Washington, January 15
As President Donald Trump’s supporters massed outside the Capitol last week and sang the national anthem, a line of men wearing olive-drab helmets and body armour trudged purposefully up the marble stairs in a single-file line, each man holding the jacket collar of the one ahead.
The formation, known as “Ranger File,” is the standard operating procedure for a combat team that is “stacking up” to breach a building — instantly recognizable to any U.S. soldier or Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a chilling sign that many at the vanguard of the mob that stormed the seat of American democracy either had military training or were trained by those who did.
An Associated Press review of public records, social media posts and videos shows at least 21 current or former members of the U.S. military or law enforcement have been identified as being at or near the Capitol riot, with more than a dozen others under investigation but not yet named. In many cases, those who stormed the Capitol appeared to employ tactics, body armour and technology such as two-way radio headsets that were similar to those of the very police they were confronting.
Experts in homegrown extremism have warned for years about efforts by far-right militants and white-supremacist groups to radicalize and recruit people with military and law enforcement training, and they say the Jan. 6 insurrection that left five people dead saw some of their worst fears realized.
“ISIS and al-Qaida would drool over having someone with the training and experience of a U.S. military officer,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
“These people have training and capabilities that far exceed what any foreign terrorist group can do. Foreign terrorist groups don’t have any members who have badges.” Among the most prominent to emerge is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and decorated combat veteran from Texas who was arrested after he was photographed wearing a helmet and body armour on the floor of the Senate, holding a pair of zip-tie handcuffs.
Another Air Force veteran from San Diego was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer as she tried to leap through a barricade near the House chamber. A retired Navy SEAL, among the most elite special warfare operators in the military, posted a Facebook video about travelling from his Ohio home to the rally and seemingly approving of the invasion of “our building, our house.”
Two police officers from a small Virginia town, both of them former infantrymen, were arrested by the FBI after posting a selfie of themselves inside the Capitol, one flashing his middle finger at the camera.
Also under scrutiny is an active-duty psychological warfare captain from North Carolina who organised three busloads of people who headed to Washington for the “Save America” rally in support the president’s false claim that the November election was stolen from him. Judges across the country have repeatedly dismissed cases challenging the election results, and former Attorney General William Barr, a Trump ally, has said there was no sign of widespread fraud.
While the Pentagon declined to provide an estimate for how many other active-duty military personnel are under investigation, the military’s top leaders were concerned enough ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration that they issued a highly unusual warning to all service members this week that the right to free speech gives no one the right to commit violence.
The chief of the U.S. Capitol Police was forced to resign following the breach and several officers have been suspended pending the outcome of investigations into their conduct, including one who posed for a selfie with a rioter and another who was seen wearing one of the Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” caps.
The AP’s review of hundreds of videos and photos from the insurrectionist riot shows scores of people mixed in the crowd who were wearing military-style gear, including helmets, body armour, rucksacks and two-way radios. Dozens carried canisters of bear spray, baseball bats, hockey sticks and pro-Trump flags attached to stout poles later used to bash police officers.
A close examination of the group marching up the steps to help breach the Capitol shows they wore military-style patches that read “MILITIA” and “OATHKEEPER.” Others were wearing patches and insignias representing far-right militant groups, including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and various self-styled state militias.
The Oath Keepers, which claims to count thousands of current and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, have become fixtures at protests and counter-protests across the country, often heavily armed with semi-automatic carbines and tactical shotguns.
Stewart Rhodes, an Army veteran who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 as a reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama, had been saying for weeks before the Capitol riot that his group was preparing for a civil war and was “armed, prepared to go in if the president calls us up.” Adam Newbold, the retired Navy SEAL from Lisbon, Ohio, whose more than two-decade military career includes multiple combat awards for valour, said in a Jan. 5 Facebook video, “We are just very prepared, very capable and very skilled patriots ready for a fight.”
He later posted a since-deleted follow-up video after the riot saying he was “proud” of the assault.—AP