White riot: The threat from domestic violent extremism

A group tied to the Boogaloo Bois holds a rally as they carry firearms at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on October 17, 2020. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

As the political extremes have taken center stage in American life, domestic violent extremism has become the greatest threat to national security.   

But what do you do when the enemy is part of America? And when does political extremism cross the line into domestic terrorism?  

"There is a fine line there," said Michael Paul, Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis FBI. "But it is a very hard line for us, in that we don’t police thought, we don’t police ideology."  

Paul came to the Minneapolis FBI in September with a long resume in fighting domestic terrorism and counterintelligence. He is also conscious of the First Amendment and its protections for freedom of speech.   

"You realize at the end of the day it does not take a very sophisticated plan or plot in order to do some real damage and inflict some serious violence," Paul said.   

It is a threat that is often difficult to predict and anticipate. 

"Without question our greatest risk for the potential for violence comes from a lone offender," he added.   

But critics argue the FBI has long ignored the domestic terror threat from white supremacist groups and is now playing catch-up.   

Connecting the Dots  

"Today, the FBI can’t even tell you how many people white supremacists killed last year, because they don’t collect that information," said Michael German, a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice.    

In the 1990’s German was a Special Agent with the FBI assigned to go deep undercover in white supremacist and militant groups. He left the FBI in 2004 after a 16-year career, alleging mismanagement in its counterterrorism operations.   

White supremacist groups pretend to support law enforcement, German said, despite the fact they kill police officers.   

"A ‘Blue Lives Matter’ patch on their jacket was just a rouse, and that law enforcement didn’t understand that is shocking," he said.    

That blind spot keeps law enforcement from connecting the dots in the movement, German said, between criminal behavior at the ‘Unite the Right Rally’ in Charlottesville four years ago, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.    

"As in Minnesota, there were far right militant groups coming in to engage in the most serious violence during these protests, and yet there was this impression it was the nebulous Antifa that was doing this. It blinded them to what was the real threat," German said.  

It is a concern shared by Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who believes law enforcement relates to the grievances of right-wing extremists.    

"They empathize with it," Hussein said.    

"‘Oh, they’re just angry at government,’ That could be my uncle. That guy looks like my neighbor," he said.  

‘Like a Game’  

Minnesota filmmaker Mason Hendricks has spent the last year documenting protests around the country and across the ideological spectrum, from the sacking of the Third Police Precinct in Minneapolis and the riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to "Stop the Steal" rallies in St. Paul and Washington, D.C.  

"The fascinating part is most of these people have more in common than they think," Hendricks said.    

"They love to go at each other. It’s like a game to them," he said.   

The last year has revealed an entire ecosystem of domestic extremism in America: From militia groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacist, and anti-government conspiracy groups on the right, to anarchist, anti-fascist, and anti-government groups on the left.    

If politics makes for strange bedfellows, the last year has looked like an orgy.   

Federal prosecutors filed 183 domestic terrorism cases in 2020, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). That exceeds the 160 prosecutions in 2002, the year following the 9-11 attacks.  

According to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, right-wing extremist groups accounted for 67 percent of the terror plots and attacks from January through August of 2020, with left-wing groups accounting for 20 percent of the cases.   

Hendricks has noticed a common ideological thread running through extremist groups on the right and the left.  "They believe their way of life is being infringed upon. And they get mad about it," he said.   

"And they’re not willing to accept change.  Change scares people. It radicalizes them," Hendricks said.  

Separating ‘Signal’ from ‘Noise’  

For the FBI, domestic violent extremism presents difficulties in intelligence gathering, especially from chatter on social media, in separating ‘signal’ from ‘noise.’    

What is an aspirational idea versus an operational plot?  

A bulletin sent out by the FBI’s Minneapolis office in December warning of violence from the Boogaloo movement, may illustrate the dilemma.    

First reported by Yahoo News, the bulletin said a ‘collaborative source,’ claimed Boogaloo members had conducted reconnaissance of the Minnesota Capitol, and "identified law enforcement sniper locations and considered breaking into federal buildings for use as firing locations, if fighting occurred."  

"At least one follower expressed his willingness to die for the boogaloo movement," the FBI bulletin said.    

After the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, law enforcement mobilized for similar episodes at the Minnesota Capitol.  Those threats never materialized.    

Hendricks believes the ‘Boogs,’ as he calls them, are sending agents on a wild good chase.     

"That’s someone on the inside and they’ve been fed bad information," Hendricks said.   

Boogaloo Bois & ‘Umbrella Man’  

For federal prosecutors, Michael Solomon and Benjamin Teeter checked all the boxes for domestic terrorism.    

According to a federal indictment, the two self-proclaimed Boogaloo Bois showed up at the George Floyd protests in May, with various ambiguous plans to attack the National Guard Armory, bomb an historical courthouse, or take out a police station.  

Their undoing, prosecutors say, was a plot to send firearm suppressors to the group Hamas, unaware they were really talking to an FBI informant.      

There is also the issue of agent provocateurs, or lone wolves, like ‘Umbrella Man,’ a mysterious figure who broke out the windows of the Auto Zone on May 28, setting off the vandalism that led to the burning of the Third Police Precinct.   

Identified by name in a search warrant as a member of the Aryan Cowboys, nine months later ‘Umbrella Man’ has yet to be charged with a crime. FOX 9 is not identifying the man because he has not been convicted of a crime related to the riots.    

The FOX 9 Investigators discovered he is a member of the Hells Angels. He has criminal convictions for domestic assault and violent confrontations with African Americans.    

Through an attorney, who also represents the Hells Angels, the man denied he is ‘Umbrella Man.’    

A Double Standard?  

The Minnesota Muslim and East African communities have seen both sides of the ‘War on Terrorism,’ and many believe there is often a double standard.    

"We have continued to marginalize people who are marginal, instead of going after the credible threat. And the credible threat can come from someone who looks like you," Hussein of CAIR said. 

In 2017 three members of a para-military group, the White Rabbits, traveled hundreds of miles from central Illinois to use a pipe-bomb on the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota.    

Two of the men plead guilty, a third was convicted in December. All three men face mandatory 35-year prison sentences.      

But the community also had to deal with suspicions in the early 2000s, when about 40 young men were charged with traveling to Somalia and Syria to fight for the terror groups Al Shabaab and ISIS.  

Though the vast majority of the suspects never threatened American soil, many were given long prison sentences under the federal material support for terrorism statute.    

Yet, the questions repeatedly asked of Islamic extremists are seldom asked of domestic violent extremists: How were they radicalized? Who recruited them?     

The answer, Hussein said, is often the same: Self-radicalization from social media, where algorithms amplify division, with friends and neighbors unwittingly aiding and abetting hate, with likes and follows.    

Hussein worries about how easy it has become for Russia and other nations to use social media to exploit the fault lines in the social fabric of America. 

"So, while the public is concerned about Boogaloos and militias, what they should really be concerned with is the person living next door to them who’s being indoctrinated by these so-called freedom loving groups, who are radicalizing their neighbors that Jews and Muslims are taking over and that if we don’t do something we are going to lose our country," Hussein said.  

Minneapolis in March  

Domestic terrorism experts believe right-wing extremists became emboldened by President Trump, but don’t expect them to fade into the shadows now that Trump has left the White House.  

"My concern is hard core element of this group stronger because they’ve been allowed to recruit, test tactics, access to supplies, then would be far more dangerous," German said.    

And chances are the usual suspects all have their calendars marked for Minneapolis in March, and the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin. It is another chance to create confusion and chaos.    

"You will have people coming from everywhere," Hendricks said.    

Hussein also believes the Chauvin trial will be a draw and he’s dreading what’s to come.  

"We’re the ones who are going to have to pick up the pieces afterwards," Hussein said.