Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Outcome of Whitmer kidnapping case could become rallying cry, says counterterrorism expert

April 12, 2022
<p>Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party Spring Endorsement Convention on April 9, 2022.</p>

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party Spring Endorsement Convention on April 9, 2022.

Photo by Sheldon Krause | The State News

In one of the first instances of extreme right-wing violence to happen in a post-COVID era, the plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her COVID-19 policies, many people were surprised to see the jury’s decision to go in favor of the defendants.

Yet, on April 8, two of the federally charged men, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta, were acquitted of charges that they conspired to kidnap Whitmer, with another two men, Adam Fox and Barry Croft Jr., receiving a mistrial from a hung jury. 

The four men were arrested in October 2020 by the FBI, who claimed that through undercover agents and informants within the anti-government extremist group they belonged to, the Wolverine Watchmen. Two additional men, Ty Garbin and Kaleb Franks, pled guilty before the trial, with at least one facing over six years in prison.

According to an investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, the group is an extremist anti-government organization. The SPLC tracks extremist and hate group activities in the United States.

Associate professor at the University of Michigan and former member of the National Security Council Javed Ali said he was shocked by the outcome of the trial because the two men had already pled guilty to similar charges, with the same evidence against them, and while the defense of entrapment is commonly used when undercover FBI agents are involved, rarely has it won a case. 

“Now with the not guilty (verdict) with Caserta and Harris and the mistrial with Fox and Croft, I mean, that punches a hole in that almost 100% success rate,” Ali said.

However, Ali said he does not believe this trial outcome will cause the FBI to stop using the tactic; rather, there will be a rethinking of how to use it. He said some ways would have more oversight from national headquarters or stricter guidelines for agents, ensuring there are no possibilities for entrapment. Ali said the FBI has been using it for years, even outside counterterrorism cases, and the tactic was used to help take down the mob in the 1980s.

As for what this means for the anti-government and white power movements, Ali said this trial could stand to give momentum to both individuals and the broader movement because Caserta and Harris could be viewed as champions or victims of government overreach.

According to a press release from the governor’s office, Whitmer’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, said the trial’s outcome is normalizing political violence. 

“The plot to kidnap and kill a governor may seem like an anomaly,” Huls said in the release. “But we must be honest about what it really is: the result of violent, divisive rhetoric that is all too common across our country. There must be accountability and consequences for those who commit heinous crimes. Without accountability, extremists will be emboldened.”

Ali compared it to the rallying cry the events at Ruby Ridge have become and said it would not surprise him if this trial could come to represent something similar.

“Would this spur other plots that people were thinking about previously?” Ali said. “Again, nobody knows the answer to that, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it did because now you’ve got another anti-government grievance to latch on to.”

In 1992 in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, U.S. marshals, in an attempt to capture the fugitive and anti-government extremist Randy Weaver at his home/compound, ended up in an 11-day siege, where three people died. The event, as described by the late investigative reporter Bill Morlin, was a “demarcation point for the rise of the modern militia movement.”

Ali said he views this case as the most serious domestic terrorist threat since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when another anti-government extremist named Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. McVeigh did this in retaliation against the federal government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and another similar siege in Waco, Texas. 168 people died from the explosion of McVeigh’s bomb.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Ali said the anti-government and white power activities “clearly ebbed.” Law enforcement and the FBI started to infiltrate these groups. During President Barack Obama’s first term, Ali said the U.S. started to experience the fifth wave of terrorism after 120 years. Most waves, he said, happen for 20 to 40 years, and we are only 14 years into this fifth wave.

“If we are in a fifth wave of far-right extremism that started 10-plus years ago – it hasn’t even peaked yet,” Ali said. “The peak wasn’t (the Capitol insurrection on) Jan. 6, or the Whitmer plot, maybe it’s something else, and that’s what has me concerned is there’s this threat (that) hasn’t gone away. There are lots of different ideological strands within this broad far-right movement. There are clearly a lot of people who are angry and agitated and radicalized.”

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