Experts hope to learn more about the groups more broadly through the House committee's investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection.
On Nov. 23, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump rioters issued a round of subpoenas that piqued the interest of domestic terror and extremism researchers: the far-right paramilitary groups known as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the 1st Amendment Praetorian.
It's no secret that members of these groups were involved in the insurrection, which led to multiple deaths and hundreds of injuries. Still, there are multiple questions about their role in the attack, especially in the days prior, to which the committee is hoping to find answers — and, in the process, it could unveil information valuable to extremism experts.
In announcing the round of subpoenas, which target both the general organizations and their individual leaders — Enrique Tarrio of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes, and 1st Amendment Praetorian co-founder Robert Patrick Lewis — Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson (D) said that the committee believes that these groups "have relevant information about how violence erupted at the Capitol and the preparation leading up to this violent attack."
What "relevant information" these groups might have is of great interest to Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. For Beirich, the first big question related to these subpoenas is the groups' relationships with people close to former President Donald Trump and his campaign and administration.
"What direct conversations were people in the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers having with campaign staffers, with people like Steve Bannon, with some of those groups that circle around Trump, like Women for Trump?" Beirich said.
"I would like to know how all that ecosystem works, and if it was hooked up," she added. "We know the Proud Boys have provided security for Roger Stone in the past, but is the relationship closer than we think?"
There's also the question of how much planning these groups had done in the days leading up to Jan. 6 that Beirich is hoping comes to light from these subpoenas. "Did they have intentions to storm the Capitol? What kind of conversations were they having? Was there any kind of cross-extremist group coordination?" she asked.
The Justice Department's investigation into Jan. 6, in which more than 670 people have been charged, revealed that the Oath Keepers communicated prior to the attack. But that's merely surface-level evidence of their planning and reveals minimal information about how these groups were organizing.
"Even the best open-sourced investigations can't fill in everything," said Jared Holt, a resident fellow researching domestic extremism at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which is assisting the House select committee with its investigation. What's missing, he said, is "what was happening behind the scenes and precisely the question of who knew what when, and what influences contributed most significantly or most directly to what happened on Jan. 6."
Whatever may be discovered from the subpoenas could give researchers like Beirich and Holt a deeper understanding of how far-right extremist groups function more broadly. In October, a massive leak of Oath Keepers data revealed that its members have far deeper ties to law enforcement, the armed services, and even some statehouses than previously known. If the House committee's investigation dredges up any more similar documents or data, it could reveal even more.
"Anything that sheds light on how these groups function — it would be interesting to know if there's money behind this," Beirich said. "If there are big funders out there, mainstream conservative or pro-Trump orgs or donors sending money to these people, all of that is potentially what the Jan. 6 committee would find."
Still, that information will be hard to obtain. Much like Bannon and former Trump Justice Department official Jeffrey Clark, who have refused to comply with the committee's subpoenas to the point they're now being held in contempt of Congress, Holt thinks it's likely these groups will be uncooperative with the House investigation.
"It seems like the strategy for many of the individuals that may have the most interesting information to produce, if compelled, is playing a long game," he said. "They [seem to think] that by refusing these subpoenas and trying to get it tangled up in the court process that they'll be able to run out the clock before the midterms, [and are] hoping that Republicans will take over Congress and kill the committee."
Regardless, how these groups handle the situation, publicly and privately, should reveal a lot about the direction they're headed long-term.
There hasn't been a lot of chatter about the subpoenas among Proud Boys and Oath Keepers in the social media channels that Holt monitors, other than the occasional pronouncement that they are victims of political persecution. Holt says the members of these groups are paranoid about what might happen to them.
"Paranoia and a resulting anti-government sentiment has been really centralized in the American far-right, especially among groups that were visible or contributed to the conditions and physical attack on Jan. 6," Holt said. "So a lot of the story this year in extremism has been how these groups have tried to adapt: how that has changed their recruiting, how that has changed their propaganda, etc."
"I think the subpoenas' role in this makes evident the paranoid nature of the far-right currently," he continued. "Scrutiny really freaks these movements out, whether that is legal scrutiny, public scrutiny, journalistic scrutiny."
He added, "These guys are scrambling."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.