U.S. officials are seeking to determine whether extremist groups had infiltrated police brutality protests across the country and deliberately tipped largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence — and if foreign adversaries were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign on social media.
As riots spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City and overseas Sunday, federal law enforcement officials insisted far-left groups were stoking violence.
Investigators were also tracking online interference and looking into whether foreign agents were behind the violence. Officials have seen a surge of social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers created in the last month, a textbook sign of a disinformation effort.
The accounts have posted graphic images of the protests as well as material on police brutality and the COVID-19 pandemic that appeared designed to inflame tensions across the political divide, according to three administration officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The investigations are an attempt to identify the network of forces behind some of the most widespread outbreaks of civil unrest in the U.S. in decades. Riots erupted in dozens of cities in recent days, triggered by the death of George Floyd, who died after he was pinned at the neck by a Minneapolis police officer’s knee.
Pandemic-weary Americans were already angry about COVID-19 deaths, lockdown orders and tens of millions of people out of work.
But there are signs of people with other motives — anarchist graffiti, arrests of some out-of-state protesters and images circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday that state authorities were hit with a cyberattack as law enforcement prepared to diffuse protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the epicenter of the unrest. He described it as a “very sophisticated denial of service attack on all computers.”
President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Bar and others have said the left-wing extremist group antifa is to blame. Short for anti-fascists, antifa is an umbrella term for far-left militant groups.
Barr on Sunday said the FBI would use its regional joint terrorism task forces to “identify criminal organizers,” and Trump threatened again to name antifa a terrorist group.
The Justice Department is also deploying members of the U.S. Marshals Service and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration to supplement National Guard troops outside the White House, a senior department official said. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The addition of the federal agents, who will have armored vehicles, came as Barr warned that prosecutors could seek to use terrorism statutes against “violent radical agitators” who attempt to hijack protests to cause destruction.
An antifa activist group disseminated a message in a Telegram channel on Saturday that encouraged people to consider Minnesota National Guard troops “easy targets,” two Defense Department officials said. The message encouraged activists to steal “kit,” meaning the weapons and body armor used by the soldiers. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
As a result, soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard were armed during their mission at protests across the state Sunday, the officials said. The soldiers are sometimes armed but had not been since they moved into parts of the state that had been besieged by riots in the last few days. The troops do not have the authority to make arrests and are there to act mostly as extra security for police.
Trump was expected in the coming days to draw distinctions between the legitimate anger of peaceful protesters and the unacceptable actions of violent agitators, an anonymous White House official said.
America’s racial fault lines are a perfect opportunity for foreign adversaries looking to sow discord and portray the U.S. in a negative light, according to James Ludes, director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
“This is a real issue and Americans are legitimately upset about it,” Ludes, who studies foreign disinformation tactics, said. “That’s one of the hallmarks of these campaigns. You don’t create new issues, you exploit existing issues.”
There’s a history of this. In 2016, when another black man, Philando Castile, was killed by police in a Minneapolis suburb, Russians used a fake Black Lives Matter page to confuse and stoke anger among the protesters. The page had nearly 700,000 followers, but it’s not clear how many were real.
Floyd was accused of trying to pass a bad bill at a grocery store. Video showed him prone on the street while a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. He later died. The officers have been fired; Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd in the video, was charged with murder.
At first there were peaceful demonstrations, but violence soon erupted. A Minneapolis police station was torched and protests took off around the country, growing increasingly tense.
Before protests began in New York City, organizers of anarchist groups began raising money for bail, recruited medical teams to deploy for violent interactions with police and planned how to target high-end stores, according to John Miller, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism.
Scouts on bicycles would also move ahead of the groups to report where the police would be and then direct small breakaway groups to areas where they could torch police cars or throw Molotov cocktails, Miller said.
The NYPD has arrested 786 protesters since May 28, and 1 in 7 of them was not from New York City, he said.
In Washington, where protests raged outside the White House, most of the 17 people arrested were from the area. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said the groups seemed, at the least, organized to destroy.
The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.
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