When former Special Agent Tom O’Connor held a training course for new recruits at the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Virginia this month, he turned to a key example to underscore the threat of domestic violent attacks: the October 2018 mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The shooting, which killed eleven believers, was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history, took place a little over a week before the congressional elections.
The fact that the alleged gunman was unknown to the police is a strong reminder of the difficulties facing US law enforcement in next Tuesday’s elections as Republican President Donald Trump will attempt to fend off Democratic challenger Joe Biden, former law enforcement officials said.
Law enforcement, which has warned of possible violence surrounding the November 3 vote, must prepare for a range of potential threats, from spontaneous violence to more organized, planned attacks, according to official sources. Authorities also face a diverse range of potential perpetrators, from individual actors to a growing threat from violent groups, including racially motivated, anti-authority and militias.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was the target of kidnapping [Michigan Office of the Governor via AP]Federal agents this month foiled a plot by a group of 14 suspected conspirators, including right-wing militiamen, to kidnap Michigan Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer before the election. The Michigan attorney general identified at least eight of the men as members or “employees” of the self-proclaimed Michigan Wolverine Watchmen group. Most of the defendants in the alleged conspiracy pleaded not guilty.
The vote is also taking place at a time of increasing tension. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials told Reuters news agency that the country’s worsening political polarization, mounting excitement over pandemic lockdowns, and high unemployment are a toxic concoction that could break out in the coming days.
The election could serve as a “trigger” for “extremists,” said O’Connor in an interview in which he discussed his latest presentation.
Police departments in major cities across the country – from Miami to New York – plan to put more officers on the streets as part of the election, or to put them on standby if problems arise.
Jorge Colina, chief of the Miami Police Department, said the department’s plans for Nov. 3 call for up to 50 percent more officers to work than a typical day. Civil servants will be at polling stations. One challenge for local police forces is that potentially violent actors can mobilize “with virtually no notice,” said Colina.
Police in New York City and other major metropolitan areas said they had been doing “table exercises” in recent weeks to prepare for emergency scenarios related to the elections, which range from demonstrations to bombs. In Chicago, authorities discussed options that included mass protests involving violence and property destruction.
According to Director Jared Maples, the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness will monitor online activity on election day in case protesters attempt to gather around polling stations.
“So if a person on social media says,” Merge at this point and bring your guns, “we are aware of it in real time,” Maples told Reuters.
However, tracking down and preventing potential attacks is a daunting task, current and former law enforcement officers told Reuters.
An FBI spokesman said the agency had made “extensive preparations” for the election and was planning a number of possible scenarios. The office is collecting and analyzing information “to determine if individuals may be motivated to take violent action for any reason,” the spokesman said.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a report released earlier this month that domestic violence groups and others could target events related to presidential campaigns, elections, or immediate aftermath. “Such actors could quickly mobilize to threaten or use violence,” he added.
Trump has been slow to condemn right-wing violence, which his critics believe encourages hardline groups. During a debate in September, he called on the right-wing Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by” after being asked to condemn white supremacists. A senior Trump administration official said the president made it clear “he will not tolerate extreme violence.”
Bluster vs Action
Some say the election-related threat may be exaggerated. While hardline groups “talk a lot on the Internet, it rarely leads to big action,” said JJ MacNab, a fellow in the Extremism Program at George Washington University. MacNab said some on private online platforms acknowledge that they pose fancy threats with the aim of manipulating the media and researchers in order to increase the threat they pose, she said.
The Internet is full of such content and distinguishing between “noise and action” can be challenging, according to Thomas Plofchan, a former counter-terrorism advisor to DHS who left the department in January.
Constitutional protection of freedom of expression also makes it difficult to target a group or individuals simply because they hold “extremist” views.
While discussions of plans for a crime may prompt an investigation, “vague comments on the civil war” are absent, said Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official.
Alleged domestic violent “extremists” in the US killed 48 people in 2019 – more than any other year since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to the DHS report released earlier this month.
Far-right actors, including white supremacists and supporters of the government, were responsible for the majority of the 61 suspected conspiracies and attacks in the US in the first eight months of this year, according to the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. On the far left, hardliners from the left, including anarchists and anti-fascists, made up about a fifth, the rest were Islamist groups and others.
Trump has made the attack on the integrity of the nation’s elections a key campaign issue. He has claimed without evidence that in the face of the pandemic, increased postal voting will be fraudulent and that the Democrats will “manipulate” the outcome in favor of his opponent.
The 2020 election will be completely rigged if mail-in votes are allowed to take place and everyone knows it. It takes so much time to talk about foreign influences, but the same people won’t even talk about corruption in mail-in elections. Look at Patterson, NJ. 20% of the votes were damaged!
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2020
Several right-wing and anti-government groups told Reuters that they have no plans to monitor the elections but will be on standby if post-election chaos ensues.
Mike Dunn, a prominent member of the anti-government “boogaloo” movement in Virginia, told Reuters that he and other “boogaloos” had no plans for election day. If afterwards riots break out, said the 20-year-old Dunn, his armed supporters will protect the demonstrators from attackers and protect them from looting regardless of their political affiliation. He stressed that they would use peaceful tactics to de-escalate volatile situations.
The presence of armed hardliners at protests could escalate tensions even if the groups do not intend to, several former law enforcement officials said.
Chris Hill, the Georgia-based leader of the III% Security Force, said his group would defend property in the event of civil unrest and focus on deterring violence and riot. “I’ll have my gear in my truck and I’ll have my gas tank filled up and I’ll have my guys ready,” said Hill.