An angry mob storms the US Capitol building.

US Capitol attack exposes depth of America's problem with white extremism

J.M. Berger, author of the book, "Extremism," says his most urgent question is how and where the large and radicalized community of extremists in the US will act next, pointing out that 15%-30% of Americans identify as white nationalists.

The World

New videos surfacing from last week’s siege of the US Capitol show how the attack was both chaotic and coordinated.

Some of the rioters wore earpieces to communicate with one another.

Related: In pictures: Trump loyalists storm US Capitol

In one clip, a woman with a bullhorn discusses the building floor plan with men in camouflage and tells them what glass needs to be broken to gain entry into another room.

This sort of domestic threat is nothing new to J.M. Berger, who studies counterterrorism and authored a book called, “Extremism.”

Related: Michèle Flournoy: What Capitol riot means for US national security

He’s a fellow with VOX-Pol, a European Union initiative that studies online extremism. 

Berger says his most urgent question is how and where the large and radicalized community of extremists in the US will act next. He sat down with The World's Marco Werman to discuss the nature of the threat that now exists after the Jan. 6 attack.

"Sometimes, when there's a large terrorist-style attack such as this, there will be a backlash and people will settle down and we'll see a different kind of landscape — but not a huge outpouring of violence. I think the next couple of days running up to the inauguration are really going to dictate what that looks like, Berger told The World. 

Related: Fiona Hill: US Capitol attack has 'elements of a civil conflict'

Marco Werman: As far as you can see, are the ringleaders, at least, of last Wednesday's siege being arrested?

J.M. Berger: Well, that's a really good question. I'm not so sure they are. Certainly, the people who took selfies and had their pictures taken are being arrested, and some of the people who were particularly kitted out for violence, people who are carrying zip ties and wearing body armor, some of those have been arrested. I have not seen a lot of discussion of organizers. So, what I haven't seen yet is an arrest that says this is the leader of this particular neo-Nazi group who sent five people to this event. So, I would like to see more of that kind of evidence.

As you say, the week ahead looks really ominous. There are suggestions that there could be pro-Trump protests in a lot of places, not just in Washington. What are the big questions on your mind when you think about how this threat is going to evolve, especially in the days ahead?

The big question right now is how much of this very large, vocal, online community is actually willing to show up to do violence and to risk arrest? There's ample evidence for a really massive presence of people who have been radicalized to some extent, who are extremely upset about the election, and have been consuming this information about it and who are willing to engage in violent rhetoric about that online. The question is, how many of those people are willing to take the next step? And I think we won't know until after the 20th, really, what that looks like. And then after that, we'll have a better sense of what to expect under the Biden administration. Are we looking at a rolling insurrection or are we looking at just elevated lone-wolf-style attacks on various places? The turnout that we see over this weekend will help shape my expectation of what we're going to be looking at going forward.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, told The Daily Beast, "the answer is not a broader security structure or a deeper police state," and she argued that the last thing we need in response to recent events of last Wednesday is another 9/11 kind of war on terror, which, as we know, morphed into different things, not just fighting terror, strictly speaking. Do you think she's right?

Yes. This is a complicated problem that we've created for ourselves. And I think a lot of policies that were instituted in the war on terror were certainly excessive and pushing the boundaries of civil rights. And most importantly, they were disproportionately applied to Muslim communities and communities of color. And it's a little bit of a Catch-22 when you get to this moment because it's kind of a teachable moment for white people.

You may have seen a lot of videos online of people who were at the Capitol rally discovering that they've been put on no-fly lists and getting very upset. And there's a temptation to greet that with a lot of schadenfreude because, you know, these are the policies they wanted to institute against people who are not like them. So, I think a lot of people on the left, activists, have been correctly arguing that this is an opportunity to teach people what it's like to be on the receiving end of these policies. Where I'm less confident is that they're going to learn that lesson and they're going to endorse looser policies for people who are not like them. I'm worried about an expanded police state. I don't think we'll probably be looking at that. But it really, again, depends on what happens in the next few days.

Do you think the rise of white nationalist terrorism around the world is something like the rise of ISIS? How is it the same, and where are the differences?

The good news is that we don't see the kind of extreme violence that ISIS carried out in this broad movement. The bad news is that there are some extremely violent elements underneath this broad movement that would definitely do the kind of stuff that ISIS does if they got the chance. And the other big difference, in terms of thinking about a threat from ISIS versus thinking about this threat, is that ISIS never had any meaningful presence in this country. I mean, you know, we're talking when you look at the number of people who've been arrested and a number of people who supported the movement, we're talking about a fraction of a percent of the American population and only a tiny fraction of a percent of the Muslim population that they were targeting for recruitment. And white nationalism, on the other hand, is 15%-30% of Americans. And that's a much bigger problem. So, even if it's not as extremely violent as ISIS, it could still potentially be much more disruptive to our lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.