Lawmakers probe Russian support for US extremists

DHS officials warn of more domestic attacks from 'ideologically motivated violent extremists'

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is seen in the Senate subway. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is seen in the Senate subway. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 27, 2021 at 4:14pm

The lie-fueled violence that erupted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was made in the USA. But members of Congress are increasingly concerned there may be a foreign source of support for such extremism: Russia.

Moscow’s support clearly takes the form of Russian government-backed online fomenting of America’s political divisions. Beyond that, U.S. law enforcement officials have tracked isolated indications of direct cooperation, such as training, between Russian extremists and Americans. While there is apparently no public proof of direct Russian government involvement in any of this or of Russian ties to groups that attacked the Capitol, many experts have nonetheless concluded that the Kremlin is at least tolerating Russian ultranationalists, including their direct support for U.S. groups.

Amid these fragmentary signs, U.S. lawmakers have said in recent weeks that they want to know more about Moscow’s influence over the rising tide of extremism in the United States.

Senators from both parties raised these concerns at the Jan. 19 Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing for Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence. Texas Republican John Cornyn, for one, said at the hearing that he is requesting an FBI briefing on any foreign support for the Jan. 6 riot.

What’s more, the newly enacted defense authorization law , or NDAA, requires Haines and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in coordination with other federal agencies, to report to Congress this year on the extent and kind of “Russian Federation support of foreign racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist groups and networks” in the United States and other countries. The report must be at least partly unclassified.

The growing concerns in Congress come as the Homeland Security Department issued on Wednesday a national threat warning, citing the possibility of more domestic violence from “ideologically motivated violent extremists” who are driven, the warning said, by factors that include false information about the 2020 election.

Senate questions

At Haines’ confirmation hearing, Cornyn asked her about Russian support for both left- and right-wing extremism. His question was prompted, he said, by a report this month from Stratfor, a private intelligence research group.

“U.S. officials have not accused Russia of being behind the U.S. Capitol insurrection, which was fueled largely by election grievances,” the Stratfor report said. “However, Moscow’s sustained efforts to undermine U.S. democracy — most notably through its well-documented interference in the 2016 presidential election — raise questions about its complicity in indirectly strengthening the RWE [right wing extremist] movement behind the Capitol takeover.”

Jason Blazakis, a former State Department counterterrorism official who is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, echoed that assessment in an interview. He said there have been meetings and training events held between Russian and American extremists that the Kremlin implicitly supports. And he said Russian online activities are not just words but have been shown to directly lead to violence.

“Trolls associated with Russian Federation accounts are stirring the pot and making trouble," Blazakis said. “While it's not directly leading to acts of terrorism, it could serve as as a way to inspire people to do harm or to consider doing harm.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also asked Haines at the hearing about foreign support for U.S. extremists.

“The world has seen firsthand the radicalization of significant numbers of Americans who now believe that the election was rigged, and some have sought to reverse its legitimate results by force,” Feinstein said. “I for one am concerned about the threat in D.C. and across the country. How would you, if confirmed, approach the issue of right-wing domestic terrorism?”

Haines said she has seen “connections between domestic terrorist actors and international terrorist actors in the context of white nationalism,” but added that she wants to get the full, classified picture.

“I've certainly seen Russia's use of active measures and a variety of influence campaigns in order to exacerbate some of the divisions in this country and to promote extremism in a sense,” Haines added.

NDAA

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA, filed last June, initiated the provision calling for a U.S. government report on Russian support for extremists.

The panel’s report accompanying its bill had called this a “growing national security threat."

“Russia’s continued support of such groups or networks, whether through direct support, information warfare operations to amplify and inflame ethnic and religious tensions, and tolerating their operations on Russian soil, poses a significant risk to societal stability and democratic institutions in Europe and the United States,” the committee wrote.

Last June, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island — then the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and soon to be its chairman — addressed the issue pointedly in a floor speech.

“Russia and Russian agents or entities are working to advance Russian strategic objectives by co-opting, supporting and amplifying these groups to sow divisions and threaten our democratic institutions,” Reed said.

Extremist ties

The number of white nationalist groups in America grew 55 percent from 2017 through 2019, to 155, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The State Department in 2020 named the Russian Imperial Movement ultranationalist group as a terrorist organization — the first time a white supremacist group had been so designated.

The Washington Post reported last year that leaders of the Russian Imperial Movement had met in recent years with top members of two far-right U.S. groups — Unite the Right and the New Century Foundation.

It is not clear whether Russian authorities fund the Russian Imperial Movement. But U.S. officials have told reporters that the government of President Vladimir Putin has at a minimum tolerated the group's activities, which have included fighting alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine and backing neo-Nazis in Scandinavia.

The FBI was reportedly investigating possible ties between the Russian group and a U.S. racist group called The Base, according to press reports.

There are no publicly known ties between the attack on the Capitol earlier this month and Russian groups. But Blazakis, the former State Department official, said that doesn’t necessarily mean that no such ties exist.

“We’ll probably learn more and more as the forensics and the autopsy of what happened on Jan. 6 continue to come out,” he said.