Seventeen months after the January 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol building by a mob of supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump, warnings of a possible future insurrection abound. Andy Oppenheimer assesses how future major civil unrest in the United States could break out and the types of weaponry that could be deployed. 

The riot and forced occupation of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. occurred while lawmakers were counting the Electoral College votes from the November 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost. Five died and two more police officers subsequently committed suicide; 140 Capitol and 65 Washington DC police officers were injured. Threats to kill the Vice-President Mike Pence were visibly made. The riot cost millions of dollars in smashed windows and furniture, looted personal belongings, wrecked doors and vandalised works of art.

The investigation of hundreds of suspected perpetrators continued into 2022. The emplacer of an improvised explosive device in the Capitol grounds has still not been apprehended. Many have described the violent occupation of the Capitol as an attempted coup.

“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated this incidence, held a dagger at the throat of America and American democracy.”

Faced with the growth in political extremism of all stripes, the likelihood of a future insurrection has been exercising minds in authority – including notable names in the US military. With the likes of QAnon and other extremist groups continuing their influence – albeit more splintered since January 2021 – many are taking the potential for future unrest very seriously.

“Lethal chaos”
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post published in December 2021, retired US Army major-generals Paul D. Eaton and Antonio M. Taguba and retired brigadier-general Steven M. Anderson stated their combined concern resulting from the insurrection and – looking ahead to what could follow the 2024 Presidential Election – the potential “for lethal chaos inside our military, which would put all Americans at severe risk.”

They highlight the threat of military “rogue units” organising to support the “rightful” commander in chief – that substantial elements in the military did not accept that Trump lost the election. So, a future Republican lost election could result in chaos.

They emphasise the threat to national security: “with our military hobbled and divided, US security would be crippled. Any one of our enemies could take advantage by launching an all-out assault on our assets or our allies.”

Elements in the military
All three former leading military officials focus on the number of military personnel involved in the attack. More than one in ten of those arrested and charged have a service record. The generals also cite refusal by the Oklahoma National Guard’s commanding general to get his officers vaccinated against coronavirus.

By June 2021, 51 former and current members of the military had been arrested, including a active duty service member, four current part-time troops in the Army Reserve or National Guard, and 45 ex-military. Some 22 served in the US Marines, 18 are Army vets, two Navy vets, and two USAF vets.

Lack of response
Eaton et al. also highlight the lack of military preparedness in January 2021. There was also no civilian police force sufficiently equipped to repel the violence. In the Capitol hearings that followed, acting US Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller testified that he deliberately withheld military protection of the Capitol before Jan. 6.

What is less well known is when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley reportedly had to scramble to prevent nuclear defence chains from being intercepted by illegal orders.

Lansing: a precursor
On 1 May 2020, a crowd of armed anti-lockdown protesters self-styled the ‘American Patriot Rally’ attempted to enter the floor of the chamber of Michigan Statehouse in Lansing. They were blocked by state police and sergeants-at-arms. One senator tweeted: “Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.”

New counter-terror unit
In January 2022, the Justice Department set up a specialised unit focused on domestic terrorism. The number of FBI investigations into suspected domestic violent extremists has more than doubled since spring 2020.

At issue is the definition of domestic terrorism. The US criminal code defines it as violence intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population and to influence government policy, but there is no standalone domestic terrorism charge, so prosecutors must apply other statutes.

“We have seen a growing threat from those who are motivated by racial animus, as well as those who ascribe to extremist anti-government and anti-authority ideologies.”

Will domestic terrorists use CBRN?
In the January 6 insurrection many wore military combat kit, including stolen riot gear. Some carried Molotov cocktails and many were armed. The police officer who was killed in the riot was sprayed with a chemical irritant. This raises the potential of nonconventional weapons, possibly makeshift and homemade, being used in future unrest or full-scale insurrection.

There was at least one IED planted in the vicinity of the Capitol building just before the January 6 insurrection. Future unrest could include more, given that the biggest domestic terrorist attack on US soil still to date was committed by a Right-wing militia member, Timothy McVeigh, whose massive VBIED destroyed several buildings in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring 680. From 9/11 on, international terrorism has overshadowed the domestic variant.

Given that there are an estimated 400 million firearms possessed by civilians in the US, future insurrectionists may not need to resort to more difficult means of attack, but nothing can be ruled out where heavily tooled up militias and fanatical groups are concerned.

The three generals did not stop short of warning against a possible future civil war resulting from unsecured arms, explosives and other materials under suspect oversight.

In a TV interview in January 2022, Maj. Gen. Eaton said that such an event would fall under the “low-probability, high-impact” category. This nomenclature is often applied to CBRN attacks, which while rare, as we all know require intensive and frequent contingency planning as well as military and first-responder training exercises.

The next insurrection
Maj Gen Eaton and others are calling for the Pentagon to review the laws of war and how to identify and deal with illegal orders; to reinforce “unity of command from the top of the chain to squad level;” to enhance intelligence at all installations to “identify, isolate and remove potential mutineers;” and to wargame future potential post-election insurrection scenarios.

Any insurgent movement or build-up to any future similar insurrection would come in random acts of violence from organised militias, lone extremists, and small cells who radicalise online and aim for ‘soft targets.’

Riots and incursions could be at State level rather than the now better-protected nation’s capital. In a country as vast as the US with many remote areas, much extremist activity can be conducted at local level.

The retired generals’ warning encapsulates the concern about this threat: “With the country still as divided as ever, we must take steps to prepare for the worst… We are chilled to our bones at the thought of a coup succeeding next time.”

A march on the Capitol building soon developed into a riot.
Wikimedia/Tyler Merbler