UPDATE (Aug. 30, 2023 11:15 a.m. E.T.): Proud Boys former leader Enrique Tarrio and Ethan Nordean were scheduled to be sentenced this morning in federal court. Prosecutors are seeking 33 years in federal prison for Tarrio and 27 years for Nordean. However, both sentencing hearings have been delayed due to U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly falling ill. Nordean's sentencing has been rescheduled for Friday, Sept. 1. Tarrio's sentencing has been pushed to Sept. 5.
Four of the five Proud Boys members found guilty Thursday for their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol were convicted of seditious conspiracy, a rare and gravely serious federal charge. Those seditious conspiracy convictions, combined with earlier ones against the leader of the Oath Keepers and his close associate, represent strategic victories in the Department of Justice’s continuing battle to preserve democracy and are worthy of celebration.
But convictions against groups of bad actors sometimes lead to a far greater possibility of attacks carried out by lone actors. That’s why caution is warranted. The Proud Boys and Oath Keepers convictions could be good, bad and ugly all at the same time.
The good part is readily apparent. The defendants mentioned above posed an existential threat to the tradition of peaceful transition of power in our nation. Sentencing guidelines and the ages of those convicted mean that some of them could take their last breath from inside a penitentiary. We should celebrate the fact that they’re now more likely to lead a prison choir than another insurrection.
It’s also good that these high-profile convictions, and the arrests of at least 1,000 Jan. 6 participants, appear to already have had a chilling effect on would-be MAGA marauders. For example, the recent “hush money” charges brought against former President Donald Trump by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg didn’t lead to any kind of significant protests — let alone violence — despite Trump’s call that his supporters protest. Why? Dr. Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the nonprofit Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said, “People seem really deathly afraid that they’re going to get arrested.”
The potentially bad outcome from high-volume arrests and high-profile convictions may be less obvious, but it includes the likelihood of extremist groups breaking up and going underground.
The Foreign Policy Research Institute, in a piece about the future of terrorism, noted both the “democratization” and the decentralization of terrorism: “Today, an individual with an internet connection, a smartphone, and access to weapons, including do-it-yourself weapons like ‘ghost guns’ and 3-D printed explosives, can now wreak havoc in society.”
Law enforcement and the intelligence community have seen this before. In the global war on terrorism, for example, successful attacks on the leaders of Al Qaeda and ISIS destroyed the command control elements of those groups and weakened their capabilities. Yet, the result was a decentralized model that makes it nearly impossible to predict and prevent the next lone wolf or an attack from a small radicalized cell.
Similarly, on the domestic terror front, arrests that led to the dismantling of Ku Klux Klan leadership resulted in Klan leaders morphing into less readily identifiable threats. Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, noted that “50 years ago, the KKK hid behind white hoods. Today, they are hiding behind their business suits & smartphones.” Cutting the head off the proverbial snake sometimes turns the threat into a multiheaded hydra.
There’s the real possibility that the bad could quickly turn ugly. While it’s illegal to support or belong to international terrorist organizations, there is no equivalent law against domestic terrorism. The lack of a domestic terror statute means preventive and proactive tools and techniques available to the FBI and other agencies for international terrorism cases — such as undercover agents, informants and court-ordered wiretaps — aren’t there for domestic terror threats until some group or person is already well on their way to blow something up.
Encrypted communications and private spaces online allow violent plotters to evade detection long enough to potentially plan and execute attacks before they can be discovered.
In addition to that, there's already evidence that extremist groups are trying to express their problematic opinions in legal, and perhaps even more influential, ways. One report, conducted by the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) at the Atlantic Council, tracked violent domestic extremism and political violence since Jan. 6 via news reports and known extremist networks. It found that domestic extremist groups have evolved and resurfaced, now encouraging local action while spreading messages through culture war debates: targeting drag shows and vaccines, promoting book bans and opposing to diversity efforts.
According to that report, “Extremist movements and the threats they pose to democracy are still pernicious and immediate; the post-Capitol attack turmoil left them battered, but not broken. By the summer of 2021, many domestic extremist movements began attempting to rebuild their organizations in hopes of reemerging in mainstream political conversations and regaining the influence they previously experienced during the years of the Trump administration.”
This shift toward involvement in local politics doesn’t necessarily mitigate the threat of violence associated with hot-button issues. Rather, it means law enforcement can’t easily determine which person, in what town, is going to convert their rage over such issues into violence, perhaps at the direction of an unknown instigator.
The heavy hit the Justice Department inflicted on the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers will certainly persuade many to drop their affiliation with those groups and rethink their violent extremism. But it will also drive remaining members into greater secrecy and darker places that are far less accessible to law enforcement. DOJ’s recent victories against those who violently threaten our future are good, even great. Yet, history teaches us that this is not the time to pat ourselves on the back. The bad and even the ugly are likely coming.