The FBI on Wednesday urged police chiefs across the country to be on high alert for extremist activity and to share intelligence on any threats they encounter, as the U.S. government issued a dire intelligence bulletin warning of potential violence ahead of the inauguration.
In the call with police chiefs, Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, warned about potential attacks on state capitols, federal buildings, the homes of congressional members and businesses, according to one of the chiefs on the call. The officials failed to identify any specific threats, participants said, but called on law enforcement officers across the country to watch for signs of trouble, no matter how small.
“They don’t want to be dismissive of anything,” Chief Jorge Colina of the Miami Police Department, one of thousands of officials participating in the call, said in an interview. “So even if it sounds aspirational, even if it’s just like, ‘Yeah, it’d be great if the whole place is burned down,’ they don’t want us to think, ‘Ah, that’s just some knucklehead, pinhead,’ and be dismissive.”
The federal authorities also issued a joint intelligence bulletin warning that the deadly breach at the Capitol last week would be a “significant driver of violence” for armed militia groups and racist extremists who are targeting the presidential inauguration next week.
Extremists aiming to trigger a race war “may exploit the aftermath of the Capitol breach by conducting attacks to destabilize and force a climactic conflict in the United States,” officials wrote in the bulletin issued by the National Counterterrorism Center and the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, which was disseminated widely to law enforcement agencies around the country.
In Washington, the state of readiness remained high, with Chief Robert J. Contee III of the Metropolitan Police Department saying on Wednesday that he expected more than 20,000 members of the National Guard in the Washington region on Inauguration Day. It remains unclear how many of the Guard members will carry weapons.
On Tuesday night, Defense Department officials said that the Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, had decided to arm National Guard members who will be deployed to protect the Capitol building complex as President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office.
The number of National Guard troops in Washington may ultimately stretch beyond 20,000; the figure has been rapidly climbing in recent days as intelligence officials monitoring pro-Trump groups online have grown increasingly worried that militant, far-right organizations have plans for violent protests in Washington.
The decision to arm the Guard members illuminates the gnawing uncertainty of the past week. Members of Congress expressed concern about their return to the Capitol after they were briefed on several active threats against them, and the FBI has warned of possible violence at all 50 state capitol buildings.
Defense Department officials met with Washington authorities on Wednesday to work on plans to try to ensure there is not a repeat of last week’s violent breach. The scope of the protests and the violence of the mob took law enforcement by surprise.
A Pentagon official expressed worry about a repeat of the pipe bombs that were placed in Washington last week. The official said the law enforcement agencies are also concerned that some protesters have threatened to show up at the homes of lawmakers, or to target their families.
On the call with police chiefs, federal officials said they were closely monitoring extremist communications online and urged the chiefs to be mindful of potential lone-wolf actors and local armed groups, said Chief Chris Magnus of Tucson, Arizona, adding that he had rarely heard federal officials this alarmed.
“They’re very, very worried about these, what they referred to as domestic violent extremists, embedding themselves in other protests,” he said. “Christopher Wray seemed particularly concerned about what was sort of the disregard these folks have for democratic government.”
There was also some discussion about balancing the rights of protesters against the threat of violence.
“I think the message is they want everyone to have their First Amendment rights and be able to assemble without any government intrusion,” said Chief Rick Smith of Kansas City, Missouri, who was on the call. “At the same time, how do you prevent violence?
In the bulletin, written by the National Counterterrorism Center and the Justice and Homeland Security Departments and obtained by The New York Times, federal officials wrote that extremist groups have viewed the breach of the Capitol as a success and have been galvanized by the death of Ashli Babbitt, a military veteran and QAnon follower who was shot by the police as she tried to enter the heavily protected Speaker’s Lobby, just outside the House Chamber. The extremists could perceive that death as “an act of martyrdom,” they said.
Officials warned of possible activity by the “boogaloo,” a movement that seeks to start a second civil war. They also wrote that “the shared false narrative of a ‘stolen’ election,’” a narrative that has been perpetuated by President Donald Trump, “may lead some individuals to adopt the belief that there is no political solution to address their grievances and violent action is necessary.”
Anti-government militias and extremist groups “very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in the 2021,” said the bulletin, which was dated Jan. 13.
Already, state and local officials are taking preparations into their own hands.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown activated the National Guard “to assist with potential upcoming civil unrest,” the Oregon State Police said Wednesday. Authorities did not identify the locations the National Guard would be deployed, but troops in neighboring Washington state have used the Guard in recent days to protect the state’s Capitol building.
“The recent events at our Nation’s Capitol building and at our own statehouse illustrate the need for law enforcement to be prepared and appropriately staffed for any large gatherings,” Oregon State Police Superintendent Terri Davie said in a statement.
The National Guard was also assisting in state capitols in Michigan and Wisconsin.
In California, law enforcement presence has intensified at the Capitol in Sacramento, with California Highway Patrol officers on standby and outside at the entrances, and with squad cars parked on the grounds, blocking walkways. The FBI has set up a joint command post with local authorities in Sacramento, and members of state, federal and local law enforcement have been meeting daily.
Even though Los Angeles officials have not received specific threats, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department has ordered all officers, close to 10,000 people, to be in uniform every day leading up to the inauguration so they are ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has adjusted staffing levels in anticipation of protest activity.
Part of the challenge for law enforcement agencies collecting intelligence was weeding out “aspirational” commentary, said Colina, the Miami chief. On the call Wednesday, the FBI acknowledged the uneasiness felt across the nation in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, he said.
“It kind of shook everyone up, you know, seeing what happened at the Capitol. It gives you a terrible feeling of uneasiness, and so, they’re concerned with that,” he said, adding, “They’re concerned with the mindset of, ‘Are we safe here in this country?’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.