleton said.
Nationwide, the FBI has seen individuals who have identified themselves in various groups, including groups that could be considered left- or right-leaning, Middleton said. These individuals that join these groups have been advocating for violence and do not reflect the entire group, however, Middleton said. The FBI would typically categorize them more as opportunists who are using the current environment and the peaceful groups’ activities as a cover to advocate their own violent agenda, he said.
When it comes to the recent protests, Middleton said the vast majority of individuals are exercising their right to protest as guaranteed by the First Amendment and students should not be afraid or concerned that the FBI is watching them when they go to protests.
The FBI cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or the exercise of First Amendment rights, according to the FBI. When things rise to a level of violence where people could potentially get hurt, however, that is when the FBI has significant issues, Middleton said.
“The fundamental mission of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States, and we take that oath and that mission very seriously,” Middleton said.
Anytime there is a national election, there is always a concern about election security, especially given today’s environment, according to Middleton. The FBI is uniquely positioned to deal with election security from both cybersecurity and physical perspectives, Middleton said. In terms of the physical perspective, every FBI office is partnered with their respective state’s secretary of state office for election security, he said.
“… Here in Indiana, we are in close relationship with them [the Indiana Secretary of State’s office] to ensure, and do what we can as appropriate to ensure, the integrity of the election as well as with our other state and local partners … address any type of physical threats [that may] include any type of violent unrest or violent activity by anyone regarding the outcome of the election,” Middleton said.
When it comes to most homegrown violent extremism in the U.S., Middleton said, someone knew about it ahead of time, whether it is a family member or friend. He said if someone had reported it earlier, the FBI could have engaged with individuals sooner, before any law enforcement action or terrorism charges occured.
While there is no domestic terrorism statute, if people see anything they feel rises to the level of potential violence, they should report it sooner rather than later to the appropriate authorities, Middleton said. He said the FBI will take a hard look at the report if it comes to their attention.