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Far-right militant groups align with issue-oriented groups ahead of midterms

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The legacy of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol looms over America's upcoming elections. A new report says that the number of active, self-styled militia groups in the U.S. thinned out last year. Politically driven protests declined, as well. But the study says these groups have shifted tactics in ways that may mean increased political violence around this year's midterm elections. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism, and she joins us this morning. Hey, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Lay out the findings of this report, if you could.

YOUSEF: Well, the report looks at protest activity in the U.S. in 2021, Rachel, which, as you note, started with a violent riot at the U.S. Capitol. And as you said, overall, there was a decline, but I want to share what Roudabeh Kishi told me. She's the director of research and innovation at ACLED, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which put out the report.

ROUDABEH KISHI: Just because we saw a decline, it doesn't mean that the underlying problems are resolved. And it can, in fact, distract from early warning signs that can point to where these problems might only be metastasizing.

YOUSEF: So while some groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters did decrease activity, others actually increased activity, most notably the far-right Proud Boys. We also saw some movements that we might have expected to wane, like QAnon, that were just as strong as they had been the previous year. And, Rachel, one of the more concerning trends was increased activity by groups with an explicit white nationalist or white supremacist agenda.

MARTIN: So despite some of these downward trends, sounds like you and the report are saying there is some cause to be worried as we look towards the midterms.

YOUSEF: That's right because of how these groups shifted tactics last year. You know, one concern is that they found new ways to recruit by kind of cross-pollinating with other groups or causes like anti-vax or anti-masking events. The data also showed an increase in armed demonstrations at state capitols and a rise in violent or destructive counterdemonstrations. So all together, conflict scholars are looking at this and thinking it won't take very much to light a fuse around some flashpoint issue in this year.

MARTIN: Say more about flashpoint issues. What are those?

YOUSEF: Well, we've been talking about the midterms, but the truth is, you know, even people who track this stuff closely know you can't make predictions. You know, think about 2020. I don't think anyone would have guessed that the police killing of George Floyd would reignite a season of social justice demonstrations. So the best they can do is track what's motivating violent actors to mobilize. Right now, a big one is anti-LGBTQ rights. And we're also seeing violence now at abortion-related demonstrations that we hadn't seen in 2020.

MARTIN: So given how amorphous the risk is, what can anyone do to head off the possibility of political violence?

YOUSEF: I spoke with Shannon Hiller about this. She runs the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University, which tries to track and mitigate political violence in the U.S. They're looking at what can be done in advance at a local level - so helping civic organizations and faith groups, for example, get de-escalation training and become aware of what local paramilitary groups operate in their area. She frames this as a, you know, as building community resilience.

SHANNON HILLER: We ramp up to these moments of the election, and then we ramp down again this capacity. But this is something that needs to be an ongoing process and isn't something that we should only do around elections.

YOUSEF: You know, I should note, though, it's hard to say when advance work has successfully kept political violence from happening.

MARTIN: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.