Picture: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS
Picture: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS

Washington — The week before Joe Biden’s inauguration, downtown Washington looks like a city preparing for war.

A huge swath of the city core is blocked off, patrolled by uniformed National Guard forces as part of a buildup not seen since the Civil War. And the US capital is getting even more fortified as federal, state and local officials brace for a worst-case scenario of violence tied to the January 20 inauguration.

More than 25,000 law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel have been activated to provide security in Washington leading up to US president-elect Biden’s swearing-in, a ceremony that will have far less pomp than in the past because of the Covid-19 pandemic and last week’s deadly riots at the Capitol.

Behind the scenes, federal agents, prosecutors and analysts are racing to track and disrupt active plots in what some say is the greatest security challenge since the days after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, according to current and former US officials.

“We’re concerned about the potential for violence at multiple protests and rallies planned here in DC and at state capitol buildings around the country in the days to come,” FBI director Christopher Wray said in a security briefing on Thursday. “It could bring armed individuals within close proximity to government buildings and officials.”

A bulletin by the FBI and other agencies this week warned that extremists targeting the inauguration may exploit the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol breach by conducting attacks to destabilise and force a larger conflict in the US, according to a person familiar with it. The bulletin also warned that the siege of the Capitol will be a “significant driver of violence” in the future, the person said.

More than 100 people involved in the riots — which led to at least five deaths — have been charged with crimes so far, with more expected.

Efforts to uncover active plots include searching social media, monitoring online chat sites, arresting individuals identified in the Capitol riots and interviewing suspects and witnesses, two US officials said.

The justice department also has started making pre-emptive arrests: an Illinois man was arrested on January 12 for threatening to kill Democrats during the inauguration. Capitol Police have warned that anyone trying to “unlawfully gain access” to the Capitol Complex will be subject to “an appropriate use of force and arrest.”

A presidential inauguration is always a highest-tier security affair, but agencies amplified and accelerated their operations following the Capitol siege, which was led by Trump supporters trying to disrupt the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory by Congress.

The Secret Service is in charge of inauguration security and has activated a command centre — officially known as the Multi-Agency Coordinating Center — to bring together federal, state and local agencies.

More than 20 public safety agencies are involved in the security planning, including law enforcement, fire and rescue and emergency medical services, according to the Secret Service.

The FBI has command centres at its headquarters and its Washington Field Office and is leading the Joint Terrorism Task Force to share intelligence and threat information between agencies, including with the Capitol Police, Park Police and the Metropolitan Police Department.

Along with the physical fortification of the Capitol, the D.C. government has closed a large section of the city to traffic, shut down subway stations and detoured public buses. The National Mall, the traditional gathering point for crowds on inauguration day, may also be closed under a plan being considered by the National Park Service.

Outside Washington, the FBI established command posts in all of its field offices across the country and has encouraged state and local officials to share any intelligence they pick up about threats. The FBI and justice department have stood up a strike force to pursue charges of sedition against anyone who carries out attacks.

Companies have joined the effort. Delta Air Lines is barring checked firearms on Washington-bound flights through January 20, except for law enforcement officers. Airbnb, the largest home-rental service in the US, said it is cancelling all reservations in the Washington area next week.

While the Capitol appears to be fortified for the days ahead, concern has mounted that extremists will focus attacks outside the security perimeter, on so-called soft targets, in Washington or in state capitals, one official said.

Threat to states

Law enforcement officials say there’s specific intelligence that planned, large-scale activities are expected to occur in California, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, Utah and West Virginia starting this weekend. National Guard troops have been activated in most states.

“It’s a tenuous situation,” said Frank Straub, a former federal official who now directs the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies. “We have to recognise at this time in our history we do have a very real, very credible and very animated domestic extremist and terrorist threat.”

Some groups have called on members to overwhelm law enforcement and protection efforts with large numbers and have been encouraging people to undertake armed protests at all state capitols. Others have signalled to their members to stand down, and to avoid Washington.

Analysts warned the situation is straining security resources.

“We’ve reached a flashpoint in terms of security and law enforcement challenges,” said Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence. “I hear federal agents say they cannot handle this; they don’t have the tools. We better pay attention to them.”

The amount of information the FBI has collected is dizzying, including more than 140,000 pieces of digital media related to the attack on the US Capitol.

“The volume of information out there is significant, but we’ve been pushing that information as rapidly as possible to all of our relevant law enforcement and intelligence partners,” Wray said.

One of the unique challenges that law enforcement agencies confront is that threats are coming from US citizens.

For almost two decades, the primary focus for intelligence and law enforcement agencies has been hunting foreign terrorists and a handful of individuals in the US who were radicalised by their propaganda.

The siege on the Capitol laid bare a growing threat that is likely to redefine counterterrorism and counterintelligence efforts for years to come: the potentially thousands of US citizens who are motivated to violence by domestic politics and the words of American politicians.

In some cases, the agitators may even be supported by law enforcement officers who have sworn to protect the country, according to current and former officials.

“If some of those who protect us are actually planning against us, the security challenge becomes even greater moving forward,” said Figliuzzi, the former FBI official who’s the author of a new book, “The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence.”

Even determining who might be planning events — and who’s just blustering — can be murky.

‘Keyboard bravado’

“We have to separate the aspirational from the intentional and determine which of the individuals saying despicable things on the internet are just practising keyboard bravado or they actually have the intent to do harm,” Steven D’Antuono, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, told reporters on Jan. 12.

Justice department officials say they’re not taking any tools off the table when it comes to trying to prevent future violent acts and charge those who carried out attacks.

“We have plenty of federal resources at our disposal; plenty of federal charges to address all of this conduct,” said Michael Sherwin, acting US attorney for the District of Columbia. “We’re looking at, and treating this, just like a significant international counterterrorism or counterintelligence operation.”

Bloomberg

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