Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Capitol Coup Attempt Was the Far-Right’s Opening Shot

Jan. 6 was a classic example of propaganda by the deed—a revolutionary approach favored by everyone from 19th-century anarchists to Osama bin Laden.

By , a nonresident senior fellow within the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Trump supporters clash with police and security forces as people storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Last week’s U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony was heavily fortified, with 12-foot fences encircling the Capitol grounds and 25,000 National Guard troops keeping watch in Washington, D.C. While Inauguration Day passed without incident, the FBI had warned that armed protests were being planned in all states ahead of the inauguration, including by extremist groups—some of them involving veterans of the U.S. military. There are signs that the threat that manifested itself at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is broadly spread and deeply rooted, and it will likely intensify in the months ahead.

One reason to expect further unrest is that, as a violent mode of political expression, terrorism is a form of “propaganda by the deed.” For Peter Kropotkin, a radical theorist behind the 19th-century anarchist movement, acts of terrorism communicated protest, combining the value of example with terroristic effect and “raising … revolutionary confidence.”

On 9/11, Osama bin Laden emphasized this propaganda value, crowing that “those young men… said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world.” Similarly, the Capitol siege was partially aimed at awakening in the masses the need for further action. “ARE YOU AWAKE YET?” asked one user of an online forum for the Three Percenters far-right militia movement.

Last week’s U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony was heavily fortified, with 12-foot fences encircling the Capitol grounds and 25,000 National Guard troops keeping watch in Washington, D.C. While Inauguration Day passed without incident, the FBI had warned that armed protests were being planned in all states ahead of the inauguration, including by extremist groups—some of them involving veterans of the U.S. military. There are signs that the threat that manifested itself at the Capitol on Jan. 6 is broadly spread and deeply rooted, and it will likely intensify in the months ahead.

One reason to expect further unrest is that, as a violent mode of political expression, terrorism is a form of “propaganda by the deed.” For Peter Kropotkin, a radical theorist behind the 19th-century anarchist movement, acts of terrorism communicated protest, combining the value of example with terroristic effect and “raising … revolutionary confidence.”

On 9/11, Osama bin Laden emphasized this propaganda value, crowing that “those young men… said in deeds, in New York and Washington, speeches that overshadowed all other speeches made everywhere else in the world.” Similarly, the Capitol siege was partially aimed at awakening in the masses the need for further action. “ARE YOU AWAKE YET?” asked one user of an online forum for the Three Percenters far-right militia movement.

The current moment is particularly dangerous because it contains elements of both victory and defeat. The successful breach of the Capitol has been understood by some right-wing groups as a historic achievement. It was celebrated online as “independence day” and the beginning of the fightback by the right. At the same time, however, the end of Donald Trump’s term as president narrows the political space enjoyed by far-right actors in mainstream America.

While many ordinary pro-Trump citizens will move on, a hardcore group will view the coming four years under Biden as a moral emergency requiring direct action. We know that the most intense phase of radicalization for many jihadi terrorist groups, whether in Algeria, Egypt, or Iraq, was when they were on the back foot, encircled and pushed underground. As rage and resentment intensify, the belief system takes on cultlike properties and becomes ever more fanatical.

The presence of military veterans heightens the risk. Indeed, the militant corners of the “Make America Great Again” movement may have been energized by the cascading effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The historian Kathleen Belew has located the origin of the white power movement in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which played a major part in uniting disparate groups. It is possible that the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a comparable impact on the far-right, with veterans bringing particular expertise, specialist training, and culture to paramilitary groups. As with the overspill from the Vietnam War, even small numbers of former military could represent and amplify a sense of government betrayal, unappreciated sacrifice, and abandonment on the home front in the face of demographic change.

The Capitol attack was rightly met with a chorus of condemnation from veterans and serving personnel alike, and the Department of Defense has launched an internal investigation into whether the military is doing enough to root out white supremacist ideologies. Still, veterans have been prominent in the more belligerent fringes of the pro-Trump camp, ranging from former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory, to some of the most visible stormers of the Senate chamber on Jan. 6. Far-right militias such as the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers also exploit the networks and symbols of military heritage, with the latter reported to have targeted and drawn in thousands of members from the military and law-enforcement communities.

As with Vietnam, deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan provided exposure to a particular type of insurgent warfare well-suited to launching anti-government attacks in civilian spaces at home. Individual radicalized veterans could represent a force multiplier to far-right militias, offering organization and training in tactics such as leaderless resistance, as well as access to insights from U.S. military field manuals on guerrilla warfare.

This resembles the role played by former Baathist military and intelligence officers within the ranks of the Islamic State and its precursor groups in Iraq, transforming bands of inexperienced religious extremists into a strategic force. Also, as in Vietnam, the undercurrents of anti-Muslim dehumanization latent in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns may have reinforced in some soldiers a perception of racial struggle. Moreover, it is worth remembering that the credibility of the U.S. government’s justifications for the Iraq War—that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction and that he supported and harbored al Qaeda—were widely doubted and may have initiated a gradual erosion of public trust in official narratives, further empowering alt-right information sources.


Unusually for insurgent movements, the central unifying grievance at the Capitol—that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump through fraud—was legitimized not by a parallel authority structure but by the sitting head of state. Still, continuities with insurgent groups that have sprung up in the modern Middle East, for example, remain. Foremost is the distinctive cocktail of a cult of personality (MAGA merchandise was ubiquitous at the Capitol attack); politicized religiosity (some participants blew shofars—Jewish ritual horns—apparently reenacting the siege of Jericho by Israelites); conspiracy theory (the crowds were thick with QAnon devotees); and racial demonization (multiple icons of white supremacy).

This alliance between demagoguery, faith, conspiracy, and white power creates a broad church animated by a range of issues but united by a historical perceived injustice that is impossible to “correct.” In fact, the narrative of a stolen election could prove a key gateway issue toward far-right radicalization, much like the right to bear arms was for white supremacist groups in the 1990s: Opposition to gun control was used as a hook to draw in potential recruits, who were then exposed to increasingly extreme and racist positions legitimated by scripture.

There is also scope for a crosscutting messianic or millenarian component to emerge, which promotes violence as the means for achieving both racial purification and religious redemption—and, ideally, hastening a new millennium. Historically, Christian terrorism has regularly been connected to a vision for the Second Coming of Christ as it is described in the Book of Revelation. In particular, Christian Identity and other 20th-century white power ideologies depict a race war as a cosmic end-times battle, arguing that believers must purge nonwhite populations from the world before the return of Christ.

As with jihadi belief systems, many of these apocalyptic ideologies dwell upon the role of a messianic deliverer. The QAnon conspiracy movement depicts Trump as a messianic warrior battling deep-state Satanists, which is a description he has sometimes promoted. The continuing development of this messianic strain, which is directed toward an audience of believers and celebrates violence as cleansing and redemptive, poses a grave threat to U.S. domestic security. Within modern jihadi movements, this apocalyptic current—untethered to pragmatic political constraints—has driven the worst of the terrorist bloodshed and has expanded the list of targets that extremists deem legitimate.

The coming phase in far-right terrorism will be defined by the coup de théâtre at the Capitol. It fired the starting gun on two competing processes: a government crackdown on one side and radicalization and revolutionary confidence on the other. This is a deadly race all too familiar to other parts of the world.

Alia Brahimi is a nonresident senior fellow within the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. Twitter: @aliabrahimi

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