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With U.S. In Turmoil, Experts Unsure What Kind Of Extreme Right May Emerge Soon

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Thousands of security forces are deploying across the country in anticipation of unrest around the inauguration. After the deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, there have been more than a hundred arrests and a national reckoning over how seriously to take the right-wing extremist threat. NPR's Hannah Allam reports.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: If authorities in charge of protecting the U.S. Capitol say they didn't see the threat coming, then they weren't paying attention. There were warnings, like this one.

MICHAEL JENSEN: I fully anticipate that we're going to see some events in the coming weeks that are going to be really troubling and unfortunate.

ALLAM: That's terrorism researcher Michael Jensen at the University of Maryland in the weeks before the election.

JENSEN: And they aren't all going to be committed by individuals that are, you know, neo-Nazi skinheads that have dedicated their lives to this. They're going to be committed by seemingly regular folks that have gotten kind of caught up in the madness of the moment.

ALLAM: Jensen and others who track political violence have been sounding the alarm. National security officials themselves warned about far-right extremists in reports and at congressional hearings. Militants openly called for a big event - an attack, maybe, or a standoff - that could trigger wider unrest. And yet, on a day the president promised would be, quote, "wild," the U.S. Capitol was a soft target.

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ALLAM: Hampton Stall is editor-in-chief of MilitiaWatch. He tracks older movements, as well as the new groups popping up. For all of them, Stall says, the attack on the Capitol is a game-changer.

HAMPTON STALL: Whether somebody sees it as a indication to the government of what their movement can do by taking over the U.S. Capitol building or if they see it as a false flag perpetrated by antifa agents and the deep state or if they see it as something that either was a failure or it didn't go far enough, all three of these views ultimately end in the same point, which is that folks need to get organized, so they need to get prepared for replicating or doing similar stuff down the road.

ALLAM: Analysts say today's threat is hybrid - the conspiracy and nativism of the Trump MAGAverse (ph) fused with more established extremist movements - the white nationalist and anti-government crowds. They got together at lockdown protests and Stop the Steal rallies, forming alliances that led to the showdown at the Capitol.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: 1776. 1776. 1776.

MEGAN SQUIRE: It wasn't just the rhetoric and the tone of it and the heat, right? That was all very bad.

ALLAM: That's Megan Squire, an Elon University professor who monitors extremist networks online.

SQUIRE: It was also the different types of groups and the different types of people that were using those - language and using the - this imagery of the blood of tyrants and all this kind of stuff. Oh, my gosh. This is very different.

ALLAM: The unifying factor is President Trump. Once he leaves the White House, will his most extreme followers continue to pose a national security threat? Backlash to the Obama administration led to a growth of armed groups. Stall from MilitiaWatch expects another surge under Biden but adds that there are new factors to consider, like the unprecedented crackdown on right-wing platforms.

STALL: There's a lot of sort of rhyming factors now from 2009, but there's a lot of variables that even in the last week have changed a lot.

ALLAM: With the nation in turmoil, it's unclear what kind of extreme right will emerge after Inauguration Day - how violent, how organized it might be and whether this time authorities will take it seriously.

Hannah Allam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam
Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.