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Extreme Rhetoric, Conspiracy Theories, and Attacks Raise Alarms After FBI Search for Confidential Documents

FBI agents conducted a court-approved search of parts of Mar-A-Lago, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Florida resort and home, on 8 August. Within hours, news of the search was public, and an outburst of aggressive and threatening rhetoric was proliferating online and on political television shows.

The search resulted in the seizure of classified documents—including some labeled top secret, according to the warrant and receipt of materials document released last week. Some of these documents were classified as top secret/sensitive compartmented information, which is restricted to only be viewed in secured government facilities. The documents’ storage at the sprawling resort spotlights a significant national security concern, because the property is open to members, guests, and a variety of staff, Reuters reported.

But long before the specific scope of the search was publicly revealed on 12 August, the political discourse around the action was fiery.

On Twitter, there was a tenfold increase in tweets mentioning “civil war” in the 24 hours following the FBI search, according to Dataminr analysis.

On social media platform Truth Social, users posted about an upcoming bloody civil war, called for people to take up arms, and said that “sometimes clearing out dangerous vermin requires a modicum of violence, unfortunately,” The New York Times reported.

An account bearing the name of Ricky Shiffer posted messages recommending that “patriots” go to Florida and kill federal agents. A man by the same name (it could not be confirmed if the Truth Social account belonged to him) was killed in Ohio by police on 11 August after he allegedly attempted to breach the FBI’s Cincinnati office.

Shiffer, 42, was a U.S. Navy veteran who had been on the FBI’s radar for months as they investigated his possible involvement in the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. He was armed with a nail gun and an AR-15-style rifle when he attempted to breach the visitor screening area of the FBI office in Cincinnati, the Associated Press reported, and he fled when agents confronted him. This kicked off a chase and a six-hour standoff on a rural road.

The incident “rang alarm bells as threats of violence against the FBI from far-right factions have increased in recent days online,” according to the Times.

The FBI warned its agents last week to avoid protesters and ensure that their security key cards are “not visible outside FBI space,” citing an increase in social media threats against FBI personnel and facilities, the AP noted. Security and militia experts noted that courthouses, government offices, and election headquarters should all be on alert.

“As of now, the rhetoric is directed towards the FBI, federal law enforcement agents, and associated facilities,” Anthony McGinty, CPP, tells Security Management. McGinty is co-vice chair of the ASIS Extremism and Political Instability Community. “It should be noted that this messaging is heavy with conspiratorial themes that quickly link to—and vilify—public figures, tech firms, public utilities, and international organizations.”

The conspiratorial nature of the rhetoric is already swinging in different directions. According to the Times, a different narrative is gaining traction on Truth Social. Some commentators allege that calls for violence were planted by federal law enforcement or Democratic operatives to frame right-wing people as insurrectionists or extremists. Some people, without evidence, further claimed that federal agents have been “trying to incite a civil war for some time.”

These conspiracies can shift within a matter of hours, putting organizations and people at risk.

After the warrant to search Mar-A-Lago was publicly released, the spotlight turned to spotlight anyone named in the documents or associated with the search. The Conservative Synagogue Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, canceled services this weekend after anti-Semitic threats were made against a member of its congregation—Judge Bruce Reinhard, who signed the FBI’s search warrant, according to the Jewish Press. Online, people posted the judge’s address, phone numbers, previous addresses, and relatives’ names, and some called for violence against him.

“The deterioration of privacy and truth has made it increasingly likely that individuals who engage with the public—regardless of role—will be subject to threats by those with actual or perceived grievances,” says Diana Concannon, associate provost and dean at the California School of Forensic Studies at Alliant International University and co-vice chair of the ASIS Extremism and Political Instability Community.

“Even when considered low-risk or to be confined to threats to reputation—as opposed to threats of physical harm—threats typically trigger the autonomic nervous system to respond; involuntarily we experience anxiety or fear as a primal reaction signaling some level of danger, which most find distressing," she adds.

“Ideally, organizations prepare for the eventuality that employees who engage with the public will be threatened in much the same way that they prepare for other risks:  Through evaluating most likely threats and creating training that will prepare the workforce to mitigate these, when possible, or respond effectively, when not,” Concannon continues. “Preparedness includes proportionate responses that address both the physical safety of an employee target—increasing protection, temporarily relocation, leave of absence, well as their psychological safety, which is supported by regular check-ins by an assigned liaison, information sharing, and actively listening to the employee’s concerns.”

For organizations that may be targeted or are in the public spotlight, McGinty recommends connecting with a local FBI field office or police department for an update on regional threat conditions. “Explore the possibility of law enforcement being posted at or near your building,” he adds. “That request may seem like a big ask, but depending on the risk, it may be prudent and provided.”

McGinty continues, “In considering the security rubric of deter, detect, delay, and respond—focus on detection. You want to push out your property perimeter so security personnel and technology can identify threats at a reasonable stand-off distance. A visible, active security operation (conspicuous patrol, pre-screening for visitors and vehicles, temporary barriers) can deter a violent opportunist. If not, then at least initial contact is at a safe distance from the facility’s entrance and employees.”