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The Rise of the Moors standoff could've been a lot worse. What about next time?

America has a growing problem with armed extremists itching for a showdown.
Photo collage: Image of traffic on Interstate 95, close-up of military gear and image of police working.
A group of armed men partially shut down a highway in Wakefield, Massachusetts on July 3, 2021. MSNBC / AP

Two people appeared in court in Malden, Massachusetts, on Wednesday in connection with a nine-hour standoff between members of an armed militia and state police over the weekend. Although the events that led to nearly all of the 11 men involved being charged seem bizarre, armed extremism is becoming all too common in the country.

Domestic extremism, the kind that can lead to violence, is metastasizing across our country’s regions and races.

At about 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, a Massachusetts state trooper noticed two cars stopped on the shoulder of I-95, 15 miles north of Boston. It looked like someone was trying to refuel at least one of the cars, and troopers stopped to assist.

The armed men, who identified themselves as belonging to the Rise of the Moors, a majority African American militia group, fled when police approached, triggering a long standoff that involved hostage negotiators and a tactical team but ultimately was resolved peacefully. The men were taken into custody and a violent and potentially racially incendiary outcome was mercifully avoided.

If you were under the illusion that only white guys join heavily armed militia-style groups with lunatic ideologies, that fallacy was smashed in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The incident publicly illustrates what law enforcement professionals already know: Domestic extremism, the kind that can lead to violence, is metastasizing across our country’s regions and races.

While there is likely a difference in terms of ideology and origin of a far-right militia group like the Oath Keepers and one like the Rise of the Moors, the dangers they pose to society are the same.

The amorphous tentacles of various belief systems, including hate-based nationalism, racial supremacy, sovereign citizen identity, anti-government anarchism and civil war inciters, are shapeshifting in ways that make them harder for authorities to detect, deter and defeat.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that some members of the Rise of the Moors have engaged in violent acts, from shootings and robberies to other armed confrontations. The group believes its members are immune from U.S. law because their ancestors were the original founders of America after inexplicably traveling here from Morocco.

This appears to be a model of peaceful engagement with armed extremists itching for a showdown.

During the standoff, at around 4 a.m., a man whom The Boston Globe identified as Jamhal Talib Abdullah Bey said he was broadcasting live from I-95. His commentary during his live feed seemed to signal that this might have been a staged event, designed to garner attention for the group and provoke criminal charges that might allow the group to test its bizarre legal theories in court. Such publicity could also potentially recruit more followers.

If we’re to have any hope of containing the convoluted cacophony of gun-toting extremists hellbent on eroding our rule of law and dividing our democracy, there are three things that need to happen.

First is law enforcement training. Our police departments need to take a lesson from how the Massachusetts troopers handled this incident. From the first officer on the scene, to the combined negotiation and tactical personnel, this appears to be a model of peaceful engagement with armed extremists itching for a showdown.

As Mason explained: "We train to those encounters. We very much understand the philosophy that underlies that mindset. And we train our officers, actually, at the academy, on these interactions and how to de-escalate those situations, and how to engage with people that have that philosophy and mindset and resolve those situations in a peaceful manner."

Denying these groups the violent encounters they desire serves to deflate their cause and prevent incidents from exploding into more nationwide anti-police, anti-government, or race-based conflagrations.

Second, intelligence collection. Little was known in police circles about Rise of the Moors before this incident, and few police agencies were even aware of the group’s existence. “It can be hard to track connections to other organizations, because they tend to operate very privately,” said Freddy Cruz of the Southern Poverty Law Center. But clearly, what little was known about the Moors was mostly within private organizations like the law center and the Anti-Defamation League that track extremist groups.

We need far more collaboration between the police and organizations like these as the police ramp up intelligence collection, training and preparations for encounters like the one in Massachusetts. This kind of private and public partnership is alluded to in the recent national strategy for countering domestic terrorism, yet there is no reference to when or how it will take shape. It must begin now, and it’s going to take increased budgets to do it. When it comes to training and intelligence gathering, “defunding the police” won’t help.

As diverse and defuse as these groups have become, they all have one common denominator: guns.

Third is legislation. Proactive policing of domestic terror threats is hampered by the lack of tools in the investigative toolkit. We have laws against international terrorism that make it easier for the FBI and other agencies to learn about violent intentions before they play out. Court-ordered wiretaps, source development and undercover operations have all helped prevent major acts of international terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11. Yet we have nothing analogous for domestic terrorism, which I’ve written about extensively. It’s time to demand action from Congress.

Similarly, as diverse and defuse as these groups have become, they all have one common denominator: guns. (Although none of the men in the I-95 encounter had licenses to carry their firearms, according to reports, many militia members procure guns legally.) There are two essential gun control laws that have passed the House and are pending before the U.S. Senate. One proposal would eliminate the “gun show” exception to mandatory background checks before purchasing a weapon, and the other would reverse the current rule that defaults to allowing a gun purchase if the FBI can’t resolve a background concern within three business days.

It's time for law enforcement and lawmakers to act if we are to contain the growing threat of the armed extremists among us.