5 things terrorism experts hope to learn from the House’s Jan. 6 investigation

There are still many unanswered questions about how rioters were able to invade the U.S. Capitol and to what degree they were aided by top Republicans
During the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack, supporters of then-president Donald Trump constructed a gallows on the grounds of the federal building. Photo: Tyler Merbler/Flickr

The congressional committee tasked with investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump has ramped up its efforts in recent weeks, issuing more than a dozen subpoenas to Trump allies, including former adviser Steve Bannon and former chief of staff Mark Meadows.

The committee may be close to holding more public hearings on the insurrection, which led to five deaths and hundreds of injuries.

A lot is known about the events of Jan. 6: Extremist groups communicated ahead of time about attacking the Capitol; there were major security and intelligence failures; and Trump himself told lies about the 2020 election that fired up supporters. 

Domestic terrorism and extremism experts are closely following the committee’s investigation, however, in hopes of learning the answers to some of the questions that remain.

Did prominent conservatives have a hand in planning the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the insurrection?

“There’s a lot of questions swirling in my head that I hope get answered,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Extremism and Hate, told the American Independent Foundation. Chief among them, she said, is the role that prominent conservatives like Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, may have played in the day’s events.

That Bannon helped instigate the violence that broke out at the Capitol has been reported earlier. On Jan. 5, Vice reported a little over a week later, Bannon urged his Facebook followers to “take action” and told his “War Room” podcast audience, “All hell is going to break loose.” 

Robert Costa and Bob Woodward’s new book, “Peril,” says Bannon was in constant contact with Trump in the days before the riot and met at Washington’s Willard Hotel with the former president on Jan. 5, where he discussed how to “kill the Biden presidency in the crib.” 

Bannon, along with other members of Trump’s inner circle, including Roger Stone and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, played prominent roles in promoting the Jan. 6 rally, although none of them spoke at it. All three have connections with the organizers, notably Amy Kremer, the founder and chair of Women for America First.

Beirich says she hopes the committee’s investigation will reveal Bannon, Stone, and Flynn’s actions related to the rally. 

How much intelligence did the FBI have that suggested violence would break out on Jan. 6?

For Seamus Hughes, the deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, the question he hopes the committee will answer isn’t related to its recent round of subpoenas: It’s about the FBI. 

Hughes points to an intelligence memo discussed by FBI Director Christopher Wray during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March. The memo, issued by an FBI field office in Norfolk, Virginia, on Jan. 5 outlined specific threats made online by extremists against members of Congress and noted their exchange of detailed maps of the Capitol’s underground tunnel system and meeting points.

The Washington Post reported on Jan. 12 that FBI Washington Field Office chief Steven D’Antuono said the memo had been shared with other agencies, including the Capitol Police, but that law enforcement did not have enough to act on: “That was a thread on a message board that was not attributable to an individual person,” D’Antuono told journalists. 

“When you pull back the onion a bit, you ask yourself, ‘Why is a small resident agent office in Virginia the ones flagging this?’” Hughes said. “There has to be something more in terms of strategic analysis at the FBI prior to Jan. 6.” 

Hughes added it’s concerning that the Norfolk memo, which specifically outlined threats against members of Congress, wasn’t taken more seriously. He said the committee is on the right track in requesting documents from the FBI and other agencies, but “all that stuff is going to be classified, so they’re going to have to go through a process of declassification, which is going to take a very long time.”

Were there connections between prominent conservatives and groups that were accused of conspiracy that day?

Another question Beirich would like answered is about possible connections between the Oath Keepers, an extremist paramilitary group, and prominent members of Trump’s circle who promoted the “Stop the Steal” rally.

As of March, Mother Jones reported, five members of the militia, some of whom were seen flanking Stone at a Trump rally on Jan. 5 as security guards, had been arrested on charges of participating in the riot the next day.

Beirich wonders whether Stone knew that the Oath Keepers who watched his back both in Washington and elsewhere were planning to storm the Capitol.

Was there any direct connection between some Capitol Police officers and the insurrectionists?

A few months after the insurrection, a report released by the Capitol Police’s internal investigator found that the agency had clearer warnings about potential violence on Jan. 6 than previously reported. But on that day, officers were told by leaders to not use their most aggressive tactics to fend off the rioters. 

Beirich wonders if there’s some “connection between some Capitol police and the folks who stormed the Capitol” that would have led to a less aggressive law enforcement response on that day. On Sept. 11, the Capitol Police issued a statement that an internal investigation has led to six officers being disciplined for their actions on Jan. 6 for “conduct unbecoming” and the “improper dissemination of information.” Beirich hopes that the committee will obtain a clearer picture of the Capitol Police response and of any connections any officers might have had with rioters. 

How much prior planning or help did the insurrections have in breaking into the Capitol? 

Beirich said that there hasn’t been enough scrutiny placed on how the rioters actually got into the Capitol and how they were able to so easily navigate the building’s labyrinthian corridors. She noted that Capitol Police investigated allegations that several Republican House members were giving tours to Trump supporters in the days before the insurrection, including Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who, according to a since-deleted tweet shared by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), on Jan. 3 met inside the Capitol building with people visiting D.C. for the “Stop the Steal” rally and told them to “keep fighting.”

Beirich referred to a report published this week in the Los Angeles Times that notes, “whether by sheer luck, real-time trial and error, or advance knowledge,” rioters managed to infiltrate the Capitol by bypassing upgraded windows and breaking through a handful of windows that were easier to penetrate, but look no different from the reinforced ones and wouldn’t be easily distinguished by anyone who didn’t know that some were stronger than others.