The arrests and indictments in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol are now up to 257 and counting. And as they continue to mount and the evidence in these cases becomes public, we’re starting to get a clearer picture of what happened that day—both the larger picture of who participated in the assault, as well the more detailed story of how they conspired to make their invasion plans work.
George Washington University’s Program on Extremism compiled data from all 257 cases and assembled a detailed analysis of the event based largely on information from the court filings. The details contained therein are telling and important, but its broader conclusion—namely, that the universe of domestic right-wing extremists who came together on Jan. 6 has grown massive, is constantly expanding, and now poses a greater threat to American society than overseas jihadists—may be the most significant takeaway.
“Over the last few years, in fact, we have witnessed a remarkable growth of what is commonly referred to as domestic extremism,” the study reports. “The term is used in American law enforcement and policy circles to distinguish it from foreign extremism, a category that refers largely to individuals inspired by or linked to jihadist groups. But it is a term that encompasses an extremely broad and ever-expanding plethora of groups and ideologies, including armed militias and committed conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis and isolated anti-government militants with few common denominators beyond hate and propensity for violence.
“This universe has existed in America for decades, has grown more diverse, vocal, and violent in recent years, and has seized on current events such as the pandemic, rising community and law enforcement tensions following the death of George Floyd, and the presidential election to pose an even greater threat to American society.”
The study found that the people charged so far are a diverse group dominated by men—221 of them, accompanied by 36 women. More than 90% arrived in Washington from outside the area, representing a total of 40 states and 180 counties around the U.S. The counties with the largest numbers of cases included Los Angeles County in California, Franklin County in Ohio, and Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
About 33 people had a military background, and of those, 36% had ties to militant extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. Moreover, the federal prosecutions so far have zeroed in on each of these two organizations as the major militant networks that planned the insurrection ahead of time, and took concrete steps to make it happen.
Leaders of established domestic violent extremist groups issued orders or directives to members of their groups, encouraging them to travel to Washington in advance of the siege. Individual group members answered the call, contacting one another to coordinate logistics, methods, and plans of action in the weeks before January 6th. Unlike individuals in the other categories, not only did these militant networks plan to attend protests on the 6th, but they are also alleged to have planned in advance to breach the Capitol and, in many cases, conduct violence inside the walls of the building.
The single case that best illustrates this part of the dynamic is Ethan Nordean’s. Federal prosecutors’ case against the Seattle-area Proud Boys leader was laid out in even greater detail this week in court filings, which portrayed him as playing a central commanding role in the Proud Boys’ successful assault on the police perimeter keeping the crowd out of the Capitol that day.
"Following the arrest of the Proud Boys' Chairman on January 4, 2021, Defendant was nominated from within to have 'war powers' and to take ultimate leadership of the Proud Boys' activities on January 6, 2021," a Monday court filing arguing to keep Nordean imprisoned read.
"Defendant—dressed all in black, wearing a tactical vest—led the Proud Boys through the use of encrypted communications and military style equipment, and he led them with the specific plans to: split up into groups, attempt to break into the Capitol building from as many different points as possible, and prevent the Joint Session of Congress from Certifying the Electoral College results," prosecutors added.
A key component of the Proud Boys’ planning involved distributing Chinese-made Baofeng multifrequency radios to key members to remain in touch during the attack on the Capitol. The men intentionally forsook attendance at Donald Trump's speech at the Ellipse railing against the election so that they could get in position to overtake the Capitol, the filing said, by marching around the building and taking up positions at an entrance that was lightly manned by police.
The Proud Boys left a money trail in order to obtain equipment for their plans that prosecutors cited in detail. This included direct messages on social media that Nordean exchanged with someone who wanted to donate a tactical vest, and public, crowdsourced efforts to obtain equipment. Prosecutors said Nordean also exchanged private messages with people regarding the effective use of “military-style communications equipment,” and he received pledges of equipment, including bear mace and steel plates, from two people. On Jan. 2 and 3, Nordean also communicated with someone seeking to contribute $1,000 to the Proud Boys’ “travel fund,” the filing says.
Prosecutors also noted the Proud Boys' plan not to wear identifying uniforms or colors: "By blending in and spreading out, Defendant [Nordean] and those following him on January 6 made it more likely that either a Proud Boy—or a suitably-inspired 'normie'—would be able to storm the Capitol and its ground in such a way that would interrupt the Certification of the Electoral College vote. Defendant understood full well that the men he was leading as he charged past law enforcement and onto the Capitol grounds were likely to destroy government property, or attempt to do so."
Nordean and his close cohorts face grave conspiracy charges that could bring them long prison terms, prosecutors say, because of the central role they played: “Defendant’s position with the Proud Boys is that of giving instructions, not receiving them.”
Federal judge Timothy Kelly, overseeing the case involving Dominic Pezzola, one of Nordean’s chief cohorts that day, said the men’s actions were egregious enough to warrant pretrial detention.
“It was an almost unique attack on the crown jewel of our country, the peaceful transfer of power,” Kelly said. “When you put it that way, and I think it’s very fair to put it that way, it’s almost a unique assault on America, on American history.”
The GWU report notes that the accused insurrectionists face as many as 17 counts on their indictments, with charges ranging from trespassing and illegal entry, to conspiracy against the U.S. government and assault of law enforcement officers.
It also observed the central role played by social media in the charging evidence. The report found that 15% of extremists publicly indicated their intent prior to storming the Capitol; some 68% of them documented their crimes in real time.
The report’s authors also recommended a series of concrete steps in response to the attack:
- It urged Congress to establish a nonpartisan Domestic Extremism Commission to identify any systemic national security and policy failures.
- The intelligence community should learn more about the response leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, it recommended, with the goal of finding effective measures to prevent the violence.
- Finally, the authors urge the administration to use existing structures to improve information sharing between the federal agencies tasked with combating violent extremism.