U.S. officials sought to determine Sunday 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 media.
As demonstrations spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City and overseas, in response to police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis. 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. President Donald Trump has announced he intends to designate a militant anti-racist movement a terrorist organization as violent protests attended by a variety of activists have erupted in cities around the country, including Nashville.
Antifa Identified by Trump Administration
“The United States of America will be designating Antifa as a Terrorist Organization,” Trump said during remarks at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, though it’s unclear by what legal mechanism he can designate a domestic organization to be a terrorist group.
Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is a global left-wing activist movement. The loosely affiliated groups frequently advocate for anti-racist policies, though often take an anarchist and militant approach.
There is no formal leadership or unified national structure to the movement.
It is not one organization, but rather loose network of activists using a “black bloc” tactic at protests — dressing in all black and concealing their faces with masks and bandannas.
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.
Right Wing Activists
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 tactical gear.
“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 Carolina.
The Trump administration has largely remained silent on local reports that far-right protesters were also involved.
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.
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 investigations.