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Domestic terrorism prosecutions reach all-time high

The insurrection attempt by a mob on the nation’s capitol may be part of a larger trend of increasing incidents of right-wing domestic terrorism. 

“I think it’s not a one-off,” said William C. Banks, law professor at Syracuse University College of Law.  “We’re in a very critical period right now that might even abate or reverse itself. I’m hopeful that it will. I think we’re going to have to see.”

A view of the U.S. Capitol through the recently installed security barrier in the aftermath of the storming if the building by Trump supporters.

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William C. Banks

Banks said he hopes the leadership of Joe Biden’s administration will have a “more calming effect” than President Trump. 

Most cases since tracking began

Last year saw the highest number of domestic terrorism prosecutions brought by the federal government around the country in the 25 years since government tracking of these cases began, according to a report from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Banks is not affiliated with TRAC.

In all, U.S. Attorneys’ offices brought 183 domestic terrorism cases in 2020, compared with 90 in 2019, 63 in 2018 and 69 in 2017, according to the TRAC report, which used data the clearinghouse obtained through litigation.

Domestic terrorism cases last year also eclipsed the 21 international terrorism cases filed by the federal government. 

The United States does not have a specific charge of domestic terrorism. Rather, the cases referenced in the report were classified by the government as domestic terrorism and involved different lead charges, including assaulting, resisting or impeding officers or employees, threats against the president and successors and knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds.  Other charges include the importation or storage of explosives and making threatening communications.

Domestic terrorists are defined by the FBI as people who commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias or anti-government sentiment.

2019 a deadly year for domestic terrorism

As recently as September, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that the greatest threat the U.S. faces is “posed by lone actors radicalized online who look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.” Wray testified that 2019 “was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1985.”

In his prepared testimony, Wray discussed potential election threats from foreign adversaries, but did not mention domestic threats connected to the presidential election.

He said the top threat from domestic violent extremists was from those who are racially or ethnically motivated.

Biden’s projected win linked to terrorism threats

But politically motivated domestic terrorism cases were also filed last year. In one case that could be seen as a precursor to the Jan. 6 attack at the capitol, Brian Maiorana, 54, of Staten Island, was arrested a week after the presidential election and charged with threatening to kill and ordering others to kill protestors, politicians and law enforcement in retaliation for the election. 

According to the Department of Justice, Maiorana posted multiple threats on social media, starting in September. The complaint did not identify what social media platforms were used.

In one given example, on Oct. 19, Maiorana posted that it has “come to the point where pipe bombs need to be thrown into these mobs of potentially non violent violent protesters.”

After the news media projected Biden’s win on Nov. 8, Maiorana posted that “The Turner Diaries must come to life.  We blow up the FBI building for real.  All the alphabet agencies assassination will become the new normal now . . . that the electoral process is finished.”  The Turner Diaries is a 1978 novel influential among white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. It tells a story about the overthrow of the U.S. federal government, nuclear war, and ultimately, the extermination of non-whites.

That same day, a criminal complaint states, Maiorana posted, “All right-thinking people need to hit the streets while these scumbags are celebrating and start blowing them away.”

Also on Nov. 8, Maiorana posted: “Soap Box, Ballot Box…that was fraudulently stolen from us, Now Cartridge Box,” which the DOJ said was a reference to ammunition or “cartridges.”

According to the criminal complaint, Maiorana also made an anti-Semitic reference to “the Jew Senator from Jew York,” an apparent reference to Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer. 

The FBI seized a semiautomatic firearm and ammunition from Maiorana’s house after his arrest, the Justice Department said. According to the complaint, Maiorana is a convicted sex offender, prohibited from possessing firearms.

Another case involved the federal arrests of six people and state charges against seven more accused in a conspiracy to kidnap the governor of Michigan in a plot to violently overthrow that state’s government.

Terrorism cases tied to George Floyd protests

Cases also grew out of protests last year over the police killing of George Floyd. Some involved members of right-wing groups committing opportunistic violence apparently intended to reflect on the demonstrators. Others involved violent acts committed by demonstrators.

For example, five people were charged in connection with riots on May 30 in Salt Lake City. Demonstrations that day began peacefully, but turned violent, involving property damage and arson, among other criminal conduct, according to the Justice Department. A police officer fled her police vehicle when she became boxed in by protestors, and the car was then overturned and set on fire.

One of those arrested was an airman first class in the Air Force, stationed in Utah, according to the Justice Department. During the riot, he was seen wearing a gas mask that had been issued by the Air Force as part of his training.  

In a case in Minneapolis, a member of the right-wing Boogaloo Bois from Texas opened fire on the city’s police precinct with an AK-47-style gun and screamed “Justice for Floyd,” according to a federal complaint. The shooting occurred during widespread unrest that involved vandalism and arson against numerous businesses in the city. The precinct police building was overrun and heavily damaged by fire.

In another instance, a California man, Benjamin Jong Ren Hung, 28, was accused of driving a pickup truck into a crowd of peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Pasadena on May 31. No injuries were reported, but police found a loaded semiautomatic handgun, several loaded high-capacity magazines, a machete, a megaphone and $3,200 in cash, according to the Justice Department. 

Banks, who chairs the Standing Committee on Law and National Security, but was not speaking for the ABA, said right-wing domestic terrorists have been emboldened by President Trump, but are also part of a worldwide rise of right-wing extremism. 

Trump, he said, has given “legitimacy to some right-wing claims,” but “you shouldn’t blame President Trump solely for this.”

Contact Elaine Silvestrini at Follow her on Twitter at @WriterElaineS.