Proud Boys’ Plotting Emerges as U.S. Paints Picture of Riot Plan
(Bloomberg) -- The Proud Boys gathered tactical supplies and raised money on the internet before storming the U.S. Capitol. The Oath Keepers held military-style training sessions in Ohio and planned a communication strategy for the riot.
A month after the siege, evidence has steadily emerged of ominous preparations for the day’s events by pro-Trump extremists as prosecutors build cases that could lead to long prison terms for seditious conspiracy or racketeering -- and even threaten the survival of far-right groups that participated in the insurrection.
On Wednesday, Ethan Nordean, 30, a leader of the Seattle branch of the Proud Boys, was charged for his role in leading a crowd of his followers past police officers guarding the building. But for prosecutors investigating the origin of the attack, what Nordean said online before the riot started may be just as significant as his conduct at the Capitol.
In late December, he began soliciting donations of “safety/protective gear” and “communications equipment,” according to court records. “Things have gotten more dangerous,” Nordean wrote on the far-right social media site Parler, before it was shut down.
Nordean’s posts showed the Proud Boys “were planning in advance to organize a group that would attempt to overwhelm police barricades and enter the United States Capitol,” prosecutors said. The Justice Department has echoed that claim in a series of conspiracy indictments alleging that nationalist groups plotted to invade the building weeks before Congress gathered there to certify the election results on Jan. 6.
The growing evidence of military-style preparations doesn’t bode well for the right-wing activists, said Alan Rozenshtein, a former legal adviser in the Justice Department’s national security division.
“It’ll start the process of flushing out the true nature of the Proud Boys, of the Boogaloo Boys, of the Oath Keepers,” Rozenshtein said. “These groups will be shown to be what they are, which is paramilitary militia groups that a free democratic society cannot tolerate. They will be disbanded one way or the other.”
This week, the Canadian government designated the Proud Boys a terrorist group, like ISIS or Al-Qaeda, which could allow local authorities to seize members’ property and deny them entry to the country. Reuters reported on Wednesday that U.S. prosecutors are weighing charges against members of far-right groups under a federal law usually reserved for organized-crime cases, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.
Those types of actions could pose an existential threat to the Proud Boys, said Brian Levin, who runs the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “You can decapitate these groups in a variety of ways,” Levin said. “Nobody wants to be a member of a group that’s under investigation.”
So far, prosecutors have charged more than 175 rioters, including one of the leaders of the Proud Boys, Joseph Biggs, as well as members of the Oath Keepers and other loosely organized extremist groups like the Three Percenters. On Wednesday, the Justice Department unveiled a conspiracy indictment against a Proud Boy leader that zeroed in on the group’s apparent preparations for the riot.
A key goal of the conspiracy was “to stop, delay, and hinder” the certification of election results, prosecutors said.
According to the indictment, Nicholas Ochs, the founder of the Proud Boys chapter in Hawaii, used the internet to raise funds to pay for his travel to Washington, working alongside Nicholas DeCarlo of Texas. The charging documents said that DeCarlo and Ochs conspired with other people “unknown” to the investigators, suggesting that the case could broaden in the coming weeks.
Investigators have also traced the origins of the riot to social media posts on Parler, which was a popular tool for right-wing activists. The charging papers in Nordean’s case documented a series of comments he posted in the weeks leading up to the rampage that hinted he was planning a violent attack. “If you are a patriot, you will be targeted and they will come after you,” he wrote on Jan. 5, the day before the riot. “Funny thing is that they don’t realize...we are coming for them.”
The Justice Department’s most detailed account of how far-right groups planned for the Capitol siege came in an indictment of three members of the Oath Keepers charged with conspiring to block certification of the election. On Nov. 9, Jessica Watkins, an Oath Keeper from Ohio, arranged a military-style “basic training class” for members, prosecutors said. “I need you fighting fit by innaugeration,” she told one recruit, misspelling inauguration.
Watkins also encouraged fellow Oath Keepers to download Zello, a walkie-talkie app that she said the group used for its “operations,” according to the indictment. At the riot, prosecutors say, Watkins and other members of the Oath Keepers communicated using Zello as they moved through the Capitol.
The charging documents do not focus exclusively on the practical steps that some rioters took to prepare for the siege. Prosecutors also appear to be laying groundwork for a broader reckoning with the ideologies of extremist right-wing groups.
“The beliefs of the Oath Keepers figure in the prosecution’s theory,” said David Sklansky, a professor of law at Stanford University. “They argue that if you know the purposes of the group, it helps to understand what it was that the particular defendants were agreeing to do.”
In Congress, lawmakers are debating possible legislation to address those ideologically motivated attacks, including a new domestic terrorism law that would direct more resources toward investigations of militia groups and other threats. But even a vigorous domestic-terrorism prosecution targeting the leadership of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers would be unlikely to curb right-wing extremism in the U.S.
“We are going to see a reduction in activities of some of these larger, over-the-top groups, and unfortunately see an increase in activities of more fragmented loners, duos and cells who dine from a buffet of grievance and anger,” said Levin of California State University. “The threat is not the groups. The threat is the significant divisions and pressure that exist in this country.”
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