Hardly a week had passed since a violent mob of Americans had laid siege to their own capital on Jan. 6 in a brutish but futile attempt to reverse the course of a national election. U.S. intelligence analysts charged with monitoring terroristic threats emanating from the internet’s darkest corners were awash with reports of extremists demanding violent reprisals against U.S. politicians: Democrats as well as Republicans whom they deemed “traitorous” to President Trump. Across a vast and notorious network of anti-government and white hate organizations, a disturbing new trend caught the analysts’ eyes.
Alarming intelligence officials was the sudden deification by assorted hate groups of Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran killed during a frantic attempt by insurrectionists to breach the hall of the House of Representatives. The day of the attack, a decision to delay the evacuation of the House chamber—so that Republican Rep. Paul Gosar could wrap up a speech aimed at undermining the election results—had left members of Congress trapped on a balcony overlooking the House floor. Only a handful of police officers stood between them and the mob, which could be heard shouting directions to abduct and assault the members.
“Drag them out!” newly released footage shows a man yelling, a stone’s throw from the chamber, moments before a Capitol officer fired on Babbitt, fatally striking her in the left shoulder as she scaled a police barricade—one of only two obstacles remaining between the raging mob and elected representatives.
That Babbitt, a zealous proliferator of QAnon conspiracies, was hailed as a martyr by believers of the Big Lie—a slew of disproven electoral fraud claims conceived by President Trump—was not alone worrisome. But according to reports shared among police and intelligence officials in January and reviewed by Gizmodo, they took seriously that Babbitt’s image had been so widely co-opted by violent hate groups. An effort to encourage a fresh wave of attacks, reports said, against not only politicians and their families, but any law enforcement agents who stood in the way, was being mobilized around the memory of Babbitt, no longer alive to denounce, or endorse, any calls for violence.
Within a week of the siege, analysts at one of Florida’s three intelligence “fusion centers,” run jointly by Homeland Security and state police officials, had issued a bulletin highlighting for local agencies a surge of violent threats stemming from the failed coup. The papers described members of a widely recognized network of right-wing extremists, including white nationalists and pro-authoritarian groups driven by racial animus, urging their die-hard followers to avenge Babbitt by carrying out terrorist attacks across the country.
As Gizmodo previously reported, police had been quietly warned about extremist groups calling on fanatics to martyr themselves through killing sprees designed to be broadcast on social media. Literal sainthood was promised to those who died for the cause.
Such intelligence notices are rarely if ever made public; however, a few were obtained this year by Property of the People, a group of seasoned record-seekers founded in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory. Documents obtained by the nonprofit have fueled numerous investigations of government spending at Trump-branded properties like Mar-a-Lago, as well as violations of the Domestic Emoluments Clause. In 2017, it successfully sued the government to gain access to White House visitor logs, which the Trump administration had fought to keep secret in an effort conceal meetings with lobbyists.
(Video above courtesy NBC News)
On Jan. 15, intelligence officials warned in one bulletin that Babbitt’s death at the hands of a Capitol Police officer had spawned a Joan of Arc-like legend among a host of violent groups based across various social media. In particular, an image representing Babbitt, whom the extremists had dubbed “the martyr that was shot in the neck,” had been plastered on a black flag being widely adopted as an authoritarian symbol by groups under the government’s eye. The flag featured four stars representing “the 4 Martyrs” who died during the siege—even though none, save Babbitt, had died at the hands of police. (A 34-year-old Georgia woman who collapsed in the crowd was eventually ruled dead of an amphetamine overdose, while two other men died of heart-related illness prior to the Capitol’s breach. Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died after suffering two strokes that police linked to the riot, is not represented.)
“Many [domestic violent extremists] are using this as a battle flag and have encouraged any future actions be done under the banner of this flag,” intelligence officials wrote, pointing as an example to the Boogaloo Boys, a far-right, anti-government movement that’s promoted civil war. A December report authored by the FBI warned of some members’ “willingness to commit violence in support of their ideology,” according to Yahoo News. One Boogaloo adherent who “considered himself at war with the government,” the report said, had at one point suggested using trip-wire explosives to seize Michigan’s capitol.
“On various platforms, many anti-Government Violent Extremist (AGVE) and WRMVE are using this flag as their profile photos,” the analysts wrote, using an internal designation for violent white supremacists. They went on to report on monitored discussions among extremists on Telegram who’d encouraged users to livestream violent attacks, including against the mayor of one small town.
Police who interfered should be executed, they said.
In April, authorities cleared the officer who killed Babbitt of any criminal wrongdoing. Federal prosecutors who’d scrutinized the officer’s actions announced there was insufficient evidence to show they were anything but reasonable. To charge the officer, prosecutors would have to demonstrate the officer had willfully disregarded the law with the aim of depriving Babbitt of her civil rights. No evidence could be found, however, to suggest he had opened fire for any reason other than to defend himself and fleeing lawmakers, who faced imminent harm or capture.
In recent interviews, Babbitt’s family has sought to put a human face to the highly propagandized San Diego native, who deployed as a senior airman to Iraq and Afghanistan over her four years of active duty. In what now seems an ironic twist, CNN reported in June that Babbitt was once a member of the “Capital Guardians,” a D.C. Air National Guard unit whose missions include civil defense. A one-time Obama supporter, Babbitt is said to have grown increasingly incensed with the Democratic Party over issues such as border control. After throwing her support to Trump, she reportedly became deludedly obsessed with QAnon, a conspiracy theory casting Trump at the head of classified war against a powerful—and fictitious—cabal of satanic pedophiles.
“So many people either love my sister or they hate her,” Babbitt’s brother, Roger Witthoeft, told CNN. “Most of them have never met her.”
Messages reviewed by Gizmodo across prominent Telegram channels trafficking heavily in neo-Nazi rhetoric show Babbitt was practically canonized by white supremacists who sought to use her death as a recruiting device. Communiques would link the shooting to a wide range of grievances held by white-hate communities, including demographic shifts in America painted as a far-reaching conspiracy to replace the “white race.” “If you’re a cop who accidentally kills a parasite resisting arrest, you get named and charged. If you’re a cop who kills an unarmed white woman for no reason, you get to walk free with your anonymity intact,” one user wrote in a message typical of the thousands-strong channel, alongside video of Fox News host Tucker Carlson casting Babbitt as an American patriot.
An array of conservative personalities have loudly criticized the decision not to identify the officer who shot Babbitt, which was made after the officer had “faced death threats,” according to the Washington Post. The loudest supporter of doxing the officer is perhaps now former President Trump, who last Thursday issued a press release that read simply: “Who shot Ashli Babbitt?”
One of Trump’s most vocal supporters, five-term Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, has led the charge in the House to unmask the officer, whom he’s falsely accused of “lying in wait” to murder Babbitt. In a hearing last month, Gosar—whose own ties to known white supremacists have been repeatedly called into question—pressed FBI Director Christopher Wray over the decision to withhold the officer’s name. (Wray declined to respond, saying the FBI was not involved in the case.) “Who executed Ashli Babbitt?” he went on to ask acting U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, dismissing the conclusions of investigators. Rosen declined to respond.
One of 147 Republicans who voted to ignore the election results, Gosar went on to join 21 of his colleagues last month in opposing medals for the officers who defended the Capitol—more than 150 of whom were injured. Turning a blind eye to officer Brian Sicknick’s death and the reams of footage showing rioters calling for lawmakers to be physically assaulted, Gosar insisted in a statement Tuesday there was “no lethal threat,” while accusing prosecutors of engaging in a cover-up. “We have rejected vigilantism and police abuse for generations,” he said.
“Wink-and-nod white supremacists like Trump and Gosar are echoing their openly white supremacist peers,” said Ryan Shapiro, executive director of Property of the People, “highlighting Babbitt’s death to distract from the plain fact that Babbitt and hundreds of others attempted a deadly fascist coup provoked by Trump himself.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Babbitt had been shot in the “upper chest.” According to the D.C. medical examiner, the bullet entered around her left anterior shoulder. The story was corrected to reflect a more apt description of the wound.