Far-Right Groups Are Splintering in Wake of the Capitol Riot

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Far-Right Groups Are Splintering in Wake of the Capitol Riot

The breakdown of larger organizations sets the stage for small groups or lone offenders, who are more difficult to track.

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

  • March 1, 2021, 7:19 p.m. ET

Just eight weeks after the Capitol riot, some of the most prominent groups that participated are fracturing amid a torrent of backbiting and finger-pointing. The fallout will determine the future of some of the most high-profile far-right organizations and raises the specter of splinter groups that could make the movement even more dangerous.

“This group needs new leadership and a new direction,” the St. Louis branch of the Proud Boys announced recently on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, echoing denunciations by at least six other chapters also rupturing with the national organization. “The fame we’ve attained hasn’t been worth it.”

Similar rifts have emerged in the Oath Keepers, a paramilitary group that recruits veterans, and the Groyper Army, a white nationalist organization focused on college campuses and a vocal proponent of the false claim that Donald J. Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

The shake-up is driven in part by the large number of arrests in the aftermath of the Capitol riot and the subsequent crackdown on some groups by law enforcement. As some members of the far right exit more established groups and strike out on their own, it may become even more difficult to track extremists who have become more emboldened to carry out violent attacks.

“What you are seeing right now is a regrouping phase,” said Devin Burghart, who runs the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a Seattle-based center that monitors far-right movements. “They are trying to reassess their strengths, trying to find new foot soldiers and trying to prepare for the next conflict.”

The top leaders of the Groyper Army, Nick Fuentes and Patrick Casey, have been in a bitter public dispute in the weeks since the riot. Mr. Casey accused Mr. Fuentes of putting followers at risk of arrest by continuing high-profile activities. Mr. Fuentes wrote on Telegram, “It’s not easy but it is important to keep pushing forward now more than ever.”

Among the Proud Boys, a far-right fight club that claims to defend the values of Western civilization, the recriminations were compounded by revelations that Enrique Tarrio, the organization’s leader, once worked as an informant for law enforcement. Despite denials from Mr. Tarrio, the news has thrown the organization’s future into question.

“We reject and disavow the proven federal informant, Enrique Tarrio, and any and all chapters that choose to associate with him,” the Alabama chapter of the Proud Boys announced on Telegram using language identical to other chapters.

After the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, accusations about informants and undercover agents have been particularly pointed. “Traitors are everywhere, everywhere,” wrote one participant on a far-right Telegram channel.

The chapters breaking away accused Mr. Tarrio of leading the group astray with high-profile clashes with far-left demonstrators and by storming the Capitol.

“The Proud Boys were founded to provide brotherhood to men on the right, not to yell slogans at the sky” and “get arrested,” the St. Louis chapter said in its announcement.

Extremist organizations tend to experience internal upheaval after any cataclysmic event, as seen in the case of the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead, or the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168 people, including 19 children.

Daryl Johnson, who has studied the Three Percenters and other paramilitary groups, said the current infighting could lead to further hardening and radicalization. “When these groups get disrupted by law enforcement, all it does is scatter the rats,” he said. “It does not get rid of the rodent problem.”

The Oath Keepers, standing watch last year during protests  in Louisville, Ky., and the Groyper Army have faced similar rifts as the Proud Boys.
Credit…Whitney Curtis for The New York Times

President Biden has pledged to make fighting extremism a priority and Merrick B. Garland, his nominee for attorney general, said during his Senate confirmation hearings that he promised to “do everything in the power of the Justice Department” to stop domestic terrorism. Mr. Garland, the lead prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case, also said the United States was facing “a more dangerous period than we faced in Oklahoma City” or in recent memory.

More than 300 people have been charged in the Capitol riot, with roughly 500 total cases expected. At least 26 people facing some of the most serious accusations have been tied to the Oath Keepers or the Proud Boys.

Most of those in the crowd were probably unaffiliated with a particular group yet radicalized enough to show up in Washington to support Mr. Trump’s false election claim, experts said, feeding concerns about how they will channel their anger going forward. The legal fallout from the riot will most likely push people underground as well. Over all, the hazy affiliations and the potential for lone offenders will make it more difficult to uncover planned attacks.

Already, there has been chatter among members of paramilitary groups that stormed the Capitol about trying to attack it while the president addresses a joint session of Congress, Yogananda D. Pittman, the acting chief of the Capitol Police, told a House subcommittee last week.

Credit…Maranie R. Staab/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

But even as some extremist groups push for more confrontation, all kinds of adherents want out.

The president of the North Carolina chapter of the Oath Keepers, Doug Smith, announced last month that he was splitting from the national organization.

Mr. Smith did not respond to messages seeking comment, but he told The News Reporter, his local newspaper in Whiteville, N.C., that he was ashamed by demonstrators who attacked the Capitol and beat police officers.

For others, however, the riot was a resounding success, an opening shot across the bows of the law and the establishment.

“There is a small segment that is going to see this as Lexington and Concord, the shot heard around the world, and the beginning of either the racial holy war or the fall of our society, of our government,” said Tom O’Connor, a retired F.B.I. counterterrorism specialist who continues to train agents on the subject.

Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Far-right groups are already rallying around opposition to proposed changes to immigration policy and the discussion of stricter gun control under Mr. Biden’s administration.

The number of people inclined toward violence is impossible to count, but experts agree that harsh political divisions have expanded the potential pool on both right and left fringes.

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The splintering of larger organizations sets the stage for small groups or lone offenders, who are more difficult to track. “That makes them more dangerous,” said J.J. MacNab, an expert on paramilitary groups at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the Oklahoma City bombing, did not join a paramilitary group but still adopted the violent ideology.

“The rhetoric is fuel to the fire for those lone offenders,” said Mr. O’Connor, echoing a common worry. “My concern now is that there are many McVeighs in the offing.”

Experts cite a variety of reasons for why the propensity toward violence might be worse now than during previous times when far-right organizations declared war on the government.

The Oklahoma City attack caused a period of retreat, but the election of a Black president in 2008 resurrected the white supremacy movement. These groups have now experienced some 13 years without any sustained effort by law enforcement to counter them, experts said.

Some groups that organized the far-right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 fell apart over the subsequent internal squabbling and a lawsuit that threatens to bankrupt them. Others, including the Proud Boys and various paramilitary organizations, grew larger and went on to participate in the Jan. 6 riot.

Credit…Jim Bourg/Reuters

At the same time, extremist ideology has spread farther and much more rapidly on social media, and foreign governments like Russia have worked actively to disseminate such thoughts to sow divisions within the United States.

New threats and concerns about potential targets continue to surface. The announcement in early February that hackers attempted to poison the water supply in a small Florida city attracted the attention of Rinaldo Nazzaro, the founder of a violent white supremacist group called the Base.

Seven members of the Base in three states were rounded up last year on charges of planning to commit murder, kidnapping and other violence in order to ignite a wider civil war that would allow a white homeland to emerge.

Mr. Nazzaro, out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement in Russia, wrote on Telegram that the water poisoning plot was a possible template for something larger.

The kind of extremists who worry experts the most emerged in October, when a paramilitary cell planning to kidnap the governor of Michigan was exposed.

In federal court in January, the F.B.I. portrayed one of the 14 defendants, Barry G. Croft Jr., 44, as a national leader of the Three Percenters, a loosely allied coalition of paramilitary groups that is difficult to track because virtually anyone can claim allegiance.

Mr. Croft helped to build and test shrapnel bombs to target people, according to court documents, and a hit list that he posted on Facebook included threats to Mr. Trump and Barack Obama.

In denying him bail, Judge Sally J. Berens quoted from transcripts of conversations taped by an informant in which he threatened to hurt people or to blow things up. “I am going to do some of the most nasty, disgusting things that you have ever read about in the history of your life,” the judge quoted him as saying.

Ben Decker contributed reporting.

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