QAnon, the rabidly pro-Donald Trump conspiracy theory and future of the GOP, may have been seriously wounded by its godhead’s failure to ascend to transcendent levels of power this year. But they haven’t gone away, and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are warning Congress that disaffected believers may even become more violent, CNN reported on Monday.
There are innumerable strains of QAnon, which is less a coherent set of beliefs than a massive, disorganized grab bag of conspiracy theorists ranging from Flat Earthers and anti-Semites to evangelical Christians and people who believe in time travel. What united all these fringe types into one semi-coherent movement was a belief in Q, an unknown individual or individuals who posted to image boards like 4chan and neo-Nazi hub 8chan claiming to be a highly placed intelligence official in the Trump administration.
Q claimed that Trump and the U.S. military were waging a secret, Underworld-style war against a cabal of cannibalistic, child-raping Satanists that just so happened to be made of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities; eventually, they said, Trump would launch a massive military crackdown called “the Storm” on the evil syndicate, which would entail things like mass arrests and executions. This mirrored Trump’s anti-“deep state” rhetoric quite well, and Q’s ramblings subsequently went viral among conservatives on sites like Facebook and Twitter as Trump helped cultivate QAnon’s growth. Over the past few years, numerous QAnon believers have been arrested for crimes ranging from the murder of a Gambino crime family boss and an armed standoff at the Hoover Dam to stalking and death threats.
QAnon groups were involved in attempting to overturn the 2020 election results in a riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which resulted in multiple deaths and Trump’s second impeachment trial. While they reacted with disbelief and confusion after Joe Biden was sworn into office later that month, many of them quickly devised new rationalizations to keep believing in Trump’s secret puppet-master status. According to CNN, an unclassified FBI threat assessment sent to members of Congress last week, titled “Adherence to QAnon Conspiracy Theory by Some Domestic Violent Extremists,” warns some QAnon adherents may grow weary of serving as “digital soldiers” and instead turn to real-life violence.
Some of the movement’s more vehement participants now believe they “can no longer ‘trust the plan” set forth by its mysterious standard-bearer, known simply as ‘Q’,” the FBI assessment states. While a number of them might “disengage from the movement or reduce their involvement,” the FBI wrote, others who still believe Q on the whole pedophile conspiracy thing may seek to physically harm “perceived members of the ‘cabal’ such as Democrats and other political opposition—instead of continually awaiting Q’s promised actions which have not occurred.”
“The participation of some domestic violent extremists (DVE) who are also self-identified QAnon adherents in the violent siege of the US Capitol on 6 January underscores how the current environment likely will continue to act as a catalyst for some to begin accepting the legitimacy of violent action,” the threat assessment warned.
It continued: “The FBI has arrested more than 20 self-identified QAnon adherents who participated in the 6 January violent unlawful entry of the Capitol. These individuals were charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct in a restricted building and obstruction of an official proceeding, according to court documents and press reporting based on court documentation, public statements, and social media posts.”
According to the Associated Press, lawyers for some of the alleged QAnon rioters have tried to portray their clients as merely gullible, rather than committed wannabe insurrectionists.
Christopher Davis, counsel for accused rioter Douglas Jensen, wrote that his client was tricked by “very clever people, who were uniquely equipped with slight, if any, moral or social consciousness,” according to the AP.
“For reasons he does not even understand today, he became a ‘true believer’ and was convinced he doing a noble service by becoming a digital soldier for ‘Q,’” Davis added. “Maybe it was mid-life crisis, the pandemic, or perhaps the message just seemed to elevate him from his ordinary life to an exalted status with an honorable goal.”
The report itself has hung in limbo for months, according to CNN. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, first requested the FBI produce a report on QAnon in December 2020, but the agency only handed over a version designated “for official use only” to legislators in February 2021. In April, FBI Director Christopher Wray committed to releasing a public version, though he was cautious to clarify the FBI’s only interest is in investigating federal crimes committed by QAnon members and not the movement itself.
While the FBI and DHS are warning that QAnon could once again trigger violence and disruption, similar warnings have gone unheeded in the past. An elaborate nationwide network of offices called “fusion centers” that share intelligence between federal, state, and local police, proved conveniently useless in the leadup to Jan. 6, with the Trump-era FBI and DHS either sitting on intelligence about violent right-wing extremists or refusing to act on it. Those same fusion centers had often played a key role in crackdowns on protesters such as the Black Lives Matter movement or environmentalists demonstrating against pipelines.