Capitol Riot Anniversary Prompts Agencies to Root Out Extremists

  • Earlier pro-Jan. 6 rally plans called to kidnap lawmakers
  • Complex threats challenge agencies, DHS official says

U.S. intelligence officials are evaluating the likelihood of a resurgence of violence on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and say they’re in a stronger position to root out any threats that arise.

Federal agencies are in closer contact with their state and local counterparts, and officials at all levels are more focused on public platforms used to plan violent extremism, John Cohen, counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security, said during a virtual discussion Wednesday.

“From the standpoint of what we will see on Jan. 6, 2022, we’re still evaluating that, but what has changed since last Jan. 6 is significant,” he said during the discussion hosted by the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center and George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Demonstrators walk through the U.S. Capitol in Washington Jan. 6, 2021 after breaching barricades to protest lawmakers’ debating Joe Biden’s November 2020 presidential victory in the Electoral College.

Intelligence agencies now look more seriously at public information on social media, have built closer relationships with state and local partners, and have aimed to publicize potential threats and responses, said Cohen, who’s also acting head of DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

He pointed to the federal response to a September demonstration in support of Jan. 6 defendants. DHS initially adopted a hands-off approach, sizing up the planned event as a peaceful gathering. The agency mobilized after seeing threats to kidnap members of Congress, attack houses of worship deemed liberal by demonstrators, and incite violence with counter-protesters.

“Once we saw those calls for violence, that’s when we began looking at that information more closely,” he said. DHS and the FBI shared the information with state and local officials, the U.S. Park Police, and others, and issued a heightened security designation for the event—which hadn’t occurred for Jan. 6.

DHS publicized those actions in part to deter attendance, and the rally ended up being “low profile,” Cohen said.

U.S. Issues Heightened Security Designation for Pro-Jan. 6 Rally

Playing Catch-Up

The overall threat environment in the U.S. has become more volatile and complicated even since June, when the Biden administration released a multi-agency strategy to combat domestic extremism, Cohen said.

Domestic terrorism, foreign threats, cyber attacks, and disinformation campaigns are increasingly “commingling,” he said, which can create challenges for intelligence and law enforcement officials accustomed to categorizing threats neatly and using outdated playbooks to respond.

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Cohen cited the 2021 mass shooting at a FedEx Corp. facility in Indianapolis after the shooter was flagged as high risk. “That is not the exception,” he said, adding that law enforcement and intelligence officials need to move to a “new paradigm” that allows them to better assess risk and prevent violence.

“My concern is that there are some in the federal government who are still playing catch-up,” he said. That’s because modern threats don’t always fit the traditional terrorism mold, so “it sometimes is a little bit of a challenge to get folks to understand how this fits into the current threat environment,” he said.

Cohen stressed, however, that he’s optimistic U.S. officials will be able to build a more protective system.

“We will get this right, and we are steadily making improvement across the country in our ability to address this threat,” he said. “But it is complicated.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at egilmer@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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