Storming the state Capitol. Instigating a civil war. Abducting a sitting governor before the presidential election.
Those were among the planned plots described by federal and state officials in Michigan on Thursday as they announced terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges against 13 men. At least six of them, officials said, had hatched a detailed plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, who has become a focal point of anti-government views and anger over coronavirus control measures.
The group that planned the kidnapping met repeatedly over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and practiced building explosives, the FBI said; members also gathered several times to discuss the mission, including in the basement of a shop that was accessible only through a “trap door” under a rug.
The men spied on Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, even looking under a highway bridge for places they could place and detonate a bomb to distract authorities, the FBI said. They indicated that they wanted to take Whitmer hostage before the election in November, and one man said they should take her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin for a “trial,” Richard J. Trask II, an FBI special agent, said in the criminal complaint.
Trask said that one of those arrested had bought a Taser for the mission last week and that the men had been planning to buy explosives Wednesday. Court records indicated that at least five of the men had been arrested Wednesday in Ypsilanti, Michigan; it was not immediately clear if the sixth man had been taken into custody.
“I knew this job would be hard,” Whitmer said Thursday, in reaction to news of the arrests. “But I’ll be honest, I never could have imagined anything like this.”
The FBI said a leader in the kidnapping plot had reached out to members of an unnamed anti-government group for help, and the state charged an additional seven men, all from Michigan, with providing material support for terrorist activities, being members of a gang and using firearms while committing felonies.
The seven men were said to be affiliated with an extremist group, known as the Wolverine Watchmen, and the state’s attorney general accused them of collecting addresses of police officers in order to target them, threatening to start a civil war “leading to societal collapse” and planning to kidnap the governor and other government officials.
The seven men were charged with state crimes, which carry penalties of two to 20 years in prison.
Whitmer and Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, tied the extremist plot to comments from President Donald Trump and his refusal, at times — including last week in his debate with former Vice President Joe Biden — to condemn white supremacists and violent right-wing groups.
“Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups like these two Michigan militia groups,” Whitmer said. There is no indication, in the court documents, that any of the men were inspired by the president, but Whitmer said extremists had “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.”
Hours later, in multiple tweets, Trump insulted Whitmer, saying that she had “done a terrible job” and that he had expected her to thank him for the charges announced Thursday. Instead, he wrote, “She calls me a White Supremacist — while Biden and Democrats refuse to condemn Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs that burn down Democrat run cities.”
Yet, the FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, said in September that the most pressing threats facing the nation were from anti-government and white supremacist groups, who he said have carried out the most lethal domestic attacks in recent years.
The FBI investigation of the kidnapping plot began early this year, according to an affidavit, after a social media discussion of violent government overthrow. The FBI used confidential informants, undercover agents and intercepted messages to monitor the group.
The six men were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which can carry a life sentence. Their names were listed in court documents as Adam Fox, Kaleb Franks, Brandon Caserta, Ty Garbin, Daniel Harris and Barry Croft. Croft lives in Delaware and the other five live in Michigan, authorities said. A judge appointed lawyers for several of the men and set a preliminary hearing for Tuesday morning. None of the appointed lawyers had a comment on the charges.
Authorities said that Fox and Croft had decided to “unite others” to “take violent action” against state governments that they thought were violating the Constitution and that Fox was the one to initiate contact with the Michigan-based anti-government group. The FBI said he had talked of storming the Michigan statehouse with 200 men and trying Whitmer for treason.Brian Titus, the owner of a vacuum store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, said he had hired Fox, whom he had known since childhood, and even given him a place to stay in the store’s basement after he was kicked out of his girlfriend’s home. Titus said the store was raided by authorities Wednesday.
“I felt sorry for him but I didn’t know he was capable of doing this; this is almost insane,” Titus said in an interview. “I knew he was in a militia, but there’s a lot of people in a militia that don’t plan to kidnap the governor. I mean, give me a break.”
Whitmer has been the subject of criticism from right-wing protesters for measures she imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected about 146,000 Michigan residents and killed about 7,200.
In April, thousands of people gathered at the state Capitol to protest the executive orders she issued shutting down most of the state. Trump openly encouraged such protests, tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”Nessel, in an interview, was critical of public officials who she said appeared to condone anti-government violence.
“We’re asking elected leaders to tone down these very dangerous messages to those who would commit such violence,” she said. “I think today’s criminal charges are just the tip of the iceberg.”
In May, a man was charged with threatening to kill Whitmer and Nessel. And the protests at the Capitol in Lansing featured some signs with swastikas, Confederate flags and demonstrators who advocated for violence against Whitmer, including one man who carried a doll with brown hair hanging from a noose. Many in the crowd carried semi-automatic weapons, leading some Democrats in the Legislature to call for a ban on guns in the Capitol.
Republicans in the Legislature sued Whitmer in May over the executive orders, and last week opponents of her lockdown filed petitions with more than 500,000 signatures to repeal a 1945 law that gives governors authority to declare emergencies during times of a public health crisis. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that the law, which Whitmer had cited, was unconstitutional.Many groups in the anti-government movement call themselves militia, even if definitions vary widely. Although the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms and mentions a “well-regulated militia,” all 50 states have some manner of prohibition against private paramilitary groups.
Michigan has a long history of anti-government activity. A group known as the Michigan Militia dates back to the early 1990s, when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, later convicted of carrying out the Oklahoma City bombing attack in 1995 that killed 168 people, attended a few of its early meetings. It resurfaced again around 2008 and 2009, with the election of Barack Obama as president.
More recently, armed groups of men began appearing at some demonstrations, most notably the 2017 march by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The upheavals in 2020 provided new impetus for anti-government groups to move from the online world to the streets. During protests against the virus lockdowns, they accused the government of “overreach,” suggesting that business closings and mask mandates were forms of tyranny.
That initial scattered presence mushroomed with the nationwide protests over social justice after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. When some protests degenerated into arson and looting, groups of men appeared on the streets, saying that they were there to protect homes and businesses that law enforcement could not.
The alleged plot in Michigan was infused with elements that have been the focus of anti-government extremists for years, said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, such as accusing government officials of tyranny.
Most of all, MacNab said, they want their acts to serve as examples — to inspire others to carry out similar attacks.
“Starting a revolution is a common thread in the overall anti-government extremist movement,” MacNab said.
Homeland Security analysts have warned in recent days of potential attacks from extremists seeking to retaliate against government-ordered social distancing measures and closures.
“Anti-government groups and anti-authority extremists could be motivated to conduct attacks in response to perceived infringement of liberties and government overreach,” the analysts said in an annual report examining the most pressing threats to the United States.
The assessment included a warning that other extremists “have heightened their attention” to the election and that polling places or voter registration events were “likely flash points for potential violence.”
Election administrators throughout the United States are taking steps to prepare, with some directing staff to undergo training sessions on extremist group tactics and even preparing poll workers for the possibility of someone showing up armed.
The FBI said it had monitored the kidnapping plot throughout the summer as the target narrowed to the governor’s personal vacation home. The group discussed the governor in vulgar terms and called her a “tyrant.”
“Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her,” one of the men said in an encrypted group chat, according to the FBI.
The group spoke of a “baker” and a “cake,” the FBI said, which its agents interpreted as code words referring to explosive devices. Fox spoke of the need to train for three months in preparation.
“I just wanna make the world glow, dude,” the affidavit quoted him as saying in a profanity-laced tirade. “We’re gonna topple it all, dude.”