BU’s Jessica Stern on Why January 6 Attack on Capitol Was an Act of Terrorism
Expert on far-right violence and white supremacists talks about the reasons she saw this coming
Jessica Stern has spent more than two decades studying and writing about white supremacists and other extremists who call for armed conflict. But even she was shocked by the violence that exploded at the Capitol on January 6—and by the talk she saw online about what might come next.
A research professor at BU’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Stern’s main focus is on the perpetrators of violence and their motivations. She has interviewed white-identity terrorists in the United States, jihadis in Pakistan, neo-Nazis in European prisons—and more recently, a former Serbian warlord convicted of genocide for atrocities committed against Muslims during the Bosnian War.
A member of the Homeland Security Experts Group, an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks to increase awareness of evolving national security risks, Stern studies counterterrorism and the migration of hard-right extremists to online platforms. She is currently teaching courses on the psychology and history of terrorism and on mapping dangerous speech online.
“I spent a lot of time on Parler before it was taken down on Sunday night,” Stern says. “What shocked me the most about what was happening on the site was the open planning for additional violence on January 17 at State Houses around the country and on January 19 and 20 in Washington, D.C.”
“How can we stop this kind of dangerous speech, while still protecting people’s rights?” Stern asks. “This is the question that haunts me and my colleagues who study the migration of extremist recruitment to online platforms.”
BU Today spoke with Stern about whether last week’s attack on the Capitol was an act of terrorism, what motivated those behind the attack, and what she feels can be done to prevent further violence.
With Jessica Stern
BU Today: Who are the people who were involved in the Capitol riot?
Jessica Stern: Authorities are investigating the involvement of a wide variety of hard-right movements, including hard-right militia groups such as the 3 Percenters, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, Q-Anon conspiracy believers, Proud Boys, and anti-Communist activists. They are also looking into the involvement of retired military personnel, elected state and local officials, and even some of the Capitol Police. Several Capitol police officers have been suspended. There were reportedly also COVID-deniers and anti-vaxxers involved.
Their ideologies are quite diverse, but what unites them is their continuing support for President Trump and their belief that the election results were fraudulent. They were heeding Trump’s call to come to DC for the “Save America March,” which he promised “will be wild.” He told supporters, “We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
Does the Capitol attack meet your definition of terrorism?
Yes. Terrorism involves a violent act, or threat of violence, aimed at attaining a political, economic, social, or religious goal, with the objective of conveying a message to a larger audience beyond the immediate victims. As is common with terrorism, these individuals were communicating with several audiences: existing supporters, the members of Congress they hoped to force not to certify the Electoral College votes, and the American people, whom they hope to either terrify or persuade to join their cause.
What went through your mind last Wednesday as you followed the news of the siege?
I was shocked to see violent American extremists breaking into the Capitol and threatening members of Congress. When the news of the Capitol attack broke, I was meeting with a group of students who have been reading over online posts from some of these groups. A colleague from another university, who also studies online and real-world violence, was with us. He refused to believe that the mob that descended on the Capitol would become violent. I insisted they would, but the way they became violent—and the specific persons they were hunting, including Vice President Pence—still shocks me. I am even more horrified to see the continuing open incitement of violence, planned for the 16th to 20th of January, online.
What do you think is motivating these people?
I haven’t had the opportunity to interview any of the people involved in the insurrection, but it is common for terrorists to have a mix of motivations. Often there is a personal sense of grievance or humiliation. Some people who feel deeply humiliated—personally or politically—seem to be drawn to grievance cultures or ideologies that identify an enemy responsible for their humiliation. For white supremacists, the enemy includes people of color, Jews, and the liberals who allegedly promote them. Q-Anon conspiracy theorists believe that the Democratic elite is running pedophile rings and harvesting the blood of children. Fighting the spread of these pedophile rings, or “stopping the steal,” gives people who feel humiliated by lost status or power a sense of purpose or significance.
I’ve seen this in many of the people I’ve interviewed over the years. An example is Kerry Noble, a former leader of a paramilitary fundamentalist Christian group, who told me that he was sickly as a child and was forced to take the girls’ gym class in school. The first time he felt strong, he said, was when he was living on an armed compound with his group, which was determined to rid America of Blacks, Jews, and gay people.
Some white people are very threatened by the increasing diversity of our country. Beginning in 2013, more nonwhite babies were born than white, and by 2044, America will be a majority-minority country. White supremacists saw President Trump as a bulwark against the “great replacement” of whites by nonwhites and as the “great cleanser.”
A study by Diana C. Mutz [a University of Pennsylvania professor of political science and communications], published in 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences, found that perceived status threat among high-status groups, whom she identifies as whites, Christians, and men, was the most important motivation underlying support for Trump. She identifies the declining numerical dominance of white Americans, the perceived rising political and economic status of African Americans, and insecurity about whether the United States still dominates the global economy as the specific anxieties plaguing Trump-supporting whites, Christians, and men.
Trump has made it clear many times, in many ways, that he endorses these hard right groups and encourages their violence. Before their attempted coup, he told them, “You’re stronger, you’re smarter….You’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
The refusal by many Republicans to strongly condemn the president’s actions will make the Biden administration’s efforts to round up terrorists seem like a partisan witch hunt, which is likely to further radicalize the extremists and people involved in the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement.
What about the role of social media?
I am working together with my colleague Gianluca Stringhini [a College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering] on a study of extremist incels, a mostly online misogynist group that sometimes gets involved in real-world violence. He has shown that when people are kicked off of mainstream platforms such as Twitter, they often migrate to more extreme platforms that function as echo chambers. These platforms, which include Parler, Gab, and many others, create a grievance culture that seems to become addictive, a finding supported by neuroscience. These platforms can also serve as confirmation bias machines.
Did you and others who study these hard right groups see this coming?
Yes. Many terrorism researchers have been watching and warning about the growth of various groups on the hard right—white supremacists and anti-government militias—for more than a decade. The Anti-Defamation League has repeatedly issued warnings, and there have been multiple congressional hearings. Darryl Johnson, [then] a Department of Homeland Security intelligence analyst, warned about the growth of “right-wing extremism” in 2009. His report was ultimately rescinded because of political backlash by Republican lawmakers against his use of the term “right-wing.”
You spent a couple of years studying the wartime leader of Bosnia’s Serbs. Were you trying to sound a warning about the possibility of violent conflict in the United States? Does anything about the current situation in this country remind you of what happened in Bosnia?
Yes, there are some similarities. First, both leaders—Radovan Karadžić and Donald Trump—are what I would call malignant nationalists. Second, both leaders capitalized on fear of demographic shifts to strengthen their own hold on power. There are also important differences: Karadzic organized a genocide. Just before the war in Bosnia, the demographically dominant Serbs were faced with the prospect of becoming outnumbered by Muslims. Karadžić deliberately exacerbated their fear to foment violence. But Trump’s talk of “invasion” and “infestation” by nonwhites, and the way his rhetoric and ideas were picked up by domestic terrorists, reminds me of what happened in Bosnia at the beginning of the war.
What do you think can be done to prevent further violence?
Because there are so many members of Congress offering tacit—and in some cases, overt—support for these white supremacist terrorists and their insurrection in Congress and elsewhere, it’s going to be very difficult to roll this back. Many people have lost trust in traditional sources of news and get their information from social-media sites, which have figured out that they can make more money by confirming people’s biases and maximizing viewers’ emotional arousal. White supremacists’ rage at the increasing diversity of our country has been growing for years, but the government and social media platforms are only just beginning to pay attention.
The refusal by many Republicans to strongly condemn the president’s actions will make the Biden administration’s efforts to round up terrorists seem like a partisan witch hunt, which is likely to further radicalize the extremists and people involved in the “Stop the Steal” movement. And many of these terrorists are connected with similar hard-right groups abroad, further complicating law-enforcement efforts to shut them down. Perhaps most troubling of all is that white-identity terrorist groups have been deliberately recruiting law-enforcement and military personnel for years.
There is also a problem with the definition of criminal incitement in my view. There is a shocking amount of what most of us would call incitement to murder and terrorism on some of these sites, which in many countries would be illegal. But much of this incitement is protected under the First Amendment because the threat isn’t imminent. One question that arises: Do we need to redefine criminal incitement for how it might work online?
On Parler, millions of enraged people were listening and watching. People with grievances can find each other and organize on the internet. I imagine that it’s just a matter of time before Russia takes over hosting Parler, as happened with 8chan/8kun. Based on its previous activities, it seems likely that Russia, and possibly other nations, is active on these sites, helping disseminate extremist views in the hope of fomenting further violent conflict.
This is a really tough, interdisciplinary problem. Social media has become a weapon, even as it’s also used for much that is good and productive. How to preserve what is prosocial, while also limiting what is antisocial? Our students will presumably be spending a lot of time trying to figure this out. This is the world they’re inheriting.