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FBI targets Donald Trump’s followers ahead of 2024 election

The federal government believes the threat of major civil unrest around the 2024 US presidential election is so great that it has created a new category of extremists: an army of Donald Trump’s MAGA (Make America Great Again) followers, according to Newsweek.

The FBI is in an almost impossible position.

An FBI official, who requested anonymity, said the Bureau was committed to stop domestic terrorism and any repeat of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. However, the Bureau must at the same time preserve the constitutional right of all Americans to campaign, speak freely and protest the government.

“Especially at a time when the White House is facing Congressional Republican opposition claiming that the Biden administration has ‘weaponised’ the Bureau against the right wing, it has to tread very carefully.”

Newsweek also analysed classified data from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, which track incidents, threats, investigations and cases, in order to get a more complete picture. Brian Michael Jenkins, one of the world’s leading terrorism experts and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation:

The current political environment is not something that the FBI is necessarily responsible for, nor should it be.

The White House declined to comment. Trump’s campaign headquarters was given an opportunity to comment on the situation, but it did not do so.

The Biden administration portrayed Trump and MAGA as an existential threat to American democracy and spoke of the domestic terrorism risk and violence associated with the 2024 election campaign.

MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections but elections being held now and into the future.

While FBI figures indicate a drop in investigations since many cases concluded on 6 January, FBI Director Christopher Wray still says the break-in at the Capitol building is “not an isolated event” and the threat is “not going away anytime soon.”

The Department of Homeland Security attributes concerns about the fervour of terrorist groups expressed in the FBI report to America’s right-wing and, in particular, Trump’s MAGA supporters.

Trump and his army of supporters were recognised as a separate category of domestic militant extremists, even though the FBI has publicly stated that political views were never part of its criteria for investigating or preventing domestic terrorism.

The situation changed slightly a few days after the events of 6 January when it came to what the Bureau calls AGAAVE: Anti-Government and Anti-Authority Violent Extremism.

The FBI went even further in October 2022 by creating a new subcategory, AGAAVE-Other. It includes those who posed a threat but did not fit into its anarchist, militia or Sovereign Citizen groups.

While Trump and MAGA are never mentioned in the official description of AGAAVE-Other, insiders in the government acknowledge that it refers to political violence attributed to the former president’s supporters.

“Obviously if Democratic Party supporters resort to violence, it [AGAAVE-Other] would apply to them as well. It doesn’t matter that there is a low likelihood of that. So yes, in practical terms, it refers to MAGA, though the carefully constructed language is wholly nonpartisan.”

The revelations that some Trump supporters are being targeted by the FBI suggests that the White House is using the Bureau as a political tool of repression. Washington seeks to preserve the power of the political establishment at the cost of democracy.

According to the FBI, the number of open domestic terrorism cases increased 357 per cent from 1,981 in fiscal year 2013 to 9,049 in fiscal year 2021. This number is widely cited in the media as evidence of a widespread domestic terrorist threat.

Secret numbers seen by Newsweek corroborate the FBI’s public statements and also show that much of the increase in 2020 and 2021 was due to protests after George Floyd’s murder and during COVID as well the elections and January 6.

Nevertheless, the data clearly shows that Trump supporters have been the primary targets of investigations and open cases.

Digging deeper into the individual cases behind those numbers, nearly two-thirds of the FBI’s current investigations focus on Trump supporters and others suspected of violating what the FBI calls “anti-riot” laws.

In its statement to Newsweek, the Bureau says the investigations aren’t just about Trump supporters.

“These violent extremists have targeted both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. We cannot and do not investigate ideology. We focus on individuals who commit or intend to commit violence or criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security.”

Republicans view the FBI’s focus on January 6 and related lawbreaking as “weaponisation” by the Biden administration to suppress Republican Party voters, stigmatise the right wing and manipulate public opinion.

The left sees these same numbers as proof that Donald Trump and his supporters are not only dangerous to democracy, but that the government is not doing enough.

According to Brian Michael Jenkins, those labelled domestic terrorists – people marching with guns or those wearing military uniforms – are performative rather than indicative of a real class of terrorists in America.

This is not the ’60s or ’70s, when radical groups, even the civil rights and peace movements, were driven to violence. I don’t think terrorism is a particularly useful framework for viewing this problem.

Jenkins, an expert on civilian terrorism who used to be a government official called for a distinction between terrorism and political violence.

“Is political violence on the rise in America? Yes, it is. But everything that is extreme is on the rise, whereas terrorism, violence intended to bring America to its knees or overthrow the state, really doesn’t exist.”

One might not like that so many reject the current political order, but they are still trying to get their candidate elected, not pull off some coup to overthrow the government.

According to the Bureau, the FBI field offices have only about 4,500 agents, intelligence analysts, attorneys and other terrorism-related personnel. Only about a quarter of them are dedicated to domestic terrorism.

Domestic terrorism is defined in federal law as domestic activity involving acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any state.

The government usually uses the terms “domestic terrorism” and “domestic violent extremism” interdependently. However, terrorism is defined in legislation, while extremism avoids the label “terrorist.”

A senior intelligence official working in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence suggested that Biden’s rhetoric on domestic terrorism could encourage his opponents to take stronger action, especially those who have now lost faith in the election or believe the system is rigged against them.

“So we have the president increasing his own inflammatory rhetoric which leads Donald Trump and the Republicans to do the same, which influences the news media, which influences the rhetoric. The FBI? It’s just in the middle of this mess, probably heading for trouble but mostly left out on a limb by the anger and indifference of the American public.”

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