The early clues to homegrown terrorism and the few who followed them

The innovative researchers and NJ veteran of the 9/11 Commission who warned of growing threats from domestic extremists
Credit: (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Broken glass in the door to the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol after Jan. 6 assault by a pro-Trump mob; the FBI is investigating the involvement of far-right extremists in the attack.

John Farmer Jr.’s immersion in the world of extremist terrorism began in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 12, 2001 when he was New Jersey’s attorney general. On board a state police helicopter, he looked down on the smoldering remains of the two World Trade Center towers that had been razed the previous day by al-Qaida terrorists. He asked himself, ‘How the hell did they pull this off?’” — in America.

The question haunted him for more than two years, until he was able to piece together an answer as the senior counsel for the 9/11 Commission, which concluded that U.S. intelligence had simply ignored the numerous clues provided by jihadist plotters, who “hid in plain sight.”

“Leaders talking to each other and sharing bad information,” is how he put it in a public speech last year.

Farmer along with the rest of America, watched on Jan. 6 the live televised images of a frenzied mob, led by a coalition of far-right extremists, storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn a presidential election. The memory of that helicopter ride two decades earlier came flooding back, refined by the countless hours of research and analysis he had invested since. And he saw a direct through-line between the two attacks: Both were patently predictable and overlooked, Farmer says; each was orchestrated by radicalized insurrectionists who had weaponized the internet to recruit followers, raise money and carry out their subversive plots.

Farmer, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News, said he also recognized a troubling pattern: American intelligence can’t keep up. Just as an obsolete Cold-War ethos failed to detect an emerging al-Qaida threat 20 years ago, so too did a post-9/11 fixation on foreign Muslim terrorists keep our heads turned away from threats that were growing under our very noses.

Like the jihadists of 9/11, this loose confederacy of white supremacists and ad-hoc militias was also hiding in plain sight. This time, though, Farmer had seen the signs of a violent insurrection coming, and he had said as much several times — most convincingly in his foreword to a report over a year ago by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a nonprofit that has partnered with Rutgers University and drawn national attention with its innovative research into emerging hate groups.

On the trail of ‘cyber swarms’

There, a prominent team of neuroscientists, intelligence experts and computer engineers have created a sophisticated computer platform, using artificial intelligence and mass data collection that can identify and track “cyber swarms” — outbursts of online extremist activity — almost in real time.

In the years following 9/11, Farmer watched as far-right domestic terrorism slowly supplanted foreign jihadist radicals as the top threat to national security. In 2017, the FBI announced that white supremacist violence was the top domestic terrorist threat. Last year, New Jersey became the first state to rank homegrown extremists as the state’s top security threat.

Credit: (Eagleton Institute of Politics)
John Farmer Jr.

So far, 11 New Jersey residents have been charged in the Jan. 6 attack.

A New Jersey man linked by prosecutors to the Oath Keepers and Republican strategist Roger Stone was arrested last week in New York and charged with criminal involvement in the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol. The Oath Keepers, whose membership is mostly comprised of former military and law enforcement personnel, has emerged as a central part of the federal investigation into the Capitol riot.

In New Jersey, there are at least 16 hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center which detailed the groups in a report earlier this year. Those groups include some of the white supremacist groups that were seen at the Capitol, including the Proud Boys, Patriotic Front and the New Jersey European Heritage Association, which unfurled its flag for the first time at the assault on the Capitol.

Nearly a year before that insurrection, an NCRI report distilled from over 100 million social media postings, revealed how exchanges between white supremacists online, often cloaked in coded memes, were rapidly accelerating in both volume and rage. Fueling those hate-filled exchanges was mostly a collection of conspiracy theories, which were becoming increasingly apocalyptic and vicious. The report itself, Farmer wrote in the foreword, “represents a breakthrough case study in the capacity to identify cyber swarms and viral insurgencies in nearly real time as they are developing in plain sight.”

Recruiting former military, law enforcement 

More troubling, virtual rants were now turning into real-world violence with the distinct probability of getting much, much worse. Far-right militias, like the Oath Keepers, were flourishing by recruiting alarming numbers of former military and law enforcement personnel. And it was all hiding right in front of us, in plain sight.

“This report is at once an urgent call to recognize an emerging threat and a prescription for how to counter it,” Farmer implored.  “As such, it offers that rarest of opportunities: the chance to stop history from repeating itself.”

As it turned out, NCRI’s research proved to be on point: Dozens of off-duty police officers along with several current or former military personnel joined the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington — which immediately preceded the Capitol riots — and several have been arrested and charged with breaching the Capitol. Last Thursday, a Marine Corps veteran, who once had top-secret security clearance when he served as a crew chief for the presidential helicopter squadron, was charged in the Jan. 6 riot.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors are investigating Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia, for his possible involvement in the siege of the Capitol, according to published reports last week.

Last month, newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Gen. Lloyd Austin ordered a military-wide pause in operations, or “stand down,” to reinforce existing regulations barring extremist activity in the ranks.

But the sober warnings from NCRI a year ago were ignored, which only made Farmer and the NCRI team press on.

Farmer is a long gamer, and this fight is not a new one. It is only the latest skirmish in a centuries-old battle for the truth — which right now is not going well. Propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories have traveled on the backs of technological advances dating back to the printing press. Today, the internet is ground zero in a new era of misinformation, particularly on social media platforms, where domestic extremists incubate and spread their conspiracy theories, recruit their followers and plan their insurgencies. Government intelligence gathering continues to be too slow and clumsy to keep up, Farmer says, and Big Tech has shown no real interest in policing itself.

“Now the question is, how do you fix it?” Farmer asks.

Treat hate like a virus

Many are calling for tougher criminal laws for terrorists. Others, like U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, want stricter regulation of Big Tech and still others think these huge tech giants should be broken up. For its part, NCRI believes hate should be treated as a dangerous virus. It proposes the creation of a nimble public-private partnership — akin to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that would monitor and report these cyber swarms in real time to prevent them from becoming pandemics, while also deterring future events like the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.

The latest NCRI research, according to a newly released study, is showing that extremists are now going underground, in the wake of Jan. 6. They are also changing their message, going all-in on a fresh New World Order that embraces anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, and creates a new public threat, Farmer told NJ Spotlight News. As a result, NCRI is also focusing on an additional “early warning system,” which would specifically identify emerging threats in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“This is a very important discussion to start,” Farmer says. “Something needs to be done.”

Credit: (Screengrab from CSPAN)
June 17, 2004: John Farmer Jr. at a September 11 Commission hearing

Farmer’s notable CV, enhanced by his aptitude with the written word, has earned him a national reputation as an informed, intelligent and apolitical broker of public policy. His previous jobs include assistant U.S. attorney, chief counsel to Gov. Christie Whitman, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel for the 9/11 Commission and dean of Rutgers Law School. Currently, he is the director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, as well as of the school’s Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience.

Farmer believed the 9/11 Commission’s report did not tell the entire story, which led to his 2009 book, “The Ground Truth; The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11.”  It was there he revealed how the Bush administration impeded the commission’s work, and blatantly whitewashed its own ineptitude. “History should record that whether through unprecedented administrative incompetence or orchestrated mendacity, the American people were misled about the nation’s response to the 9/11 attacks,” he wrote.

Farmer first became aware of NCRI in January 2020 from Brookings Institution president John R. Allen, a retired four-star general and former commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Allen, who had collaborated with Farmer at the Miller Center, had met NCRI founder Joel Finkelstein at a Princeton University event in October 2019. He had been unexpectedly impressed and thought the two men should meet. He was right.

Farmer read NCRI’s published reports and realized that Finkelstein had put “his finger on something that’s vital. … seeing something that others aren’t seeing.” He promptly invited Finkelstein to Rutgers last January to brief a group of military and law enforcement officials he had gathered to discuss domestic terrorism.

Analysis of 100 million online posts

There, Finkelstein laid out how he and his colleagues at NCRI were discovering how rapidly radicalization was taking place on social media. He was finalizing a report, he said, that would show alarming trends in the 100 million online posts NCRI researchers had amassed and analyzed.

One ostensibly comic meme in particular was on NCRI’s radar — “the boogaloo” — which at the time was believed to be a fringe anti-government, pro-gun crusade that borrowed its name from the 1984 break-dancing movie, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

NCRI’s data showed the term “boogaloo” and its many derivatives were becoming ubiquitous on social media, emerging from the murky world of the dark web into mainstream social platforms, like Facebook and Twitter. And their message was becoming increasingly violent.

The boogaloo, Finkelstein showed with his data, was anything but funny.

Jan. 18, 2021, men wearing Hawaiian shirts associated with the boogaloo movement stand on a sidewalk in Richmond, Va. People following the anti-government movement, which promotes violence and a second U.S. civil war, have been showing up at protests armed and wearing tactical gear.

The boogaloo meme was actually a white supremacist code for a coming second Civil War. Its purveyors were now openly preaching violence. They were posting instructions on how to make 3-D weapons; they were sharing blueprints of how to illegally modify firearms. There was real cause for concern.

Finkelstein’s presentation to the Rutgers gathering last January was eye-opening, even for a seasoned veteran like Farmer.

Beyond the data, “Joel was asking the right questions,” Famer said. “He was zeroing in on areas that people were not paying attention to. … The more data they showed me …. well, it got kind of scary … I remember thinking this could really turn violent.”

Also attending that meeting was Paul Goldenberg, senior fellow at the Miller Center and a member of the U.S. Homeland Security advisory council.

What jumped out

“There is one picture that resonates with me,” Goldenberg said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight News. “The Boogaloo Bois (sic) all dressed up in their cute Hawaiian shirts … riding an Army surplus truck in the middle of a state capital, Harrisburg, PA, armed tooth and nail with police officers standing around them,” who he imagined saying, ‘WTF? What do you do with this?’”

“That to me was the defining moment,” he said “This is real … The problem is no one was taking it seriously.”

For Farmer, one finding in Finkelstein’s briefing jumped out.

“What I learned living through and then reconstructing the 9/11 attacks was that you can spend trillions of dollars on an early warning system,” Farmer said in an interview. “But the existential threats will emerge from your blind spots, and the systems will fail if you don’t ask the right questions that identify those blind spots.

“When Joel demonstrated the way right-wing extremists were recruiting from retired and active-duty law enforcement and military, I thought, ‘Here it is: ‘this generation’s blind spot.’”

Immediately after that meeting at Rutgers, Farmer forged a partnership between the Miller Center and NCRI. He joined the institute’s leadership team and brought Finkelstein in as visiting scholar at the Miller Center.

A collaboration was born.

Read Part 2: ‘We saw the writing on the wall’

Major funding for Exploring Hate has been provided by the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Antisemitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund and Patti Askwith Kenner.

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