How To Quell A Domestic Insurgency

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In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, armed men stand on the steps at the State Capitol after a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, armed men stand on the steps at the State Capitol after a rally in support of President Donald Trump in Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Pro-Trump extremists breached the Capitol, attacked police and called for the Vice President's execution. Now, national security experts see an even bigger danger. Are we facing domestic insurgency? And if we are, how can we heal as a nation?  


Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002-2005). Served 31 years in the U.S. Army. Senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.

Frank Figliuzzi, FBI assistant director for counterintelligence from 2010 to 2012. He served as a special agent for 25 years. NBC national security contributor. (@FrankFigliuzzi1)

David Kilcullen, author, strategist and counter-insurgency expert. Professor at the University of New South Wales and Arizona State University.

Interview Highlights

Would you describe what's happening in this country as an insurgency?

Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: “I don't know if insurgency is the right word, because that has for me, it has military intonations. I think the beginnings of what could be another version of our Civil War from 1861 to 1865. I was a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises for the last two years, working as the days went by more and more ardently on the November 3rd elections and their aftermath. And even more so as a member of the Transition Integrity Project, where we actually war-gamed some of the probabilities and possibilities, that this was no surprise to me, no surprise at all.

"In fact, I have to say that it came up in some of the things we did. And I think I would characterize it this way, using the words of the president of the Ford Foundation, right after the January 6th events, where he said the greatest threat to democracy in this country is white supremacy and the greatest threat to white supremacy is democracy.

"And back to your remarks about this not being all of those 70 plus million Americans, but just a core of them. It is that core, I think, predominantly that core, that does not want America to turn brown. That core that fired on Fort Sumter, if you will, to go back to the past. That core that will do anything to include armed violence to prevent that. That's what it's all about in its essence. And unfortunately, my political party, the Republican Party, is dependent on that core for its political future.”

Frank Figliuzzi: “I would. And in fact, I would say we've got elements of both insurrection and insurgency going on. Here's why. The act that we saw take place at the Capitol building was an insurrection. By definition, it was aimed at the government or authority as opposed to, say, a person. But that insurrection is a symptom of a larger growing insurgency. And as the days move forward, we're likely to see an indigenous permanent insurgency take hold in America.”

David Kilcullen: “It is not yet an insurgency, so just again, to build on what Frank said, insurrection has a very specific meaning under U.S. law. A violent uprising by a group or movement acting for the specific purpose of overthrowing the constituted government and seizing its powers. So it isn't just looting or rioting or mob violence. It's organized, armed uprising that's trying to overthrow and replace the governing authority. And I think you can argue about whether what happened last week was a full blown insurrection.

"There's some technical details there, but insurgency is a much broader concept. And the current military definition of insurgency is the organized use of subversion and violence to cease, nullify or challenge political control of a region. So as Frank said, that's a broader thing. It's about challenging political control. And I think that has some significant implications for how we think about it.

“I think that the construct that's actually best suited to where we are now is a concept from the CIA's guide to the analysis of insurgency, and that's a notion called incipient insurgency. So an incipient insurgency is the pre-insurgency or organizational stage before an actual insurgency gets off the ground. It can involve inchoate action by lots of groups, followed by a sort of organization, training, building external and public support. And what you see over time is increasingly frequent anti-government incidents that display better organization and forethought.

"One of the key things to realize about the concept of incipient insurgency is you may have several simultaneous proto-insurgencies all happening at the same time, sponsored by different groups. And it's often impossible to determine which, if any, of those will actually progress to a more serious stage.

"So I think this has an important implication, because if we think that we're already in an insurgency, then we might think about counter-insurgency methods to deal with that. I think that would be an extremely serious error at this point. It would actually massively inflame what we're dealing with. I think we need to recognize that we're still in a pre-insurgency stage. We're probably in the last few weeks or months of a window of opportunity to reconcile and put this thing away before it progresses to a full blown insurgency.”

What can be done that doesn't further inflame the moment?

David Kilcullen: “I think we should focus on the proximate cause of what happened last week. And it wasn't necessarily white supremacy, or demographic change or concerns about the neoliberal economic system. It was a specific grievance, which was the belief by something like 55 million Trump voters that the constituted government was under attack by election fraud. So we talked about the definition of insurrection earlier, was an attack on the constituted government. I suspect if you got people on the line who were involved in the protest or in the much smaller attack on the Capitol after the protest, they would say, 'We weren't attacking the constituted government, we were defending the constituted government.'

“So I think it gets back to a sort of collapse of legitimacy where a significant chunk of people ... believe that there was serious election fraud or that the election itself was actually stolen. And when a significant chunk of the population doesn't even believe that the government is legitimate, it's really difficult to come up with a single way to reduce the temperature to deal with this kind of problem that we've been talking about.

“And I think this gets back to what both Frank and Larry have said about social media and about big tech. I feel like we're in a sort of non-overlapping Venn diagram, where one half of the country lives in one reality, another part lives in a completely different reality. And it's not that people see the same reality and differ on the right way to react to it. They just have completely different understandings of what the truth is.

“And I really do think that we need to think about something. And I know these words are loaded, but something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I don't mean it in the sense of the South African process, but in the sense of getting actually back to a common understanding of what actually has happened. And I think until you do that, there's really very little possibility of reconciliation.

"And we must get on that reconciliation, if we don't want to be fighting a domestic insurgency in the next few months. And a final point to mention is that as we think about reconciliation and social media and all these issues, it's worth remembering that we're all Americans. We demonize other people in society partly because we don't spend much time talking to them or interacting with them.”

Are there particular laws and avenues that lawmakers and law enforcement should be using much more pointedly right now?

Frank Figliuzzi: “So there's a couple of things that have to go on simultaneously. And they may seem counterintuitive because they may seem opposed to each other, but some of it is my law enforcement background talking, and some of it I'm wearing my national security intelligence hat when I speak of it. From a law enforcement perspective, I'm reminded more than ever by my current peers in law enforcement, that they still lack the investigative tools in their toolkit to really get out in front and prevent the kind of violence we saw. Because we still lack domestic terrorism legislation or the ability to designate certain groups and organizations as domestic terrorism organizations.

“And yes, this discussion is fraught with all kinds of civil liberties and privacy concerns that I'm well aware of. But I believe as a nation, we can wrestle with this and get that right. We do it on the international terrorism side. We've not had an iconic major act of international terrorism on U.S. soil because of the successes that are facilitated by having the investigative tools that get undercover agents, informants and electronic surveillance authorized in these chat rooms and websites before the violence occurs. We don't have that right now, number one. But let's take it from that kind of counter-insurgency perspective. The softer side of this.

“While we're doing the law enforcement, we've got to understand that we have a segment of our population that feels canceled. And David talked about the possibility of truth and reconciliation type commissions. He's right, because one of the ways you de-radicalize a group or population is to rip through repeated exposure to the truth. Otherwise, I call sunshine exposure.

"But that gets really hard to do when they're pushed to the deep recesses of the dark web and in an amplified extremist echo-chamber where they hear only their truth and their reality. That's why I feel so strongly that taking down their forums, pushing them to the outer fringes — as we did with ISIS and al-Qaida, by the way — taking down their platforms, prevents law enforcement and intelligence from seeing what they're thinking, seeing what they're planning and makes them feel like they are truly not a part of our society.”

What else could be done in these critical next few weeks to stave off an incipient insurgency?

David Kilcullen: “There are two equal and opposite areas that you can make in dealing with an incipient insurgency. One is to underreact. And we've just seen in the last few weeks or months the impact of that. The other is to overreact and to create a massive backlash. And I would just urge everybody to be as cautious as possible in thinking about how to do this. As the portion of the country that still believes in electoral politics, and political parties and the Constitution, rather than ceding ground to groups that have already given up on that.”

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence by Frank Figliuzzi. Copyright © 2021 by Frank Figliuzzi. Reprinted by permission of Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

From The Reading List

Slate: "Is America in the Early Stages of Armed Insurgency?" — "David Kilcullen is one of the world’s leading authorities on insurgencies. For decades he has studied them. As an infantry soldier in the Australian army and an adviser to the U.S. Army, he’s fought against them. His latest scholarly work has focused on their role in urban conflicts."

Just Security: "Is the United States Heading for a Rural Insurgency?" — "The intrusions of white supremacist militias into cities to intimidate and attack protestors from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement highlights the possibility of rural insurgency."

New York Times: "State Capitols ‘on High Alert,’ Fearing More Violence" — "It was opening day of the 2021 legislative session, and the perimeter of the Georgia State Capitol on Monday was bristling with state police officers in full camouflage gear, most of them carrying tactical rifles."

The Hill: "Planned protests spark fears of more violence in Trump's final days" — "
Trump supporters and right-wing extremist groups are planning demonstrations that experts warn could escalate into the kind of violence seen during last week’s deadly riots at the Capitol."

NBC News: "There is no law that covers 'domestic terrorism.' What would one look like?" — "The news that the alleged El Paso shooter appears to have acted out of a belief in a violent white supremacist ideology has renewed calls for a federal law criminalizing 'domestic terrorism.'"

Washington Post: "Right-wing violence will now be a regular feature of American politics" — "The Capitol Hill putsch that took place on Jan. 6 was shocking to just about everyone. But we should now prepare ourselves for something worse. This was not a singular event. We might be entering an era in which the threat of right-wing terrorism and regular outbreaks of violence are a regular feature of our politics."

This program aired on January 13, 2021.


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