You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 44: Capitol Insurrection, Riot, or Domestic Terrorism?

Capitol Insurrection, Riot, or Domestic Terrorism?

On January 6, 2021, a throng of Donald Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol building. Their stated goal was to overturn the valid results of the 2020 presidential election by interrupting the US Congress's count of electoral votes that would certify the election. One year later, SIS professor Joe Young joins us on this episode of Big World to discuss the January 6 attack on the Capitol and domestic terrorism.

Young explains what differentiates domestic terrorism from other acts of violence (2:08) and states how he categorizes the events of January 6 (5:10). He also shares how he classifies the ideology and actions of those who took part (6:44) as well as what movements and groups have taken part in acts of domestic terrorism in the US over the past few years (8:44).  

What does the radicalization of US domestic terrorists look like (13:03), and what part do misinformation and disinformation play in the radicalization pipeline (15:12)? Are there similarities between how US domestic terrorists and Islamist terrorists become radicalized and the tactics they use (17:17)? Young answers these questions and reveals whether or not there is a trend of extremist movements becoming transnational (18:44). Our episode ends with Young clarifying whether or not domestic terrorism is more prevalent now than at any other time in US history (19:51).

During our “Take Five” segment, which in this episode is a “Take Three,” Young shares three policies and practices he would institute to reform people who are radicalized (10:31).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. On January 6, 2021, a throng of Donald Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol building. Their stated goal was to overturn the valid results of the 2020 presidential election by interrupting the US Congress's count of electoral votes that would certify the election. Their actions included chaotic uncoordinated riot moves like scrambling up walls and aimlessly roaming halls combined with truly menacing and coordinated activities designed to threaten and harm police, members of Congress, and the vice president.

0:47      KS: The toll, when it was all over, was the deaths of five people, injuries to 138 police officers, and the deaths by suicide of four additional police officers in the aftermath. Was it a violent protest, or a riot, or insurrection, or was it domestic terrorism? Today, we're talking about the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and we're talking about domestic terrorism. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Joe Young. Joe is a professor in the School of International Service and the School of Public Affairs at American University. He researches and teaches on terrorism, counter-terrorism, and domestic political violence. He publishes prolifically and he's consulted on a department of defense initiative focusing on countering violent extremism. Joe, thanks for joining Big World.

1:33      Joe Young: Oh, thank you for having me, Kay.

1:34      KS: And you were with us a few years ago when we were just getting started back in 2017. So it's great to have you back. Always love a repeat guest. So, Joe, I listed off a bunch of labels for what happened on January 6th, and I believe that I heard all of those used in the news media at the time. So to start off, how is domestic terrorism defined in the US, and how does it differ from other criminal activity or violent domestic acts like those that might emerge spontaneously alongside a protest? How do you differentiate?

2:08      JY: So, scholars tend to think about terrorism as opposed to other forms of political violence or criminal violence by really differentiating the target of that violence from the audience for the violence. So if we're talking about crime, the target of the violence is generally whoever you're trying to rob or hurt or take something from or whatever. You generally don't want an audience because you don't want to be caught. With terrorism, you're attacking a victim to send a message to an audience, usually to compel that audience to do something that they don't really want to do. So, really when we're talking about domestic, we're saying that's happening in the context of one political system. And when we're talking about transnational or international terrorism, we generally mean one nationality is using this tactic against another, or we're saying a state might be involved or another state might be involved in this activity against the nationality of another country. And then obviously within domestic, we're saying the perpetrators and the victims are all of the same nationality.

3:12      KS: So the January 6th, Capitol riots first anniversary is coming up this month. Was it a protest that turned violent because of mob dynamics, or was it an insurrection, or a riot, or domestic terrorism? Basically, what was January 6th, 2021, in your opinion?

3:30      JY: Well, I appreciate the question and it's a hotly debated question. And it was debated almost immediately, this was happening on Twitter, but as it was going down there were scholars and practitioners and just members of the public that were arguing this, "What's going on? What do we call this?" And I think ultimately it's a really tough call about—I mean, for one, there were a whole series of events that happened on that day. So calling it one thing is a bit of a challenge because there were lots of different things happening. But, I guess, I'm more certain what it wasn't than I am of what it was. And what I'm pretty confident in what it wasn't was terrorism.

4:09      JY: So, again, talking about the definitions we just discussed, the victims and the audience for this violence were the same. In this case, the U.S. government and state agents, police, Congress people, those types of things, those were the victims and they were the targets for the violence. And so, that kind of rules out terrorism as something we would call it. It certainly had the hallmark of a violent riot. It got out of control. It seemed really disorganized—purposeless at certain point. So I'm comfortable calling it a violent riot, but some scholars especially initially right after it happened and while was going on called it a coup.

4:51      JY: And I think it was close to that. And the folks who called it an attempted or failed dissident coup that seemed better than some people who are saying this was a military coup and it was no—when we think about a coup, we normally think about a military coup. And the military wasn't really involved in any organized way. They stood down really, aside from some low level soldiers that were involved in sporadic pieces of it. So I'm a little uncomfortable with the coup term especially when we're thinking about the military.

5:26      JY: Insurrection is a decent term because it says violence and an attempt to thwart the government. So, I'm okay with insurrection. The challenging thing to piece out of this as well is that, some of the folks in the larger insurrection had plans for bigger things. Some of the folks were just there almost like it was Lollapalooza, taking pictures and drinking beers on the Capitol floor. And so, trying to isolate it as one thing is a challenge, but I'm really confident that it wasn't terrorism.

5:57      KS: So, let's talk about some of those people, Joe, the people who stormed and ultimately breached the Capitol, included some, as you said, who had organized intent and then some who were basically a grab bag of memes. You had the shirtless guy with the horns, you had the guy with his feet on the desk in Speaker Pelosi's office suite, you had the Olympic swimmer Klete Keller. So in your opinion, were these people radicalized or misinformed? Were they intent on doing violence or just on taking pictures? And they are criminals for their actions that day, that's not in dispute, but are they also, it sounds like you wouldn't consider them terrorists. Would you consider them insurrectionists or people who are breaking and entering? How would you classify their ideology and their actions?

6:44      JY: Yeah, I would definitely agree with you that it's fair to call them criminals. They broke a whole lot of federal laws, and I wouldn't say that they were terrorists. But the bigger question is why were they moved to doing something violent? I mean, I think there are lots of factors. But certainly extreme polarization in the country is one really important one. The echo of belief chambers that we're seeing in social media and these other public spaces. And then also something we don't like to talk about a lot in our system, but our political system is a winner-take-all electoral system. And that has consequences, where losers feel like they've lost a ton.

7:24      JY: And so, this is in proportion or in contrast to other democracies that tend to have more consensual systems where opposing parties are still part of government. I think that's a factor that people don't have to talk about, but it's important. And so I feel like for these reasons, we could say these are factors that led people to get involved. I think there's this also more sociological explanation where people like to be part of something bigger than themselves. And there was this kind of excitement and joy in some of the people's faces who were taking part in this like in other protests that you might have seen in the US and around the capital, related to whether it's Black Lives Matter or the Women's March, or what have you, there's this feeling of togetherness and solidarity. And I don't think we can discount that that was a motivation for many people that were there.

8:20      KS: So moving into movements and groups that you would consider domestic terrorism, over the past few years what kinds of movements and groups have taken part in acts of US domestic terrorism? And what kind of ideologies catalyze these movements? We're hearing a lot about white supremacy these days. Is that in fact, the dominate ideology in US domestic terrorism right now, or is it not?

8:44      JY: Yeah, I mean, I would say it's fair to say that. Empirically, it's definitely fair to say that. I mean, there are lots of different extremists in our country. I mean, that's one of the joys of living in a big society with lots of different ideas, but the most prominent right now is certainly the far right. There are far left folks that are sporadically doing terrorist attacks and other types of ideologies, but certainly far right is the big one. I mean, after 9/11 and into the 2010s, there was much more Jihadi-inspired violence that we saw, and that's sort of trickled away.

9:19      JY: But after Obama's election things really shifted in the far right direction to the point where it's much more dominant. But yeah, so we have attacks that are ISIS-inspired. We have animal rights activists. We have a few other ideologies that have done violent acts, but the far right is definitely the dominant one. Now, one of the challenges with the far right though, is that there's a ton of diversity within that larger movement. Some of it's been antisemitic with the temple attacks and attacks on private citizens. Some of it's been anti-LGBTQ. There's also been larger conspiracies like pizzagate that have motivated people towards violence. So, when we say the far right, we're really saying a pretty big tent of disparate groups that have different interests and different targets.

10:12      KS: Joe Young, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest today, get to change the world as you'd like it to be by single handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. What five policies and practices would you institute to reform people who are radicalized?

10:31      JY: Well, thanks for the question. And I'm going to be a bad student and say, I don't have five. I just have three. So we're going to call it take three. But, I mean, I think the first idea is something a lot of people, while it's pie-in-the-sky that I would ever be in charge of making a national policy that people would go along with, I think the first thing we should do and people could get behind is, require some kind of national service after high school. Whether that's AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America, the military, all of these organizations can help us reduce the polarization that we're seeing in the United States right now, and help us feel more connected to other folks.

11:11      JY: So the second policy I think I would do, and this is a hard thing, because your question's about, what do we do once someone's radicalized? And the truth is, once someone's radicalized, it's really hard. They're already down a pathway. And so, I would want to try and intervene before folks are radicalized. And my colleague, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, who is working on lots of policies and programs related to this, has suggested that the best way to try and do this is actually inoculating people against misinformation and destructive ways of thinking.

11:42      JY: And we might inoculate people by making them better critical thinkers, giving them better civic education, and intervene before it actually is too late. It's like having a vaccine before actually getting treated for a disease. And then I think the third thing that I would want to do, and it's very much related to the first, which is, just have lots of experiences with the other. And right now, one of the worst things in our society is that, while we're divided and polarized, we're living in separate spaces. And lots of people who feel one way, let's say, on the far left are not interacting a lot with the far right and vice versa. I know ideological segregation, which is what we're having right now, that leads to hardened beliefs. And if we can interact with the people who disagree with us in really civil and constructive ways, I think that could be another way.

12:38      KS: Wonderful. Thank you. Joe. I remember when we talked a few years ago, we talked about how terrorists become radicalized. And we were talking mostly about in other countries and training camps in places in the Middle East and things like that. So tell me, what does radicalization of US domestic terrorists look like? How and where does this occur?

13:03      JY: So, you're asking lots of good questions and they're—this is a hot debate among scholars. And I think it's important to start with, most scholars don't agree on the definition of radicalization. But scholars do have a useful distinction in the literature, and that's between the behavioral radicalization and attitudinal radicalization. And so, by attitudinal, we mean that people have these extreme views and they're generally supportive of extreme/violent actions. But behavioral radicalization, we mean they're actually plotting something or intending to do something violent.

13:42      JY: So, obviously, the more immediate concern for us is the behavioral kind. But if we think it—and you've probably heard the term, it takes a village to make a good human. It also takes a village to generate a violent one as well. And so, we have a good sense of what might happen when someone becomes violent. What we don't quite understand is what's that link between our behavioral radicalization and our attitudinal radicalization. And we just honestly need a ton more research here.

14:14      JY: And part of the really unsatisfying answer here is that there doesn't seem to be a single pathway that gets us down this behavioral radicalization track. It isn't like we just go from step A, to step B, to step C, and then we see somebody violent. There are many roads to that same destination and folks sometimes can jump from one path to another, and we just aren't that good at predicting who's going to be violent and where. And there have not been a lot of great studies on this to be honest.

14:46      KS: And I think you could argue that in radicalizing anyone, there's a role that's played by misinformation or disinformation. But I think what's changed over the past, I don't know how many years, it's been a few, is the role that misinformation and disinformation on social media in particular are playing, or maybe that's my perception, maybe that's not new at all. But what part do misinformation and disinformation, especially on social media, play in this radicalization pipeline?

15:12      JY: I think what misinformation really does, it's not necessarily the direct cause of violence, but I think it's an ingredient. And I think it really helps harden beliefs. So it doesn't create people's desires to do those things, but it allows people to just, there's a term that psychologists like to use which is called confirmation bias. And that is, we just seek out information that reinforces our own belief systems. And I think misinformation helps us create this confirmation bias where we're only taking in information that supports our world view. And so, I don't think it actually creates people who want to do these things, but it really hardens people who are sort of on the fence and have these predispositions. But again, this is not something I think there's been enough really good research on, this is an area where we need more scholars working.

16:04      KS: And I asked this question knowing that it's a sensitive area. It's been noted that some white Americans are quick to label any violent activity by another ethnic or religious group as terrorism, but those same white Americans are notoriously hesitant to label political violence perpetrated by white men in the same way. So are there any similarities between US domestic terrorism, as you see it now, and Islamist terrorism, either in terms of how people become radicalized or in the tactics they're using?

16:35      JY: Yes, I would say so. I mean, there haven't been a lot of studies where people compare radicalization processes in one area over another. Most of the studies have been, let's look at far-right and how they get radicalized, and let's look at Jihadi types and we'll see how they get radicalized. There's been a lot less comparison in that space. However, we know that extremists learn from each other. And one of the first groups to successfully use suicide attacks, for example, was the LTTE in Sri Lanka. And, Muslim extremists saw this and learned from it, and LTTE were Hindus.

17:12      JY: And we saw this tactic spread globally, even though the LTTE perfected it and started it. There was a spade of truck attacks more recently by Jihadi groups that you probably have seen in Toronto and other places around the world. And it's been copied by the far-right too. So there are these tactical learning mechanisms that we see between groups. But also, one real common thing between the far-right and the Jihadi groups, is they both have really intense antisemitic conspiracy theories. And that seems to really bind them in interesting ways and be like a common cause that's incredibly troubling.

17:57      KS: Joe, nationalism, unquestionably underscores a number of movements in the US that have committed acts of domestic terrorism. But there seem to be instances of trans-nationalism within a couple of these groups. And just from the little bit of reading I was doing, I saw some anecdotal things about maybe a group in the US goes over for almost like a camping out experience with some group in a country in Europe. And I don't know if this is a trend or if this really is just anecdotal. So I'm wondering, what are your thoughts on this? Does this represent a larger trend? Do you see nationalist groups in the US working with groups in other countries and they're becoming some sort of transnational white supremacist terrorist movement coming toward us?

18:44      JY: Yeah. Some of the extreme far-right groups like Jihadi groups are networked internationally. Yeah, that's true. Absolutely. And throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Ukraine, Australia, these groups connect with each other, learn different techniques from each other, raise money together. MMA is a way in the Ukraine, for example, that a lot of far-right activists get connected and there're connections between those folks and the US far-right. And most of these groups are, we're talking about these networked far-right groups, are wanting to preserve some mythical ethnic purity, and they see threats similarly and they see what their goals are somewhat connected. I'm not sure this is a new trend necessarily, because we saw this sort of networked terrorist connections many times throughout history. And so, I'm not even sure it's even more extensive than we saw, in say, the '60s and '70s.

19:39      KS: And that's my next question. Is domestic terrorism more prevalent now than at any other time in US history? Or does it just sometimes seem that way? Why or why not is it more or less prevalent now?

19:51      JY: Yeah. It's not really. The US has for better or worse, a really violent history and today seems bad, but it pales in comparison to the 1960s or '70s or even to the 1860s or even the 1760s. When the US started secretly bombing Cambodia, well, it was revealed in May of 1970, that led to an incredibly violent time in US history. I mean, there were lots peaceful protests across college campuses, but nearly 400 campuses were shut down. Even including American University, protesters occupied ward circle and the president's resident and were tear gassed, and the National Guard was called in. And this happened in hundreds of campuses. And that's not even to mention what the state did at Kent State and Jackson State killing students, 30 ROTC buildings were burned or looted at this time. Riots on dozens of other campuses. And we had terrorist attacks by radical leftists happening at the same time daily. So, I would definitively argue that right now is not worse. We've had times where it's been bad. But since the 1990s and thinking about a more proximate timeframe, it seems worse.

21:11      KS: And it's part of the 24/7 news cycle as well. Right? I mean, the times in the '60s and '70s that you're mentioning. It at least took 24 hours for that news to get to most places, or maybe 12 hours or whatever, whenever the evening news came on. But now it's instantaneous, and you have video that's taken on site by people who are in it and it's in real time and it just feels so immediate, and it almost can lead you to feel as though the country's under siege somehow. But I hear you saying that it's not worse. It's just not great.

21:53      JY: I don't know if that makes us feel any better necessarily because it does definitely—I hear you, that it feels a bit awful what's happening right now. But in contrast, it's not as bad as that.

22:05      KS: Joe Young, thank you for joining Big World to discuss domestic terrorism and the January 6th attack on the Capitol. It's been very informative to speak with you.

22:13      JY: Oh, thank you.

22:14      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like new year's resolutions that don't involve cutting out chocolate. Our theme music is, "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Joe Young,
Professor, SIS; Chair of the Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology in the School of Public Affairs (SPA)

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on your favorite podcast platform.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now