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Chaos at Capitol Hill: what went wrong?

by Luca Tenzi, Security and Resilience Strategist and Andrea Molle, START InSight

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History teaches us that the assault on the Capitol building, which took place on Wednesday, January 6th, 2021, was anything but unpredictable. Although unfamiliar to most people, Congress has been the target of several attacks in the past. In 1954, for instance, a group of separatists from the US Territory of Puerto Rico opened fire inside the building, wounding five Congress members. In 1998, an armed individual managed to get through the security checkpoint, ultimately killing two police officers before being stopped. Lastly, the building was likely a target of the 9/11 attacks. Ever since, the possibility of a terrorist attack at Capitol Hill has been taken very seriously, or at least it should have been.

We can say that the threat of a mob-style assault was underestimated. One of the reasons is that, in recent American history, there had never been such a display of collective violence directed towards a government site. Not even the Vietnam war demonstrators stormed iconic seats of power like the Capitol building. Nor had the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement ever crossed the line between civil disobedience and an act of insurrection towards a legitimate and democratically elected government.

However, in this case, everything suggested that January 6th would not be just a simple protest. In the days leading up to it, many signs should have alarmed the American intelligence community. Open-source intelligence had signaled that Donald Trump’s supporters were making plans for the day and were sharing information in plain sight on social media. Among some of the monitored conversations, there were suspicious threads, including, for example, an extensive discussion concerning the best ways to smuggle weapons into DC. In cases like this, when there is a clear potential for violence to erupt, the twelve local and federal law enforcement agencies that operate in DC engage in planning coordinate operations. Intel gathering and planning for preventive security measures is usually undertaken with the FBI or the NSA (National Security Agency) taking a leading role. However, it is not clear if that was the case on January 6th.

It should be noted that a plethora of local, state, and federal security and law enforcement agencies operate simultaneously in Washington DC. All of them are tasked with protecting representatives and iconic sites of the federal government. Following protocol, security planning was handled by the United States Capitol Police (USCP), a law enforcement agency of about 2,000 members under the direct control of Congress and uniquely tasked with protecting the Capitol building. The Head of Capitol Police, who recently resigned due to the political backlash, stated that he had requested reinforcements two days ahead. He had received credible and actionable intel that suggested the protests would be much more extensive and potentially more violent than anticipated. For reasons still unclear, the other actors of the US federal government’s vast security apparatus ignored the request and did not grant support.

The transition between the outgoing and the incoming administrations certainly explains some confusion in the decision-making process. Some key positions were occupied ad interim by outgoing officials and have certainly weakened operational and tactical decisions. The analysis of the decision-making timeline comforts this view. The events’ timeline is becoming more evident, suggesting that there have been many mistakes along the line. For example, a Department of Defense official stated that, at around 2:00 pm, the Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, requested the National Guard to be dispatched on-site. That was about 45 minutes after the protestors had broken the barricade on the building’s external security perimeter.

Moreover, it is not clear why would the Mayor oversee such request rather than the Chief of Capitol Police, who serves on-site and certainly had a better understanding of the situation. The Capitol’s blurred chain of command aggravated the confusion. The interim Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, deployed the National Guard only about 30 minutes after receiving the Mayor’s request. The National Guard was then joined by few neighboring states police departments tactical teams (SWAT). At that point, however, Capitol Hill was already lost as the mob had already entered the building. Despite a thin external security perimeter, no security perimeter was set inside the building, except for some agents tasked with defending the most sensible rooms. Since no physical barriers were used to block corridors and force an internal route, once inside, the assailants were able to roam freely while being chased by a now disoriented Police.

In the Rotunda, the iconic circular hall located under the Capitol building’s dome, gas masks were rapidly distributed. The outnumbered Capitol Police were by then using pepper spray and tear gas to slow down the mob. Simultaneously, the Secret Service proceeded to extract Vice-president Mike Pence, while Police officers extracted several other key members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Security forces then used improvised barricades to block the doors accessing the Chamber of the House of Representatives. For example, a cabinet was pushed in front of the Chamber’s doors while senators and representatives were hiding under the desks waiting to be extracted.

Twenty years after 9/11, the Capitol Security Department’s annual budget is now set to around $450 million. If it is not for lack of resources, what did go wrong in defending the Capitol building? Among the many factors which played a role, two can be deemed essential to mention: First, the Capitol Police lack of preparation to manage a situation amenable to guerrilla warfare. Second, the structural weakness of the building itself. Capitol police officers are mainly tasked with and trained to keep protestors away from the Capitol building and the outside monumental staircase, thus securing the structure like a citadel. The reason for that is that the nineteenth century Capitol building has many doors and windows. Therefore, it is quite challenging for a security force, although large, to simultaneously defend all these access points. Once the steps were lost, the mob could -quite predictably- quickly find a way into the building. The second operational weakness is that the Capitol Police has contingency plans only for cases of what is legally defined as “planned activities of the First Amendment.” This means against moderately violent demonstrations that are not considered either a terrorist attack or guerrilla warfare.

While the risk of active protests and civil disobedience on the part of Trump supporters were certainly considered plausible, and in some way even expected, giving the tones of the outgoing President, the violent outburst came as a surprise to national and foreign experts. This physical violence was shocking because a place that was always regarded as one amongst the safest on earth was easily violated, revealing an unforgivable level of operational weakness by the US security and intelligence community.

Despite the alleged existence of several contingency plans, security was poorly designed, insufficient, and entrusted to an inadequate police force. The response looked wholly improvised to the point that the heads of the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security have launched a rigorous investigation into their agencies’ shortcoming at the time of the assault.

All that happened points out that what took place in front of our eyes on January 6th was never really considered a possibility. Setting aside an analysis of the crowd dynamics, what was extremely surprising is the building’s physical fragility and the lack of planning. Simple physical countermeasures, including architectural elements designed to prevent an assault, limit or delay access to the building by the most violent protesters, were missing. Physical measures in the world of security experts are summarized in the 5D paradigm (deter, detect, deny, delay, defend). This model is now considered a best practice by all public and private security agencies. Their lack thereof is troubling. Even more so, because the United States is considered top of the game concerning security measures designed to protect government’s sites. Those have increased considerably after the events of 9/11. In the aftermath of 9/11, all sensitive targets, both on American soil and abroad, such as diplomatic offices, went through a complete security overhaul, and dedicated budgets grew exponentially. Today, all the American embassies are considered the golden standards of security measures, which are draconian in some cases. Architectural measures, urban restyling, new technical solutions, and armed personnel’s constant presence have now become the norm thanks to the US. The use of the concepts of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) is among the critical elements of this paradigm change in security planning and sees its best application so far with the new American Embassy design in London. The multi-disciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior has reached its apex, turning the Embassy into an almost impenetrable fortress.

Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for many critical sites of American politics in Washington DC. Like many other government sites on American soil, the Capitol building remains easily accessible to the public, which turns it into a soft target. Visitors can collect intel during either guided tours or meetings with their government representatives while roaming almost freely inside the building. Moreover, the internet provides further chances to collect information about the building as several websites offer incredibly detailed maps of the Capitol building available to the public. These maps are even updated whenever changes or renovations are made. Following the events of January 6th, the security measures and the Vice President’s movements have been studied, analyzed, and reported by the mass media, exposing a lack of discretion in handling confidential information.

Another element of weakness is that of a lack of threat perception due to cultural biases. Despite having provided a complete first line of defense, including anti-climb fences, during the Black Lives Matter movement’s protests, the same preventive measures were not deployed against Trump supporters. The physical barriers used on January 6th were the same as those customarily used to direct crowds, for example, during a concert. Certainly not the same type of fences which were seen deployed, along with the National Guard, in defense of the Capitol building and the White House on the occasion of the George Floyd protests. The reaction of the security apparatus was at that time probably exaggerated. It should also be mentioned that President Trump had demanded a very tall fence to be built around the White House. Paradoxically, this request was considered despicable by many observers precisely because the outside of the White House is seen as a place where the people can exercise their constitutional right to protest.

A final surprising element was the presence of poorly protected and easily accessible entry points. For example, the windows on the lower floors were neither manned nor equipped with shatterproof glass. In much of the footage, we can see that only the main entry doors were armored. By contrast, others were quickly forced by means of elementary objects found on-site (e.g., metal chairs or bars), allowing the mob’s avant-garde to access the building and open other doors from the inside. The inside doors, for example, were not reinforced, nor were the windows bulletproof. The images of armed agents defending the chambers behind what appears to be a wardrobe placed against the main access door, and the death of a protester hit by a bullet fired through a French window by a police officer, confirm our suspicion. Moreover, the Capitol building was partially covered in scaffoldings due to some of its facades’ renovation. Those unprotected scaffolding served as a made-up assault tower, allowing access to the upper floors and the roof and providing melee weapons to the attackers.

In conclusion, if democracy has shown remarkable resilience, security has failed spectacularly. The lack of operational and physical planning and systemic issues in the Capitol Hill security apparatus chain suggest that the United States is utterly unprepared to face a domestic threat perpetrated by lower-middle-class Caucasian citizens.

The prejudice is not only due to the intelligence community’s unwillingness to adapt its threat perception to a target other than the stereotypical jihadist from overseas, but also and perhaps above all, to its very own Constitution. The first and second amendments do guarantee the right to express opinions even in an aggressive fashion, and to own and carry weapons or organize militias to respond to external and internal threats, including those that -in the collective imagination- might originate from the government. This flammable mixture helped create the conditions conducive to January 6th and today contributes to making high profile sites, such as the Capitol Hill and the White House itself, soft targets.

As there has been a before and an after to 9/11, there will be a before and an after to 1/06. Whereas the rights enshrined in the US Constitution will not be changed, we can foreshadow and hope that domestic terrorism will be monitored closely. We will also have discussions, difficult ones, on security measures in government buildings open to the public, first and foremost the Capitol. Discussions that already began in the days following the assault, when Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered that Capitol Police introduce airport level checkpoints to access Congress. A measure that did not go uncontested.

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The terrorist movement of QAnon: its evolution from the Pizzagate to the assault on Capitol Hill

by Andrea Molle

January 6, 2021, will always be remembered as the day the US Congress was assaulted by a handful of Trump supporters incapable of admitting he lost the presidential election. It was supposed to be a dull session of Congress that should have just certified Joe Biden’s victory. Instead, Capitol Hill was invaded by dozens of protesters whose intention was to find and destroy the electoral college votes in a vain attempt to prevent the inevitable fall of Donald Trump. Despite his constitutional duties, the outgoing President failed to condemn them and the violence that would later cause four victims among the protesters. Instead, he asked them to leave and return home, expressed loved and admiration, and, most importantly, took once again the opportunity to repeat his unfounded claims of voting fraud. In what many analysts already see as the most dangerous constitutional crisis since the Civil War, among the protesters stood the followers of QAnon led by Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman,” a legendary figure of the movement well-known to the authorities and all scholars of conspiracy theories.

What is QAnon, and why does it represent a danger to democracy?

The QAnon brand gathers the followers of the “conspiratorial revelations” of an anonymous internet user: a collective pseudonym named Q. QAnon is an American movement that, thanks to the COVID pandemic -19, has spread in over 70 countries and presents an extremely high risk of radicalization. The origin of QAnon is relatively recent, although conspiracy theories are typical of American society, at least since the Cold War. The need to carefully monitor this movement stems from the fact that its content and recent activities, including the Washington DC events, suggest that QAnon poses an extreme radicalization and public order issue.

When and how was QAnon born?

The origin of QAnon is relatively recent, although the layer of conspiracy theories from which it develops has been a constant in American politics since the Cold War. Officially, QAnon was born between 2016 and 2017 following the American presidential elections, which saw the Republican candidate Donald J. Trump, already identified as a messianic figure by the various conspiracy groups, prevail over the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. With Trump’s election, the groups that had supported his electoral campaign have formed his electoral base, which is independent and often in opposition to the traditional base of the Republican Party, and which Trump has continuously referred to for its political battles. Often censored by the mainstream media, these movements ended up gathering under the label of QAnon. Thus, creating the critical mass necessary to structure a whole network equipped with a parallel social media system, such as the well-known platforms 4chan, 8chan, gab .com, Parlor, and Telegram, to spread their theories and recruit new members. Thus, the QAnon brand has become a sort of franchise that gathers all those individuals and groups who refer to Q’s revelations. However, the movement does not have a fully hierarchical organization.

Who is Q, and what do QAnon followers believe?

In the beginning, Q introduced himself as a government official, willingly revealing the truth about the alleged “deep state.” His clues, whose interpretation is left to readers, depict the existence of a cabal made up of politicians, entrepreneurs, and actors dedicated to kidnappings, human sacrifices, and satanic cults, to achieve immortality and enslave the masses after the great reset caused by the pandemic. Given that the deep state was fought only by Trump, aided by few allied sovereign leaders, his defeat is now viewed by Q’s followers as proof of the conspiracy’s very existence. For this reason, the followers of QAnon are now active supporters of the theory of electoral fraud and, as we have seen, do not hesitate to engage in violent retaliation.

How is QAnon content built?

In addition to the aforementioned core belief of QAnon, each user or “truth search group” can add or modify content and adapt the message to their needs, as shown in the following model.

Based on the empirical evidence collected in the last two years, the scientific community that studies conspiracy theories and participatory culture see QAnon in continuity with the New Age phenomenon. QAnon is considered by scholars to be a novelty in the conspiratorial world and is frequently described as a real do-it-yourself, conspiratorial, open-world. The same analysts consider the risk of mass radicalization to be very high, especially among the population’s young and less educated strata. The interactive and very satisfying nature of its conspiratorial contents and the constant references to fictional-political literature make the QAnon experience extremely compelling.

How does QAnon spread, and how does it work?

Although it was born as a marginal phenomenon, QAnon quickly took hold of social media thanks to its contents flexibility. For example, on YouTube, conservative content creators such as TRU Reporting or SGT Report channel started producing dozens of videos inspired by Q’s clues, instantly garnering hundreds of thousands of views. A few months after Q’s debut, the movement already counted on a vast network of YouTube channels, podcasts, and books devoted to fighting the “deep state.” In addition to that, the inevitable themed gadgets such as flags t-shirts ended up becoming fashionable even among those not affiliated. QAnon slogans and symbols, such as the hashtag # WWG1WGA (“Where We Go One We Go All”), also begun to populate the ecosystem of social media and conservative movements. They also appeared in daily life and demonstrations supporting President Trump, who generally opposed the liberal political world. Simultaneously, the QAnon phenomenon began to manifest its most extreme and radical side, taking advantage of some of its followers’ self-radicalization. As early as 2017, with the famous Pizza Gate, which saw a gunman raid the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, claiming to be on a mission to free the children held hostage in the basement, several QAnon affiliates have been implicated in facts of crime. It is estimated that in May 2020, as many as eleven murders, two armed assaults, two kidnapping cases, and two arson attacks against a family planning center, which offers pregnancy interruptions, and a mosque are attributable to members of QAnon. The growing number of cases has resulted in the designation of QAnon as an extremist organization and a potential internal terrorist threat by the FBI. It is the first conspiracy theory to be classified as such. However, the lack of a defined and structured organization with identifiable leaders made it very difficult for the American authorities to prosecute QAnon affiliates.

In many cases, these individuals adhere to its message and exploit the ideology but operate independently. For example, in this case of the Nashville attack, the attacker was motivated by an opposition to 5G technology and the SARS-COV-2 vaccine, which he considered government tools for controlling the masses. In others, the movement is presented in a more structured way, as showed by the assault at Capitol Hill.

How widespread is QAnon?

Speaking of its diffusion, QAnon is present in more than 70 countries with activities ranging from the individuals directly affiliated to occasional reposters of content. The spread of QAnon was undoubtedly helped by the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the constant decrease in institutions’ trust. Whereas goggletrend suggests fluctuating interest, the number of Tweets related to QAnon has increased from 5 million in 2017 to over 12 million in 2020. As for the number of followers, QAnon has now exceeded 1.5 million in the US while estimating around 500,000 affiliates in Europe.

Donald Trump is a critical figure in the conspiracy narrative, and QAnon remains mostly focused on American politics. However, we recently see a boom in Europe where the movement has followers on various social media. NewsGuard, an international organization that assesses news sites’ reliability, recently released an extremely detailed report on QAnon in Europe. In France, a country where the movement has been present for some time, albeit still to a limited extent, QAnon debuted thanks to the “Yellow Vests” movement and is ever since growing thanks to the No-Vax movement. In the UK, QAnon garnered support during the Brexit campaign. Without referring directly to the movement, groups such as Citizens Unite UK #wakeup use QAnon’s ideas, for example, the existence of a global elite, to push British citizens to fight the alleged government’s attacks on their rights. In Germany, the second-largest nation after the United States for QAnon’s presence, the movement entered the political debate through far-right movements and the generalized anti-Merkel sentiment that grew exponentially during the lockdown. Also, several leftist movements, particularly those linked to the climate change narrative, are increasingly attracted to his rhetoric. The number of german accounts associated with QAnon has risen to more than 200,000 according to the most recent estimate by the Amadeu-Antonio Foundation, which monitors right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism in Germany. The largest German-language QAnon channel on Telegram, Qlobal Change, quadrupled its followers in 2020 to an impressive 123,000 scoring over 18 million views for its YouTube content. In the Netherlands, social media accounts openly allied with far-right political movements have similarly borrowed themes typical to QAnon. It mostly happened when the country entered in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Italy, the real size of QAnon is still mostly unknown. However, Q’s propaganda has entered the political debate thanks to the populist and sovranist right that accesses it through various identity movements that openly support it.

Who joins QAnon, and how to counter it?

As we have seen, QAnon raises severe concerns among analysts because of the speed, ease, and pervasiveness with which it spreads. Furthermore, it has already shown the potential for terrorist violence in America. It is therefore advisable to start monitoring QAnon’s presence on social media in Italy and establish a network of collaborations with public and private institutions that already deal with this phenomenon in Europe and the United States. It is also worrisome that mainstream sovranist movements increasingly amplify the conspiratorial message to mobilize votes without mentioning QAnon. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze the rhetoric and conspiracy themes to reach a level of understanding that makes it possible to detect them in contexts not directly related to QAnon.

We also need to understand the recruitment pathways and radicalization mechanisms. While it seems increasingly likely that the radicalization mechanisms are very similar to those of religious extremist movements, i.e., widespread self-radicalization and the presence of radicalism entrepreneurs, the target is still not entirely clear. The recruitment profile is still unclear where all the population strata are susceptible to a fascination for QAnon. The only exception is political affiliation, which may partly explain the impact of Q’s theories. A recent survey by Morning Consult, conducted between 6 and 8 October 2020 on a sample of 1,000 adults, reveals that around 24% of adult Americans believe the claims made by Q’s supporters are very or partly accurate. However, the same poll shows profound differences between Democrats and Republicans. While only 18% of Democratic voters believe some of the claims are somehow accurate, about 38% of Republican supporters consider them valid. Another survey by Daily Kos / Civiqs, which reports the interviews conducted on approximately 1,368 adults conducted from August 29 to September 1, 2020, confirms the previous findings. The results show that about one in three Republicans (33%) believe QAnon’s theory of a conspiracy about the “deep state” is “mostly true,” while another 23% say that only “some parts” of it are correct.

On the other hand, only 4% of Democrats think that the theory is even partially true, while for 72% of Democrats, it is not true at all. The explanation for the differences is likely because Republican politicians have only sporadically disavowed the claims made by QAnon supporters, potentially because they rely on them for political support. In addition to blind support for Trump, one of the most striking examples is the recent election to Congress of Marjorie Taylor Green, who directly promoted and approved QAnon’s content in interviews and on its social media channels. In Europe, several right-wing sovranist parties have adopted QAnon’s rhetoric ever since the election of Donald Trump and the establishment in Rome of Bannon’s Study Center. Several scholars consider the former advisor to President Donald Trump to be the main responsible for the normalization of conspiracy theories. However, it is still challenging to determine the direction of the correlation effect, namely whether QAnon more easily influences those who manifest right-wing political tendencies or whether the movement’s followers, regardless of their initial political positions, become more inclined to move their vote towards right-wing parties over time.

In the future, the movement will likely require the same approach used today for extreme religious movements. Unfortunately, the lack of a defined organizational structure and the potential for mass radicalization still makes it extremely difficult to offer guidelines and specific policy recommendations.