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Illustration by Security Management

Militia Group Members Charged with Conspiracy for U.S. Capitol Attack

A militia group discussed a plan to bring weapons to the siege of the U.S. Capitol on 6 January, according to court documents unsealed earlier this week that show the role militia groups may have played in planning the attack.

Thomas Edward Caldwell, Donovan Ray Crowl, and Jessica Marie Watkins allegedly planned to forcibly enter the U.S. Capitol on 6 January and disrupt the Congressional proceedings that day, according to court documents Security Management obtained through George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Caldwell is a member of the far-right militia, the Oath Keepers, and Crowl and Watkins are members of the Ohio State Regular Militia; all three are U.S. military veterans. Some members of the Ohio militia are part of a dues-paying subset of the Oath Keepers.

Caldwell allegedly advised others on 31 December 2020, “It begins for real Jan 5 and 6 on Washington D.C. when we mobilize in the streets,” according to an indictment. “Let them try to certify some crud on capitol hill with a million or more patriots in the streets. This kettle is set to boil…”

Further messages between Caldwell, Crowl, and Watkins detailed their conversations about hotel reservations for January, as well as discussions about the plan to travel from Virginia (where the hotel was located) into Washington, D.C.

On 6 January, Watkins and Crowl went to the Capitol wearing reinforced vests, camouflage helmets, and goggles. They joined another group of individuals who were wearing clothing with Oath Keepers patches and insignia—some were also wearing tactical gear like Watkins and Crowl—and then forcibly entered the building.

Using Zello, a mobile phone application that mimics the ability of walkie-talkie, an unknown individual communicated with Watkins. “You are executing citizen’s arrest. Arrest this assembly, we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud,” the unknown person said, according to the indictment. Watkins responded that she was in the mezzanine and then in the main dome of the Capitol.

“Get it, Jess. Do your [expletive] thing,” said another individual over Zello. “This is what we [expletive] up for. Everything we [expletive] trained for.”

In text messages sent to other individuals who expressed an interest in joining the Ohio State Regular Militia, Watkins said the group had a basic training class coming up in the beginning of January 2021.

“I need you fighting fit by inauguration,” Watkins said in a text message. “It’s a military style basic, here in Ohio, with a Marine Drill Sergeant running it. An hour north of Columbus Ohio.”

For these actions and others detailed in the indictment, Watkins, Crowl, and Caldwell are charged with conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, destruction of government property, and unlawful entry into a restricted building or grounds.

The indictment and case against the three individuals is the first unsealed evidence of planning among a known militia group ahead of 6 January.

“Investigators have said they are increasingly focused on right-wing extremist groups to determine whether any plotted aspects of the attack on the Capitol in advance, even as most of the rioters spontaneously stormed it,” according to The New York Times. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged more than 200 people for their involvement in the attack on the Capitol, with the expectation that more individuals will be charged as more evidence surfaces and authorities are able to identify those involved.

The Oath Keepers are a militia group that believes the U.S. federal government has been co-opted by a conspiracy that is attempting to strip American citizens of their rights.

“Though the Oath Keepers will accept anyone as members, what differentiates them from other anti-government groups is their explicit focus on recruiting current and former military, law enforcement, and first-responder personnel,” according to the indictment. “The organization’s name alludes to the oath sworn by members of the military and police to defend the Constitution ‘from all enemies, foreign and domestic.’”

Along with partaking in the attack on the Capitol, the Oath Keepers have also acted as volunteer security for former U.S. President Trump’s 2017 inauguration, and rallies he held in Minnesota and Texas in 2019.

“When Trump falsely claimed the 2020 presidential election was a fraud and he won, despite official parties to the vote count contending that he lost, Oath Keepers stood by him, parroting his false claims and making plans to fight back,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In an appearance on conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones’ show, Infowars, Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes said: “We’ll also be on the outside of D.C., armed, prepared to go in, if the president calls us up.”

Newly sworn in U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has raised concerns about extremists actively serving in the U.S. military. Austin issued an order in February for a force-wide “stand-down” to allow troops to discuss internal support for extremist movements, The Washington Post reports.

“Officials attribute support in the military for far-right movements among troops to larger trends in American society,” according to the Post. “But experts say the stakes are particularly high for the military, which imbues specialized training and skills that could make far-right groups more powerful, and dangerous.”

In its analysis of threats to the United States, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expressed concerns about the threat members of the far-right pose to the nation. The department assessed that racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States, responsible for eight terror attacks that posed a threat to life between 2018 and 2019.