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Illustration by Security Management

FBI Warns of Armed Protests Across United States

Armed protests are being planned at all 50 U.S. state capitols and at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., through at least inauguration day on 20 January, according to an internal FBI bulletin. The Bureau warned that groups are calling for protesters to storm government offices, courthouses, and administrative buildings—especially if U.S. President Donald Trump is removed from office prior to the inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden.

Federal law enforcement officials have advised police to increase security at statehouses nationwide, and some are going further. The Michigan Capitol Commission, for example, voted unanimously on Monday to ban the open carry of firearms inside the Michigan Capitol, the Detroit Free Press reported. Open carry is still permitted on the exterior grounds of the Michigan Capitol.

According to an unclassified FBI bulletin from 29 December obtained by Security Management, a few Minnesota-based followers of the Boogaloo movement performed reconnaissance at the State Capitol in early December 2020 “to identify escape points and defensible positions in the event violence occurred.” The scouts also noted law enforcement numbers and sniper locations, considered whether to break into federal buildings to use as firing locations, and discussed how to apply colored duct tape to body armor to masquerade as law enforcement and cause confusion.

Meanwhile, Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., have briefed congresspeople about three "potentially gruesome demonstrations" planned in the coming days, including a demonstration billed as the “largest armed protest ever to take place on American soil;” a protest in honor of Ashli Babbitt, a women killed during the riot; and a plot to encircle the U.S. Capitol and assassinate politicians, according to a report from The Huffington Post.

The discovery of pipe bombs around the U.S. Capitol on 6 January has investigators particularly worried about soft target security in D.C., especially given the number of government buildings, museums, and landmarks that are designed to be accessible to the public, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Changes are underway in the Capitol ahead of the inauguration. On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives sergeant-at-arms office issued a statement saying all members and people going into the House chamber must be screened for prohibited items, including firearms, and anyone failing to wear a mask on the House floor will be removed, the Associated Press reported.

The Pentagon announced that up to 15,000 National Guard troops will be sent to Washington, D.C., for inauguration day, and those deployed around the Capitol building will be armed, The New York Times reported. Pentagon officials said they are deeply worried about protests planned for next week; about 16 groups—some of which say they will be armed—have registered to stage protests in the U.S. capital.

“One Defense Department official said law enforcement agencies are planning for a range of outcomes, including a worse-case scenario in which people with firearms try to attack dignitaries, ‘suicide-type aircraft’ try to fly into the capital’s restricted airspace, and even remote-controlled drones that could be used to attack the crowd,” according to the Times. Officials are particularly worried about more likely scenarios, such as simultaneous flare-ups of violence, including with firearms.

Meanwhile the U.S. Secret Service takes command of security preparations at the U.S. Capitol and other federal buildings today in preparation for inauguration day, coordinating roles across the FBI, National Guard, U.S. Marshals Service, and other federal agencies, The Washington Post reported. Due to last week’s riots, the high-alert security posture is starting six days earlier than planned.

“You need an abundance of manpower available on site and in reserve,” says Tony McGinty, CPP, co-chair of the Extremism and Political Instability Community (EPIC) at ASIS International. “Quelling a civil disorder is like medieval siege warfare—numbers matter. Second, mutual aid agreements between agencies need to be updated: POCs confirmed; lines-of-communication tested; liaison officers exchanged; staging areas agreed upon. When the cavalry is called, you want the response to be immediate with no further approvals required.”

For more analysis on civil unrest and the 6 January riots from McGinty and Diana Concannon of EPIC, read their Q&A here.

Amid all of the preparations, the fallout from the 6 January 2021 attack continues. According to an FBI briefing yesterday, the Bureau already has 170 cases open into crimes committed in and around the Capitol during the riots, and Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin said charges have been filed in around 70 of them.

While the initial charges include misdemeanors—primarily to get investigations rolling, Sherwin explained—more serious charges are being added as evidence is collected. The range of criminal conduct is unmatched, he said, including simple trespass, theft of mail, theft of digital devices, assault on local and federal officers, theft of national security information, and murder.

The FBI called for the public to submit tips, and more than 100,000 pieces of digital media have been submitted so far. Multiple strike forces have been established within the U.S. Department of Justice, Sherwin said, including ones examining assaults on the media, sedition and conspiracy, and more.

Meanwhile, private companies are taking action. Airbnb announced today it would block and cancel reservations in the Washington, D.C., area during inauguration week, following requests from local, state and federal officials for people not to travel to the capital. Guests will be refunded in full, and hosts will be reimbursed the money they would have earned from cancelled reservations at Airbnb’s expense.

Social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have taken swift action over the past week to remove additional content and users who promote violence or conspiracy theories. Amazon Web Services (AWS) has dropped the app Parler—which was popular with people who stormed the Capitol last week—from its web-hosting service.

In anticipation of a backlash against “big tech,” Amazon and Facebook have issued warnings to their staff about threats to their safety. AWS told employees to “be safe, be vigilant” and report any unusual activity related to the company’s data centers. “No situation or concern is too small or too insignificant” to report, said AWS vice president Chris Vonderhaar in an email to his team, the BBC reported. Facebook staff were instructed not to wear company-branded clothing in public after the platform’s temporary ban of U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.

For more on civil unrest and protest preparedness, visit the new ASIS International resources page here.