Andy Oppenheimer looks into the lack of police and military response to the worst-ever domestic terror attack on the US seat of government

On 6 January, a mob of supporters of former US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building while lawmakers were counting the Electoral College votes from the 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. Trump was impeached, accused of inciting the riot, and acquitted. By March over 300 had been charged by Federal prosecutors in the “the most complex investigation ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice”

Insurrection
The armed mob of up to 30,000 included many aligned with the QAnon conspiracy theory movement as well as assorted militias and the virulently racist, White Supremacist and antisemitic Proud Boys and Oath Keepers extremist groups. Rioters deployed CS gas, pepper spray, bear spray, hockey sticks, baseball bats, metal flag poles, guns and tasers. Police officers suffered chemical burns. The officer that was killed in the riot was sprayed with a chemical irritant. Members of Congress had to evacuate or barricade themselves in offices.

The FBI continues to seek at least 250 more believed to have committed assaults on police officers or other violent acts on the Capitol grounds. Bodycam videos show extreme violence wrought on officers. Many wore military combat kit, including stolen riot gear.

By mid-June at least 440 were charged with entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds; 100 with assault on officers or employees or with resisting or impeding them, of whom 40 with using a deadly or dangerous weapon; 25 defendants with destroying government property.

  • >900 search warrants in nearly every state
  • >15,000 hours of surveillance and body-worn camera footage”
  • 1,600 electronic devices
  • hundreds of text messages from multiple providers
  • 270,000 tips and 80,000 witness interviews

“January 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasising across the country for a long time now, and it’s not going away any time soon.”
FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY, US CAPITOL HEARINGS

Response: too little, too late
Why was the response so ineffective, given that jihadist threats are so high on US counter-terror policy priorities, and police response to other protests is substantial? There were 14 federal and local law enforcement agencies in the Capitol response. Thousands of angry rioters were allowed near the Capitol. In the hearings that commenced in February, the blame game began: bad communications, bad intelligence, bad leadership.

Among top Capitol security officials who resigned after the riot were former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger, former House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving, former U.S. Capitol Police chief Steven Sund, and the acting chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, Robert Contee.

He stated that “a clear lack of accurate and complete intelligence across several federal agencies contributed to this event and not poor planning by the United States Capitol Police.” Capitol security officials blamed intelligence failures for the breach. Sund said he was prepared for a protest, not “a military-style coordinated assault.”

Retired officer Keith McFaden said only a very small number of Capitol Police officers — the “civil disturbance units” — were trained and equipped to deal with extremists and their equipment was “outdated.”

The IEDs
At 12:49 p.m. Capitol Police responded to a report of a possible explosive device at the Republican National Committee Headquarters, later identified as a pipe bomb. Shortly afterwards, a second pipe bomb was found at the Democratic National Committee HQ. Adjacent buildings were evacuated. They were rendered safe, believed to be deployed at the edge of the security perimeter the night before as a ‘come-on’ to distract police resources – a classic IRA and other terror group M.O. There was also at least one vehicle packed with guns, ammunition and explosives.

Reports on the IEDs were overshadowed by the riot itself. Video footage emerged of a person carrying a backpack in an alley one block from the Capitol grounds. The metal-pipe bombs incorporated mechanical kitchen timers, low-explosive black powder, and power supply – all readily available components. They were viable devices. Shared manuals on IED making were found.

National Guard: “bad optic”
In March D.C. National Guard chief, Maj Gen William Walker testified that Guardsmen were ready to move on the Capitol. Sund’s frantic call said the Pentagon perimeter had been breached. Three hours and 19 minutes elapsed before Walker gained the ultimate approval of military aid by the Pentagon. He said DoD chiefs believed Guardsmen presence was a “bad optic” that would incite rather than prevent violence. 

Sund has requested National Guard assistance two days before the riot, and again as the rioters began pushing through the metal barricades. Only by nightfall had 1,700 additional officers from 18 federal agencies arrived on the scene and the entire DC National Guard activated.

A predictable attack
As Sund said, no civilian police force was equipped to repel the massive violent crowd that attacked America’s seat of government that day. Neverthless, former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger said, “We all agreed the intelligence did not support calling in the troops.”

The Department of Homeland Security did not act on the intelligence. It is claimed the FBI did not sound the alarm to those in charge. But FBI Chief Christopher Wray said this had been issued the day before and that he had repeatedly warned about the dangers of right-wing domestic extremism.

That aside, the US media began reporting an increased threat of violence in the days leading up to the riot. House Managers said the attack was predictable. In all, there was a severe lack of preemptive policy or preparedness with regard to the far-Right threat and disorder.

“Of the multitude of events I’ve worked in my nearly 19-year career in the department, this was by far the worst of the worst… “We could have had 10 times the amount of people working with us, and I still believe the battle would have been just as devastating.”
CAPITOL POLICE CAPT CARNEYSHA MENDOZA

Collusion
By June, 51 arrested included former and current members of the military. They include one active duty service member, four current part-time troops in the Army Reserve or National Guard, and 45 ex-military; 22 served in the US Marines, 18 are ex-Army, two ex-Navy, and two, ex-USAF.

At least 12 were either former police officers or were employed as law enforcement officers as well as one current firefighter and one retired firefighter. Four employed Police officers have since been fired and 29 placed under internal investigation. Prosecutors have charged at least one former police chief.

When Police applied teargas to the rioters many assumed police were ‘on their side’ and called them traitors while attacking and wounding many police officers.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has said the role of social media in validating and uniting violent rhetoric and mobilisation continues to be of rising concern. Homegrown groups have access to weapons and locations beyond the reach of international terrorists. The FBI was not tasked with monitoring online exhortations by extremists to bring weapons to the protest.

The crowd that stormed the Capitol could have been even more heavily armed, given the plethora of gun ownership in the US. Increased efforts will be needed to tackle domestic terrorism from the far Right – which, like other terror groups, may fade momentarily into the background but will resurge given half the chance.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has said the role of social media in validating and uniting violent rhetoric and mobilisation continues to be of rising concern. Homegrown groups have access to weapons and locations beyond the reach of international terrorists. The FBI was not tasked with monitoring online exhortations by extremists to bring weapons to the protest.

The complicated chain of command and approval processes for response to the assault should come under vigorous examination. The crowd that stormed the Capitol could have been even more heavily armed, given the plethora of gun ownership in the US. Increased efforts will be needed to tackle domestic terrorism from the far Right – which gains succour from continued mainstream Republican Party support for extreme elements in US society.

Image: The 6 January 2021 storming of the United States Capitol involved a plethora of extremist right-wing groups, many of them tooled up and a considerable number, military trained.
©Tyler Merbler/Wikimedia