In the days since the violent Jan. 6 rampage at the U.S. Capitol by President Donald Trump’s supporters, a fuller picture has emerged about the rioters, with researchers identifying members of more than a dozen extremist groups that took part in the riots.
The storming of the Capitol drew extremists that included adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, the far-right group the Proud Boys, militiamen, white supremacists, anti-maskers and diehard Trump supporters, all gathered to stop Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
“There have been any number of groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center normally tracks and monitors as a part of our work addressing hate and extremism,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff for the SPLC.
Brooks shared with VOA the names of more than a dozen extremist groups that she said took part in the riots. Other extremist researchers interviewed by VOA confirmed the list. While designated as hate groups by the SPLC, none of the organizations is considered a domestic terrorist entity, and law enforcement officials have not accused any of them of conspiring to mount an attack on the Capitol.
Clues into the rioters' affiliation came from their clothes, signs, flags, banners and other markers, experts say. While some groups sought to disguise their ties, others flaunted their ideological affiliation. A group of Proud Boys in orange hats identified themselves on camera as members of a state chapter. The Three Percenters carried a U.S. Revolution-era American flag.
“They were operating in plain sight,” said Brian Levin, executive director of the center for the study of hate and extremism at California State University.
While the presence of the militias and the Proud Boys has attracted the most attention, members of lesser-known groups also joined the rioters.
One is the Nationalist Socialist Club, or NSC-131, a recently founded hate group known for disrupting Black Lives Matter protests. Another is No White Guilt, a white nationalist group whose founder has blamed “anti-whiteism” for the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.
Levin said that a combination of national groups, smaller state chapters and autonomous regional entities “participated in one way or another in the gathering.”
Just how many extremist group members took part in the rioting is unclear. While QAnon boasts tens of thousands of adherents, several of the groups identified by the SPLC have far fewer members. The precise number taking part in the riots may never be known.
While prosecutors have so far identified about 300 suspects accused of involvement in the riots, with one or two exceptions, they’ve not tied them to any known extremist groups. Two days after the riots, the FBI arrested Nick Ochs, the founder of the Proud Boys Hawaii, who was among the rioters.
Michael Sherwin, the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said law enforcement officials are aware of the ties between the rioters and extremist groups and are seeking to determine the extent to which the attack was a coordinated effort among multiple groups.
“If you look at social media you could see a lot of affiliation with some of the protest activity, some of the rioting activity, and it runs the whole gamut of different groups, from soup to nuts, A to Z,” Sherwin told reporters Friday. “But right now … we're not going to label anything because everything's on the table in terms of extremist groups.”
Arie Perliger, an extremism researcher and professor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, said that the extremist groups that took part in the Capitol riots also attended the sometimes-violent protest against state-imposed lockdowns earlier this year.
“I'm talking about the Boogaloo, I'm talking about the Proud Boys, I'm talking Rise Above Nation,” Perliger said. “I think what really brings all these groups together is their perception that Trump was a very effective vehicle to try to disrupt, to dismantle, to undermine the capabilities of the federal government.”
Among those who stormed the Capitol were participants of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of a counterprotester.
One was Tim Gionet, a far-right activist who goes by the online pseudonym “Baked Alaska.” Gionet livestreamed a video of himself on DLive from inside the capitol.
He was arrested Friday by the FBI in Houston, Texas, and charged with participating in the Capitol riot.
Another is Nick Fuentes, an organizer of the Charlottesville rally who attended Trump’s speech before the riots but did not enter the building, according to Brooks.
Here is a look at some of the groups involved in the Capitol riot.
The Proud Boys describe themselves as a “Western male chauvinist” club.
The group came to national attention after Trump, asked during a presidential debate in late October to denounce them, declared, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”
The Proud Boys’ leader, Enrique Tarrio, is a staunch Trump supporter and led the Latinos for Trump group during the campaign.
Brooks said the Proud Boys were among the organizers of the Capitol rioting. In the days leading up to the riots, Brooks said, the Proud Boys used social media platforms popular with extremists to telegraph that “this was something that was going to happen, that other extremist groups should be involved in, so they kind of they kept this going.”
In late December, Tarrio wrote on Parler that the Proud Boys “will turn out in record numbers” on Jan. 6 without their traditional black and yellow uniform.
Tarrio was arrested days before the riots and barred from returning to Washington. Two days after the riots, the FBI arrested Nick Ochs, the founder of Proud Boys Hawaii.
Oath Keepers and Three Percenters
The Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters are part of a growing anti-government “Patriot” movement known for recruiting members of law enforcement and the military.
The Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a former paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate. The oath in the name is a reference to the vow military personnel make to defend the Constitution. The group requires its members to pledge, among other things, not to "disarm the American people," according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The Three Percenters, established in 2018, view themselves as the ideological descendants of the purported 3% of Americans that took part in the Revolutionary War.
Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said dozens of Oath Keepers took part in the riots, many carrying the group’s flag. Rhodes was seen in photographs standing outside the Capitol building.
The Oath Keepers took to Telegram and other social media and messaging platforms to urge their followers to show up for the protest, according to Beirich. In an interview after the Nov. 3 election with Alex Jones, a far-right radio show host and conspiracy theorist, Rhodes said “we have men stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option. In case they attempt to remove the president illegally, we’ll step in and stop it.”
QAnon is not an organized group but rather a growing conspiracy theory movement that believes Trump is secretly battling a “deep state” cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that control the world.
Trump has repeatedly retweeted messages from accounts that promote QAnon, and more than a dozen Republican candidates running for Congress in the November election have embraced some of its tenets.
Beirich said a number of people marching on the Capitol were carrying QAnon signs.
“QAnon were everywhere,” she said. “So it sure seems like a large chunk of the people who stormed the Capitol were members of QAnon.”
The FBI has identified QAnon as a potential domestic terror threat.