Protests Show Extremists,Disinformation06/01 06:35
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. officials are seeking to determine whether extremist
groups had infiltrated police brutality protests across the country and
deliberately tipped largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence and if
foreign adversaries were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign on social
As demonstrations spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City
and overseas Sunday, federal law enforcement officials insisted far-left groups
were stoking violence. Meanwhile, experts who track extremist groups also
reported seeing evidence of the far-right at work.
Investigators were also tracking online interference and looking into
whether foreign agents were behind the effort. Officials have seen a surge of
social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers created in the last month,
a textbook sign of a disinformation effort.
The accounts have posted graphic images of the protests, material on police
brutality and material on the coronavirus pandemic that appeared designed to
inflame tensions across the political divide, according to three administration
officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss
The investigations are an attempt to identify the network of forces behind
some of the most widespread outbreaks of civil unrest in the U.S. in decades.
Protests erupted in dozens of cities in recent days, triggered by the death of
George Floyd, who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis
police officer's knee.
Pandemic-weary Americans were already angry about COVID-19 deaths,
lockdown orders and tens of millions of people out of work. The pandemic has
hit African Americans harder than whites in the U.S., and the killings of black
people by police have continued over the years even as the topic faded from the
But there are signs of people with other disparate motives, including
anarchist graffiti, arrests of some out-of-state protesters, and images
circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday that state authorities were hit with a
cyber attack as law enforcement prepared to diffuse protests in Minneapolis and
St. Paul, the epicenter of the unrest. He described it as a "very sophisticated
denial of service attack on all computers."
President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Bar and others have said
the left-wing extremist group antifa is to blame. Short for anti-fascists,
antifa is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that resist
neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations.
Barr on Sunday said the FBI would use its regional joint terrorism task
forces to "identify criminal organizers," and Trump threatened again to name
antifa a terrorist group.
The Justice Department is also deploying members of the U.S. Marshals
Service and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration on Sunday to
supplement National Guard troops outside the White House, a senior department
official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly
and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The addition of the federal agents, who will have armored vehicles, came as
Barr warned that prosecutors could seek to use terrorism statutes against
"violent radical agitators" who attempt to hijack protests to cause destruction.
An antifa activist group disseminated a message in a Telegram channel on
Saturday that encouraged people to consider Minnesota National Guard troops
"easy targets," two Defense Department officials said. The message encouraged
activists to steal "kit," meaning the weapons and body armor used by the
soldiers. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and
spoke on condition of anonymity.
As a result, soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard were armed during
their mission at protests across the state Sunday, the officials said. The
soldiers are sometimes armed but had not been since they moved into parts of
the state that had been besieged by riots in the last few days. The troops do
not have the authority to make arrests, and are there to act mostly as extra
security for police.
Others have seen evidence of right-wing extremists. J.J. MacNab, a fellow at
George Washington University's Program on Extremism, has been monitoring
chatter about the protests among anti-government extremists on social media
platforms. She has access to dozens of private Facebook groups for followers of
the loosely organized "Boogaloo" movement, which uses an '80s movie sequel as a
code word for a second civil war.
She also has been poring over images from the weekend protests and spotted
some "boogaloo bois" in the crowds, carrying high-powered rifles and wearing
"They want to co-opt them in order to start their war. They see themselves
as being on the side of protesters and that the protesters themselves are
useful in causing anarchy," MacNab said.
She also sees signs that the Three Percenters militia movement appears to be
taking an interest.
Megan Squire, an Elon University computer science professor who tracks
online extremism, saw images of at least four members of the far-right Proud
Boys group on the periphery of a protest Saturday night in Raleigh, North
Trump was expected in the coming days to draw distinctions between the
legitimate anger of peaceful protesters and the unacceptable actions of violent
agitators, said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the
plans ahead of time and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Trump administration has largely remained silent on local reports that
far-right protesters were also involved. Meanwhile, Democratic mayors said
Trump's handling of the crisis was reminiscent of one of the darkest moments of
his presidency when he said there were "good people on both sides" of
protests in 2017 over white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville,
America's racial fault lines are a perfect opportunity for foreign
adversaries looking to sow discord and portray the U.S. in a negative light,
according to James Ludes, director of the Pell Center for International
Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
"This is a real issue and Americans are legitimately upset about it," said
Ludes, who studies foreign disinformation tactics. "That's one of the hallmarks
of these campaigns. You don't create new issues, you exploit existing issues."
There's a history of this. In 2016, another black man, Philando Castile, was
killed by police in a Minneapolis suburb, his death livestreamed on Facebook.
Russians used a fake Black Lives Matter page to confuse and stoke anger among
the protesters. There were nearly 700,000 followers, but it's not clear how
many were real.
One debunked example from this week: That Atlanta had deployed a "child
Floyd was accused of trying to pass a bad bill at a grocery store after he
was laid off in the pandemic. Disturbing video showed him prone on the street,
while a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck even as he
cried he couldn't breathe. He later died. The officers have been fired; Derek
Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd in the video, was charged with murder.
At first there were peaceful demonstrations, but violence soon erupted. A
Minneapolis police station was torched and protests took off around the
country, growing increasingly tense. Video showed a police vehicle ramming into
demonstrators in New York. Meanwhile, a van with four New York Police
Department officers inside was hit with a Molotov cocktail and torched.
Hundreds have been arrested nationwide and cities braced for more protests.
But booking information from the county jail in Minneapolis, for example,
showed that out of 59 protest-related arrests, 47 people had a home address in
Minnesota, with the majority coming from the Twin Cities.
Before protests began in New York City, organizers of anarchist groups began
raising money for bail, recruited medical teams to deploy for violent
interactions with police and planned how to target high-end stores, said John
Miller, the NYPD's deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism.
Scouts on bicycles would also move ahead of the groups to report where the
police would be and then direct small breakaway groups to areas where they
could torch police cars or throw Molotov cocktails, Miller said.
The NYPD has arrested 786 people related to protests since May 28 and 1 in 7
of them were not from New York City, he said.
In Washington, where protesters raged outside the White House, most of the
17 people arrested were from the area. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the groups
seemed, at the least, organized to destroy with tools to break windows and