July 16, 2021
IntelBrief: Six Months after January 6, Where Are We Now? Where are We Headed?
On July 6, the country marked six months since the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol that led to the deaths of five U.S. citizens. Incited by former U.S. President Donald Trump and inspired by baseless conspiracies of election fraud, a violent mob descended upon the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the November 2020 presidential election, which were to be confirmed in Congress that day. What ensued were hours of theft, destruction, wanton violence, attacks on police, and the tragic murder of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick. Bombs and Molotov cocktails were also discovered within the vicinity of or in close proximity to the premises. Since the insurrection, over 500 individuals have been arrested across forty-four states, and the number is growing by the day.
In the aftermath of the insurrection, the government has taken serious investigative action, though progress has been hampered by partisan squabbles. A hopeful step forward was taken in May when the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3233, a bill to create an independent commission to study the insurrection, titled the “National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex Act.” Surprisingly, especially given the current partisan political climate, thirty-five of the House’s 211 Republicans voted in favor. However, the independent January 6 Commission (akin to the 9/11 Commission) was blocked by Republicans in the Senate, which led to the creation of a select committee—a committee established by the Senate for a limited time to perform a particular study or investigation—in which Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi selected eight members and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will select five.
Regardless of—or perhaps especially because of—the hyper-partisanship and dysfunction that defines the U.S. government, it is essential that Washington approach the investigation of the Capitol Insurrection with the severity and cooperation it deserves. If downplayed or excessively politicized, the U.S. government risks exacerbating the conditions on which domestic violent extremists capitalize in order to spread more disinformation, recruit more followers, and plan more attacks. Without a doubt, the implications of the Capitol Insurrection regarding the threat of domestic terrorism are immense. Of the hundreds of people who participated, the siege included both random actors and those affiliated with formal organizations and militias such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters. While many scholars and practitioners have been signaling the growing threat of domestic violent extremism for years, the events on January 6, 2021 appeared to solidify the fact that domestic terrorism has become the most urgent terrorist threat to U.S. national security. And the mayhem caused by the attacks will surely have a galvanizing effect for domestic violent extremists—as large-scale terrorist attacks typically do.
In addition to a cooperative and effective investigation, it is imperative that the United States take additional policy steps to mitigate the domestic terrorist threat for years to come. The Biden administration offered a starting point when it unveiled its strategy to counter domestic terrorism last month. Oriented around four “pillars,” the strategy seeks to outline objectives and allocate resources toward the most pressing issues related to countering domestic terrorism, whether it be information-sharing, prevention steps, countering conspiracy theories and disinformation, etc. While the strategy is a laudable starting point and could allow for the proper allocation of resources for its implementation, success is no fait accompli, and must inform actions of the government and partners.
Finally, the global dimensions of the aftermath of the January 6 Insurrection cannot be ignored. While the attacks did not impede the certification of the democratic U.S. election, they did damage the longstanding tradition of peaceful transfer of power in the United States. For adversaries and autocratic leaders, the fragility that the insurrection exposed gave credence to their criticisms of the United States and the democracy promotion that has been a pillar of its foreign policy. Both state and nonstate actors have and will surely continue to exploit the fissures to promote further distrust of the U.S. government among its citizens and allies. Therefore, in addition to investigating the insurrection and working to counter domestic violent extremism, the Biden administration will have to continue working to reverse democratic backsliding at home and restore its position as the legitimate defender of democracy abroad. Moreover, as the United States has looked to protect its own security while asking allies to address the terrorism threat within their own borders, ensuring a robust domestic response and working closely with international partners countering similar threats will also be a key element of the response.
The January 6 Insurrection can rightly be viewed as the toxic culmination of deteriorating political conditions that began even before the 2016 election. The Biden administration faces numerous challenges that are complicated by the political polarization currently plaguing the American people. However, as domestic violent extremism continues to rise, the United States must take the necessary actions to correct its mistakes and confront the threat that is weakening our democratic character, damaging our reputation, and jeopardizing American lives. The way forward is clear, but success and progress are far from guaranteed.