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Capitol riot investigators narrow in on extremist groups and military-style coordination

CNN logo CNN 1/19/2021 By David Shortell, CNN
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021. © ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as they push barricades to storm the US Capitol in Washington D.C on January 6, 2021.

They moved in an "organized and practiced fashion" as they pushed through crowds toward entrances to the US Capitol. On the inside, several maintained formation, putting their hands on each other's shoulders to keep in lockstep. Some communicated over radios, while others gave directions with hand signals and voice calls.

Members of militant groups that stormed the seat of legislative power earlier this month during the certification of the presidential vote have quickly become a top focus of federal law enforcement investigating the January 6 insurrection.

At least six alleged rioters with ties to self-styled militias have been named in criminal complaints released in recent days, representing a small but alarming segment of the dozens of defendants charged to date.

RELATED: Decoding the extremist symbols and groups at the Capitol Hill insurrection

Some of the groups present, like The Oath Keepers, try to draw their ranks from former service-members and law enforcement officers, relying on their tactical training to patrol and intimidate at protests across the country. Many have been radicalized by racial rhetoric and false claims coming from the Trump White House, security experts say.

Through court documents and interviews with multiple officials familiar with the investigation, their organized role in the siege of the Capitol is coming into view and being built into cases that could potentially carry charges of sedition, indicating a concerted effort to incite a revolt against the government.

The information is also key to the efforts to vet the police and National Guard officers who are guarding Washington, DC, this week. On Tuesday, two members of the National Guard were removed from inauguration duty, a defense official confirmed to CNN.

"That is a tier-one, top priority for both the U.S. Attorney's office and our federal law enforcement partners, to see whether there was this overarching command and control, and whether there were these organized teams that were organized to breach the Capitol, and then perhaps try to accomplish some type of a mission inside the Capitol," acting US Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin said Friday.

In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, FBI agents fanned out around a home in rural Woodstock, Ohio. Inside was the founder of the Ohio State Regular Militia, a group of veterans who'd made the 450-mile drive to the nation's capital, fueled by what they describe as a sense of patriotic duty as well as ​a history of grievances against the government and a belief in false claims about the 2020 election that they aired on social media.

"We made it to DC. Spent all day protecting various speakers on the main stage in Freedom Plaza," Jessica Watkins, the Ohio militia founder, wrote on January 6 in a message posted on the right-wing friendly social media website Parler.

In the lead up to the insurrection, Watkins, an Army veteran and bartender, according to an interview she gave to the Ohio Capital Journal last week, had vented her anger about pandemic lockdowns and repeated a "stop the steal" hashtag online, referencing the lies spread by President Donald Trump that election fraud prevented his November victory.

She posted about plans to provide medical care and security at the planned protests, offering to escort Trump supporters to their hotels if they felt unsafe. But soon after arriving to the Capitol protest, Watkins and her fellow militiamen allegedly moved to the front lines of a takeover.

Alongside eight to 10 other people in paramilitary gear and Oathkeeper paraphernalia (the Ohio State Regular Militia pays dues to that group, according to a charging document), Watkins began "aggressively approaching an entrance to the Capitol building," an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit filed in federal court.

"These individuals," the agent alleged, "move in an organized and practiced fashion and force their way to the front of the crowd gathered around a door to the U.S. Capitol."

Having broken in, she made her way with the group into the rotunda and squared off with police officers who tried to block their way, she later wrote on Parler.

"We never smashed anything, stole anything, burned anything, and truthfully we were very respectful with Capitol Hill PD until they attacked us," she wrote. "Then we stood our ground and drew the line."

Federal authorities arrested Watkins on Sunday and charged her with knowingly entering a restricted building. Another member of the Ohio group, former Marine Donovan Crowl, was also arrested in that state Sunday for his alleged role in the riots.

Thomas Caldwell, of Virginia, was arrested on Tuesday and is referred to as an apparent leader of the Oath Keepers in a charging document. According to the FBI, he stormed the Capitol alongside Watkins and Crowl and was "involved in planning and coordinating the January 6 breach."

It's not clear who is representing the three in court.

Focus on established extremist groups

The arrests of the two from Ohio are among the more than 90 criminal cases unsealed publicly against participants of the insurrection in the past two weeks. Prosecutors had initially focused on some of the more notorious and viral crimes, like the man seen walking in the Senate chambers with zip ties and the rioter who wore a "Camp Auschwitz" T-shirt, but began moving on alleged "militia" members in the past few days.

Many established self-styled militias have long aligned with anti-government and extremist causes in pockets of the US, and their camouflage gear and military hardware was not out of place in a horde that also included tell-tale signs of hate groups, like Confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia.

Groups like the Oath Keepers, described by the FBI as "a large but loosely organized collection of militia who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights," first became a prominent antagonizing presence at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

Last year, the vigilante groups became heavily armed fixtures at nationwide racial justice rallies spawned in the wake of George Floyd's killing. At times, local police seemed to welcome their presence amid demonstrations that occasionally grew violent. In other cases, they fueled the violence themselves, shooting and killing unarmed protestors, like in a chaotic episode in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year where authorities charged a teenager with felony homicide.

The group's reliance on military tactics adds an explosive element to already highly charged situations, hate group researchers say.

"This dangerous crossover is one of the reasons we continue to be alarmed by events like the January 6 attack, which provide right-wing extremists ample opportunity to mix with and potentially influence 'regular' Americans," said Oren Segal of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

As lawmakers voted to certify the electoral victory of President-Elect Joe Biden inside the Capitol, some men affiliated with so-called militia groups were attacking police officers outside and helping clear the way for people convinced the White House was being stolen to make their way in.

Colorado man Robert Gieswein, who, according to an FBI affidavit, appears to be affiliated with the Three Percenters, a militia movement that believes "a small force with a just cause can overthrow a tyrannical government if armed and prepared," is accused of helping to lift and shove a barrier against a group of Capitol Police officers as he tried to force his way into the building.

Jon Schaffer, the frontman of a popular heavy metal band from Indiana, allegedly sprayed a Capitol Police officer with bear spray while wearing a hat the read "Oath Keepers Lifetime Member," according to FBI documents.

Both men are facing charges related to entering a restricted building and engaging in violence. Schaffer was arrested Sunday in Indiana. It's not clear if Gieswein is in custody. It's also not clear if either man has retained legal representation.

Organized efforts?

Meanwhile, prosecutors in Washington, DC, have dedicated a team to examine potential charges of sedition, scouring travel records, communications and funding channels of rioters suspected of organizing and planning the attempt to disrupt the transfer of presidential power, according to Sherwin, the acting US attorney.

As they've combed through troves of images and video taken during the insurrection, investigators have tracked the military-style coordination among some of the rioters.

Some members of the mob inside the Capitol can be seen on video walking with their hands on each other's shoulders, which authorities believe indicates they were trained in certain paramilitary techniques, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Some also used radios to communicate as they moved through the Capitol, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

Timothy Hale-Cusanelli, an Army reservist charged over the weekend for his alleged role in the insurrection, used voiced and hand signals to encourage rioters to advance through the building, according to court documents.

Federal law enforcement agencies have warned in recent days of the potential for even more extremist-inspired violence across the country, including at Wednesday's Inauguration.

It's unclear, however, to what extent the threat will materialize, as the failure to secure the Capitol has led authorities to erect a protective fortress around the perimeter of Washington's downtown government center.

Even before their arrest, a conspiratorial bent had informed a plan for members of the Ohio State Regular Militia to stay away from Washington during the inaugural events.

It's a "trap," Crowl, the ex-marine, told The New Yorker in an interview before his arrest, adding in an expletive.

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